Dangerous Transitions in the New Great Transformation

Humanity is entering a New Great Transformation like no other. This transformation is not the first, but it may be the last. That will depend on human action and whether we act quickly, both globally and locally.

Perhaps the first great transformation was the discovery and control of fire, according to renowned biological anthropologist, Richard Wrangham (2009). Controlling fire allowed the habilines (Homo Habilis) to evolve into the small jawed, small toothed Homo Erectus, because eating cooked food released far more energy with much less work than hunting, gathering, and eating raw foods. Cooking provided the extra low-cost energy the brain needed to grow and produce Homo sapiens – us. Then, of course, the agricultural revolution was a transformation that produced surplus food, allowing the specialization of skills. That resulted in complex forms of social organization, such as kingdoms and empires.

The New Great Transition

The industrial revolution was described by Karl Polanyi as The Great Transformation (1944), largely because it turned society on its head as a result of the new economic organization industrial capital forced upon it. In pre-industrial societies, culture had always embedded economic activity within societal norms and values. Now, society became an appendage and subservient to the new economic order. We are now at the end of the industrial era, entering a planetary New Great Transformation, caused by the global excesses of extractive capital and the “technosphere” it has created.


Five Mass Extinctions. Credit: Annenberg Learning

Unbridled economic growth and profligate waste have destabilized the climate and most of the Earth’s ecosystems, precipitating The New Great Transformation. The vast disturbances of ecosystems around the world due to global industrialization has triggered the sixth great extinction of species around the world. The converging global crises of humanity now force us to choose between rapid ecological harmonization and restoration or societal collapse, and possibly our own extinction.

We must now seek a just transition from the converging crises of economy, ecology, and climate to survive the New Great Transformation. We must transform the global political economy of industrial-consumerism and its vast injustices into located ecological communities. We must restore living Earth systems if we are to survive as a species.  The most difficult obstacle to a just ecological society may be in our own minds. We must overcome the many vestiges of the fossil-fueled industrial-consumer culture that remain, especially in our everyday thinking.

We need to shape new visions about issues like adaptation versus mitigation of global warming. Only by transforming society itself can we create sufficient food security, green jobs, clean technology, and low-carbon transportation. At the same time, we must resist the Trumpist resistance to societal and ecological transformation. To achieve a viable just transition requires us to transform in unprecedented ways how we live in our environments and relate to each other.

Dangerous Transitions: Creativity or Collapse

To avoid the greatest dangers of the New Great Transformation of Earth’s ecosystems and climate (their collapse), we must transform our economy and society to achieve ecological communities where we live. Only a rapid massive societal transformation will avoid societal collapse. Our transformation must reach much deeper than simply transitioning to lower-carbon consumerism within the existing global political economy. Waiting for the next election cycle is entirely inadequate.

While resisting the political resistance to energy and ecological transition, we must transform our own residential enclaves, including “sacrifice zones,” into self-sustaining ecological communities. They still depend heavily on the fossil-fueled corporate state, but must become autonomous yet interdependent ecological communities, in part by replacing fossil fuel and radically reducing energy consumption and waste. Two key factors are involved.

First, we must get over our illusions of techno-industrial invincibility. Documented cases of societal collapse due to disrupting the ecosystems upon which they depended, consistently resulted from societal failure to respond to the destabilized ecosystems those societies caused. (See, for example, Jared Diamond, Collapse (2005), and Joseph Tainter, Collapse of Complex Societies (1988).) We are not immune, but this time the danger we face is global and local.

Second, diverse sources of evidence of an emerging New Great Transformation, even more profound than the industrial revolution and its aftermath, reflect great danger yet offer great hope. The hope resides in new forms of community action such as those reported in Sarah van Gelden, The Revolution Where You Live (2017) and the “50 Solutions” described in the 20th anniversary edition of Yes! Magazine. Movements for economic justice described by Gar Alperovitz in What Then Must We Do? (2013) and the mutual-interest grounded left-right coalitions Ralph Nader describes and advocates in Unstoppable (2014) also give hope for change. We must act in our common interests by transforming the way we live, where we live.

Assertions of community and municipal sovereignty such as those described by Thomas Linzey and Anneke Campbell in We the People (2016), provide a viable model for action. These local movements involve some form of what John Brown Childs calls Transcommunality (2003). Such working together in respectful yet autonomous interdependence embodies the principles of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) Longhouse, the L.A. gang-peace movement, and other indigenous examples of cooperation in diversity such as the gathering of Earth protectors at Standing Rock. Mutual aid in establishing ecological communities must replace dominance by the technosphere (Orlov, 2017), thereby increasing human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and freedom from societal and ecological chaos.

As we face the power of growing Trumpist political resistance to climate and justice action, we must find ways to make the urgently needed human ecological realignments now. We must transform society where we live to avoid societal collapse. The creation of ecological communities where we live has become the most viable form of resistance to the dark money and the out-of-control plutocracy if feeds. It is the most difficult for state violence to control. Resist tyranny by replacing the corporate state with ecological communities that restore living Earth systems and humanity itself.


Alperovitz, Gar. 2013. What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Childs, John Brown. Transcommunality: From the Politics of Conversion to the Ethics of Respect. 2003. Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.

Gelden, Sarah van. 2017. The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America. Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linzey, Thomas, and Anneke Campbell. 2016. We the People: Stories from the Community Rights Movement in the United States. 2016. Oakland, PM Press

Nader, Ralph. 2014. Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. New York: Nation Books.

Orlov, Dmitry. 2017. Shrinking the Technophere: Getting a Grip on the Technologies that Limit Our Autonomy, Self-sufficiency and freedom. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Tainter, Joseph. 1988. Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archeology). Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.

Wrangham, Richard. (2009) Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. New York: Basic Books.

Is Development Anything Other Than Growth?

We often speak of development and growth as the same thing. But what do they really mean? Development seems to imply some form of improvement over prior conditions. Growth plainly refers to something getting bigger. Then there is “progress,” or, improvement over prior conditions. In the U.S. corporate-dominated culture, “development” is almost universally measured by economic growth, which is assumed to be the essence of progress. More and bigger are better; therefore, growth is development and development is progress.

It is interesting to look at the process and result of the revision of city and county “development plans” or “growth plans” and building codes. They attempt to respond to the current language of ecological survival of human settlements. This is not easy to accomplish while retaining their focus on traditional notions of “land use” and building standards, framing urban or suburban “development.” Public officials are under tremendous pressure to accede to the demands of “developers.” The main goal of developers is to subdivide land, build structures, hook up to public utilities and infrastructure, and sell it all for a handsome profit. They toss around the word “sustainable,” but it is no more than decoration in the world of economic expansion.

Growth or Progress
Yet here we are in a state of the world where the best scientific work leads to questions that contradict all those assumptions. Can any of this continue for more than a decade without total collapse of economies, societies, ecological systems, and massive disruption of human life? As the evidence piles up – as climate disruption accelerates – the answer looks more and more like an emphatic “no.” The historical record is far from reassuring. Jared Diamond’s careful analysis of past societies that have collapsed is instructive. Most collapsed societies had kept on doing what they were doing despite the self-destructive impending consequences. Without doubt, some were simply not fully aware of the ecological damage they were doing to the sources of their survival. In any case, they were unable to change their behavior to mitigate or adapt.

However, today there are two differences. First, we have plenty of knowledge of how we are destroying the biosphere in which we live. (Climate denial is a fringe political act, not scientific knowledge.) Many questions in climate science are yet to be answered, but the basics of how earth systems are made unstable are clear. Nevertheless, our behavior writ large suggests ignorance of the foundations of our survival as a species.

Second, we now face the imminent consequences of our collective failure to transform the nature of the relationship of humanity to the planet. It is not merely a matter of a small society failing to survive in a confined ecosystem it has destroyed. Now it is a matter of the entire planetary system having been so severely disrupted that it can no longer support vast numbers of species. Hundreds of species go extinct daily. Shortly, our own may be included among those destroyed.

Progress or Extinction
I know, it is hard to get a serious grip around such a monumentally catastrophic near future. Many just refuse to look at the evidence. Many others, who do recognize the growing damage wrought by the carbon economy, hold onto the belief that we can simply fix it with “technological innovation.” Technical knowledge can play an important part, but the only viable solution is to radically change the material basis of the economy itself. That will not happen without completely changing our idea of what constitutes progress.

If we start viewing development as movement toward a fully non-fossil-fueled economy, then decisions can focus on unprecedented but urgent necessary changes. That will entail a multitude of actions meant to 1) severely reduce energy consumption, mainly through conservation; 2) convert energy use to renewable sources; 3) shift economic activity toward local non-fossil-fuel dependant production of both food and manufactured products for local consumption; 4) limit new land development while retrofitting old structures for energy efficiency of both commerce and residence; 5) limit international and inter-regional trade to products not locally producible; 6) replace financially extractive private investment mega-banking with localized public banking that provides credit to projects that build ecological economies supporting local communities. All these and many more redirections and transformations of economic activity are necessary to even have a slim chance of overcoming the surging sixth great extinction.

Scary? Of course, very scary. But if you think these radical transformations of society are daunting, then sit back and contemplate the alternative plunge into extinction.

Two Kinds of Development

When we think of “development,” it is usually about economic development of the so-called “developing nations,” that is, nations whose economies have not caught up with the “advanced” industrial nations of North America and Europe. Without question, the most advanced technology and its application to the full range of industrial processes, from extraction to product delivery is “Western” in that sense. Of course, some Asian nations are right up there in technology if not in its deployment into their own economies. Then there are the rest of the nations, trying to “catch up.” But if you look at the world with those Western rose-colored glasses removed, another picture emerges.

  • First, the assumptions of progress through economic growth are failing. Only the most complex, most powerful, biggest, and “nano” technologies are considered “advanced.” Simpler “appropriate technologies,” though increasingly necessary, are not even considered by the endless-growth model of development.
  • Second, the ‘view from the West’ is shaped by a Euro-centric perspective, the latest iteration of the racism of colonial and imperial times. Any people whose culture does not value the most complex technologies of growth economies and most powerful large-scale organizations is considered “backward.”
  • Third, the conventional framework of thinking about ‘development’ turns out to be unsustainable in context of what we now know about the relationship of humanity to the changing planet. Sure, the less industrially advanced nations are more and more caught up in the same mindset, but that will not make it viable any longer than if only westerners thought in these ways.
  • At the same time, growing elements of civil society around the world are recognizing that the onslaught of Western industrialization may very well not be the best solution for shaping their future, especially, for example, where the invasion of GMO seed and industrial fertilizer products not only destroy native seed stocks, but bankrupt indigenous farmers. The many other examples of destructive development could fill a book.

The kind of development of a nation’s economy driven by industrial capital rather than social need or necessity, was once envisioned as the wave of a bright future for mankind, but it cannot survive much longer. It will implode as it destroys its host. Yet, a core strategy used by international industrial capital to capture markets is to draw developing nations into relations of financial and trade dependency which require continued resource extraction/export and importing the products and “services” of the industrial nations.

The development of new forms of social-economic organization for civil society is as necessary as it is desirable for the future of humans on the planet. Creative indigenous ecologically sound development must replace destructive corporate development. To move along a path of creative self-determination requires first escaping from the traps set by the Monsantos of this world. It also requires recognition that following the old path of Western development has already become unworkable. India comes to mind as a major victim of this dilemma. Some of the most politically powerful corporations there are driving indigenous farmers off the land (with the military’s help) to establish giant industrial and extractive projects that cannot sustain the population but will make those corporations very rich in the short term of their ecological destruction.

Systems in place tend to stay in place until conditions or trends force them to change. Western efforts to “develop” the non-western nations have extracted great value for corporate predators, leaving death and destruction of indigenous peoples and ecologies in their wake. Scientific knowledge of the unsustainable future of such “development” has grown quite certain in recent years, but the forces of conventional development for the sake of economic system growth for corporate profit, not social development, are quite committed to their path.

Today, both changing environmental conditions and rapidly emerging requirements for human survival demand the kinds of change in the social order that have barely even been imagined until now. Many possibilities must be discussed that have yet to be tried at any significant scale.

The future survival of peoples around the world will more and more depend upon their ability to wean themselves off imperial dependencies and develop social and economic relations internally that reflect a viable bond to their local environments. Ironically, if they make such a break, their success will become a model for the peoples of the fading industrial nations. That is what human survival in the coming decades will be about.