I would like to begin by congratulating Paul Raskin for his inspiring, persuasive, and beautifully written book, supported by science and history whenever possible.
The keyword of our times is change. We are living amidst a confluence of many rapid, and some unprecedented, megatrends. The fundamental uncertainty about our future as a species and as elements of the global socio-ecological systems (GSES) to which we belong, comes from the deeper impact of the fusion and interactions among those social, technological, economic, cultural, and environmental processes, and not just by the simple summation of those. As put by Klaus Schwab, this is what makes the “fourth industrial revolution” fundamentally different from previous revolutions.1
And these megatrends operate within a strongly connected (and increasingly so) system, the global GSES. A large number of causal links are known, but many more have not yet been identified. Thus, we are facing large uncertainties associated with these megatrends within a global system whose structure and dynamics we only partially know. This situation is a critical one: new opportunities may open (but can we identify and act timely to bring them into being?), but large threats also loom ahead.
This condition can be interpreted in the light of the theory of dissipative systems developed by the Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine: SES are open systems, with active exchanges with their environment, operating far from thermodynamic equilibrium, exhibiting nonlinear dynamics and self-reinforcement (autocatalysis) of a number of steps in their internal processes (i.e., the self-reproduction of organisms in the presence of sufficient supply of food in the environment, or cultural amplification of new ideas).2
These are the attributes that define a “dissipative system.” Such systems maintain their own organization through their exchanges with the environment, as long as the occurring fluctuations (or perturbations) are absorbed within the framework of the given dynamic regime. However, a dissipative system may be driven beyond a threshold into a new regime when the perturbations exceed a critical size. This corresponds to a qualitative change in the dynamic existence of the system.
Such perturbations may originate from the outside of the system, but also may be internal fluctuations that become self-amplified through positive feedback. In either case, after passing through phases of instability and high entropy, the system may evolve to a different stable regime with a new characteristic structure. The probability that a fluctuation spreads and attains a macroscopic amplitude and range depends on the competition between the amplifying and damping forces within the system.
The basic characteristics of dissipative self-organizing systems (openness, non-equilibrium, and autocatalysis) underlie the possibility of internal self-amplification of fluctuations and their ultimate breakthrough at the system (“macroscopic”) level. In this case, the system may evolve through an indefinite sequence of stages of stability and instability; each instability may lead to the spontaneous formation of a new dissipative structure, a process called by Prigogine “order through fluctuations.”
When the state of the system is away from the transition threshold, a deterministic description can be applied; however, near the threshold, stochastic elements become essential in determining the new structural regime. The path which the evolution of the system will then take cannot be predicted. This means that a fundamental uncertainty characterizes the outcome, and this has proven true even in simple physical-chemical dissipative systems (the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction). The transition to a new regime, depending on the properties of the system and of the perturbations, may be relatively “smooth” or may represent an abrupt jump to a new structure.
Change in the GSES may take the form of a gradual, cumulative process, or that of a sudden and often unexpected reshaping of the social and/or the ecological subsystem or both (due to the sheer power of external forces, shifts in the state of the system, or structural reorganizations originated in internally or externally generated fluctuations).
Gradual change is usually perceived as nonthreatening or at least manageable (and, paradoxically, it is often ignored until it reaches alarming levels). This seems to have been the case with climate change, a phenomenon long anticipated and documented, but only recently taken seriously. By contrast, sudden (and particularly, unexpected) social or ecological change tends to be attended to. Perhaps not unnaturally, ecologists and environmentalists have typically focused upon catastrophic changes (sudden changes from a “desirable” to an “undesirable” system organization) arising from the interactions between society and nature, while the builders of the theory of dissipative systems, some evolutionists, and some development schools (i.e., the take-off approach) emphasized what has been called “anastrophic” changes (sudden moves towards new and higher organization levels).3 This notion of the possibility of catastrophic or anastrophic changes in human-ecological interacting systems as a consequence of internal or external fluctuations, and its implications for the understanding of the processes of impoverishment, sustainability and progress, is what lies behind the branching of future scenarios, from the Great Transition to the Barbarization ones.
What are some of the implications of the above discussion for the Great Transition prospects?
(1) The GSES is a dissipative system and, as such, shares the fundamental properties described before. This statement does not imply a reductionist view, as those properties are very general, applicable to both the material and cultural processes, to the birth and evolution of life as well as civilizations.
(2) The future path of the GSES after a systemic reorganization is unpredictable. One consequence is that, other than attempting to determine the future, it may be wiser to concentrate efforts on creating the conditions necessary for the nascence and nurturing of the desirable future.
(3) A period of disorder and increasing entropy normally precedes the transition towards a new regime. This is not only a warning signal, but a time during which small actions could self-amplify and strongly co-determine the future path. We are probably in, or entering, such a phase.
(4) In the stable (not static) periods between transitions, a change in course will probably be possible only through massive perturbations (or human actions); near the threshold of a transition, however, a nudging strategy may be more effective.
(5) However, a much better understanding of the structure and dynamics of the GSES as a whole (and particularly of its human components) needs to be developed to identify the appropriate actions. Nudging will be most effective if applied at the right juncture of time and dynamics. One of the central questions is the identification of the system's conditions and interventions that could self-amplify and help to move the GSES to higher dynamic regimes, to new structures that are self-reliant and sustainable—in other words, to explore the conditions and actions required for “positive vulnerability” or anastrophic change.
The current situation as aptly diagnosed in Journey to Earthland and, as implied in the systemic perspective developed here, embraces both threats and opportunities. Awareness of this situation is growing, and appeals to change course have been made by groups of civil society and, in some cases, by governments and intergovernmental organizations. But the urgency of change is higher than commonly realized, because, at least in the case of climate change, the time window for changing is closing faster than the typical societal response time. It is to be feared that bigger catastrophes will happen before the forces for human change are fully awake.
Not only are we approaching climate tipping points, but new research containing the first systematic screening of the massive climate model ensemble informing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report also revealed evidence of 37 forced regional abrupt changes in the ocean, sea ice, snow cover, permafrost, and terrestrial biosphere that arise after a certain global temperature increase. More than half of these occur for global warming levels of less than 2°, a threshold often presented as a safe limit.4
About 40 billion habitable planets are estimated to exist in our galaxy alone. It is very likely in many of them life has emerged and evolved, as it is in the nature of complex dissipative systems, and it is also likely that in many life went out of existence. In many of them, civilizations may have flourished (even if the probability were low, the number of potential planets is huge), and in many vanished (due to exogenous or endogenous causes).
We have now the possibility to choose our destiny, by action or inaction. May we choose wisely.
1. Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2016).
2. Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Self-organization and Non-equilibrium Systems: From Dissipative Structures to Order through Fluctuation (New York: Wiley, 1977).
3. Gilberto Gallopín, Impoverishment and Sustainable Development: A Systems Approach (Winnipeg: International Institute for Sustainable Development, 1994).
4. Timothy Lenton, et al., “Tipping Elements in the Earth’s Climate System,” PNAS 105, no. 6 (2008): 1786–1793; Sybren Drijfhout, et al., “Catalogue of Abrupt Shifts in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Climate Models,” PNAS 112, no. 43 (October 2015): E5777–E5786.