Author's Response to GTI Roundtable The Problem of Action

Paul Raskin

An Intermezzo

Normally, GTI roundtables close with an “author’s response” that gives the essayist the last word. In this case, however, my kick-off note was meant as a scene-setting stimulant (mission accomplished), not a formal essay needing a formal response. So I would like to chime in here with just a few brief remarks as intermezzo (not coda), with the hope that the music will resume and play on in different melodies and venues.

My note “How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action” elicited an awesome outpouring of comments, which are sampled in this Roundtable. Taken together, they constitute a book-length compilation of insight, inspiration, and guidance. The wide spectrum of approaches and sensibilities that the discussion elicited reflects the multi-faceted challenge we confront. After all, the question of planetary praxis has no “right answer”—only kaleidoscopic working hypotheses to be pursued and revised, all the while alert to opportunities for complementarity and synergy.

Our differences seem minor compared to what we share: the restless search for ways to build a popular constituency for a GT. Sure, some of us, wary of top-down domination or bottom-up incoherence, tilt toward more local or more encompassing emphases. Yet the truth is that there’s no need to polarize these spheres of engagement. They are different facets of a world that unfolds as nested systems of semi-autonomous arenas of social reality and struggle, all the way down and all the way up. Or along a different axis, some give primacy to issues of class or environment or injustice or culture, but few among us would gainsay that these are dimensions of an overarching systemic crisis and transformation.

What do we mean by a “global citizens movement” (GCM)? Perhaps because we have a broad consensus, or perhaps because the concept is nebulous, there wasn’t much socio-political commentary on historical agency. I think it’s worth remembering that all the great social shifts of the past were carried forward by social actors responding to—and created by!—crises and opportunities of the prevailing system. A rising bourgeoisie brought the modern capitalist era; the proletariat it spawned drove the early struggles for socialism. Patriots fought for nation-states; anti-colonialists, for independence. Oppressed minorities and women battled for rights, dignity, and justice.

In this century, the Modern Era is cracking, while a portentous new act in the drama of social evolution has begun. What new social actor might move to center stage to redirect history toward a decent Earthland? The key to understanding the contours of a GCM and acting on its behalf lies in the distinctive feature of this century—the binding of all people, indeed all life, into a single community of fate.

A systemic movement would arise from and for this community. It would carry forward the liberatory legacies of the past, while embedding them in a framework that transcends fault lines etched by class, place, species, belief system, and DNA. Like it or not, the possibility of a GT rests with the emergence of a planetized outer layer of social reality and cultural identity. (Lest I be misread, I hasten to stress “outer layer,” that is, a cosmopolitanism that does not dissolve subglobal layers.)

Can the disenfranchised citizens of the failed state of Earthland come together with sufficient dynamic unity of purpose? What actions can hasten the coalescence of a GCM? How do we inspire planetary patriots to participate in, what we might call (with tongue slightly in cheek), an Earthland Popular Front?

While there are no metaphoric silver bullets or magic wands, the commentary offered an impressive array of ideas of where to focus and what to do. “How Do We Get There?” suggested that a consequential movement “would assert power culturally, by shaping ideas and behavior; tactically, through actions that disrupt the status quo; and strategically, by building institutions for sustained political influence.” Correspondingly, the discussion generated a repertoire of approaches across these three prongs, reminding us of the need to honor and pursue plural points of leverage. Still, we do need processes for finding common ground that accentuate trust, solidarity, and collective action and mitigate the accentuation of differences.

I remain convinced that we need to muster the courage now to build organizational structures for absorbing, amplifying, and channeling the rising oppositional energy sure to be sparked by deepening crises ahead. If such organizing structures remain weak and fragmentation persists, chaos and dislocation will ignite ever more powerful reactionary ideologies and forces. Then, I fear, dreaded scenarios, whether Orwellian or Hobbesian, will haunt the story of this century.

Cornel West writes somewhere that “to live is to wrestle with despair yet never give despair the last word.” So let the last word go to an old labor anthem: solidarity forever.

Paul Raskin
Paul Raskin is the founding president of the Tellus Institute and director of the Great Transition Initiative. His books include Journey to Earthland: The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization. He holds a PhD in Theoretical Physics.

Cite as Paul Raskin, author’s response to GTI Roundtable "The Problem of Action," Great Transition Initiative (December 2017),

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.

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