Navigating whole system transformation

There can be little doubt that the 21st century will unfold as an age of transition when humanity will be called to reconsider our global civilisation’s core values. The odds are better than even that this essential resetting of our cultural compass from human exceptionalism to eco-mutuality will be driven by an accelerating succession of economic and environmental crises and widespread societal breakdown.

We have often experienced such times on our evolutionary journey, but never on a planetary scale and thus never with the stakes so high. We must discover new modes of engagement and new levels of human solidarity for this transition.

Faced with the prospect of inter-linked environmental, economic, demographic, and socio-political crises, most of our institutions are in deep denial or, in much of the corporate sector, a feeding-frenzy of short term profit-taking. Business-as-usual is their ever more stridently proclaimed mantra, and blind faith in the chimera of unending growth their creed. Yet it is clear that the whole-system complexity of the 21st century’s challenges render conventional politico-managerial models, tools and methods redundant.

So what is to be done? Have we no alternative than to fasten our metaphoric seat belts and prepare for an exceedingly turbulent ride into oblivion?

Historically most social change movements have tended to be preoccupied with advocating desirable end states – how a more equitable society might be structured, what a post carbon economy might look like, what forms participatory democracy might take. Such blue-sky visioning is valuable and necessary. But, in practice, the Achilles heal of these movements has too often been the process question: by what means do we get from A to B; from an existing ethically or environmentally untenable state of affairs, albeit one with huge institutional and political inertia, to a more just and sustainable future, without tearing ourselves apart?

The 19th and 20th centuries saw experimentation in social transformation on an unprecedented scale — spearheaded by political movements of both the left and the right. Beginning with high hopes, most of these experiments either resulted in the piecemeal amelioration of the worst effects of industrialisation and social inequity, or ended in fratricidal violence, wide-spread suffering, or self-defeating compromises and trade-offs.

Now humanity faces a very steep learning curve to develop the collective competencies needed to envision and enact the transition to a viable future. Developing these capabilities will go hand-in-hand with a practical rethinking of the social forms by which we live, work, and learn. This will be a project for generations, but the urgency of our predicament requires that we make a start now.

Do you agree that the challenge of the Anthropocene involves much more than replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy or protecting precious ‘legacy’ ecosystems as lifeboats for future recovery — as essential and urgent as these and similar reforms are?

By what processes can we transform the core cultural values of the dominant and rising industrial growth societies?

What are the collective capabilities we will need to navigate this historic transition?


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