Big changes are coming. Every indicator suggests that the world is transitioning on a global scale. Last year we saw the emergence of populist movements in what has come to be known as the Arab Spring and later watched Occupy Wall Street grow rapidly, taking root in many countries where governing institutions have produced unbearable inequality and suffering. Alongside this civil unrest are a rising tide of natural disasters, rapid adoption of mobile technologies, and a growing recognition that humanity itself has become a truly global force of nature.
The world has become more deeply interconnected than ever before, with a human population that now exceeds 7 billion — the majority of whom live in cities. The challenges associated with “peak everything” make this situation severe. The global economic system in place today has been made brittle by just-in-time manufacturing that delivers goods with laser precision and a global race-to-the-bottom that places short-term objectives (principally defined as monetary profit) above long-term resilience — a situation so dire that a mere seven day disruption of the global supply chain could topple the entire global economy. Price shocks in oil futures, home mortgages, or food stocks could lurk just beyond the horizon with catastrophic consequences if this predicament remains.
We are all familiar with the dizzying pace of change. Entire industries used to enjoy decades of stability. Now it is commonplace for disruptive technologies to transform entire supply chains in a few short years. Similarly, the landscapes experienced by our grandparents are radically altered by the immense pressure of urban development, resource extraction, and shifting weather patterns. Intergenerational amnesia runs deep as the “new normal” experienced by the digitally connected, globally conscious Millennials is unrecognizable to the career lifers of the 1950’s and 60’s.
The question lurking unsettled in our minds is What will happen next? Just as the world changed unpredictably after the September 11 attacks on U.S. soil, there is a growing dis-ease about the instability of tomorrow. We simply don’t know what the future will bring. What is clear is that there’s no turning back. Yesterday is forever behind us now.
The Totemic Significance of 2012
Deeply embedded in social consciousness is a number that encapsulates The Great Transition — and we have now entered it. A mythical quality overshadows the year 2012. Whether it is the end of the Mayan Calendar or simply the churning in our bones that something huge is undertow, the numerology of this year has a psychic inertia that is playing out as I type these words. Do I believe in the paranormal overtones of this phenomenon? Frankly, it doesn’t matter because the collective impacts of shared belief are a widely recognized physical force. The mere fact that many people want to believe the world is transitioning is enough to influence human behavior writ large.
Tremors of this subtle force were felt more than a decade ago when Y2K emerged as the quasi-apocalypse of computer shutdown, despite the insignificance of the technical glitch on the real operation of digital infrastructure. This was immediately followed by the rise of a “War on Terror” that cast the world into darkness for a decade, with the ascension of dictatorial powers and corrupting corporate influences that spread hatred around the world and destabilized the global financial system. The 2008 meltdown was accompanied by the emergence of a new hope, embodied in the first African American president elected in the United States.
And as the optimism wavered around this emblematic leader, whose performance has left a vacuum of inspiration that was later filled by populist movements in 2010 and 2011. It is through this rising tide of swarming social movements that the potency of 2012 stands forth in our minds.
A Time For Bridge-Builders*
It is increasingly clear that the institutions of yesterday are inadequate for the challenges of tomorrow. Multinational corporations bent toward the myopia of quarterly returns are ill-fit for extended periods of volatility and turbulence. Centralized governments, with an opacity built in to ensure secrecy, cannot keep pace with the speed-of-light communications of 21st Century internet-based and mobile technologies. They must be opened up and redesigned with agility and integrity as guiding principles.
What is needed now is nothing less than the wholesale redesign of civilization. Our banking institutions must be reconnected to the thriving of human communities. Our schools and universities must cultivate a creative resilience that enables massive-scale innovation. Our businesses must produce positive social impacts alongside healthy revenues. And our governments must successfully provide the supports through which well-being is sustained and spread across the entirety of nations, cities, and villages.
This schematic captures the essence of what is needed:
*This concept of bridge-building across paradigms was developed by the Berkana Institute. I owe particular gratitude to Bob Stilger for bringing it to my attention. It is a powerful idea that deserves to spread far and wide.
On the left is the old paradigm with its food production, governance, commerce, and civic capabilities. As these old systems continue their decline it is absolutely essential that people remain in them as Stabilizers of the Old. Teachers must continue to educate our youth. Farmers must continue to grow our food. Utility companies must continue to protect us against the elements. And so on.
At the same time, there is a vital role for social innovators! These Creators of New Systems will design hybrid organizational forms that combine the economic strengths of for-profit companies with the social values and integrity of non-profit missions. They will decentralize energy production and invent clean technologies. And they will build the integrative institutions of government, education, and civil society that are capable of evolving in the complex ecosystems of our 21st Century planet.
Yet, another vital role is that of Bridge Builders for Transition. Those who can translate the new paradigm into the operational settings of legacy organizations will create new job categories that enable the stabilizers to keep paying their mortgages and put their kids through college while increasingly directing their productivity toward resilient design.
Toward the Great Transition
Whether you believe or not, the world is already in transition. The old cultural models, organizational forms, and mythic narratives must all be critiqued and updated to match the world that is coming. I encourage you to ask yourself which of these three roles best suits you. Are you a stabilizer who seeks stability and order for our chaotic world? Or perhaps a social innovator whose creativity the world so desperately needs? Or is your place in the transitional management of people who lack a bridge across the divide?
Regardless, you are part of the change that will come. Take a look around and try to identify who you know that fits in each of these roles. Give special care to your definitions for quality of life as you select where to devote your own energy. And then jump in because now is the time for strategic action.
The ecological crisis was once thought to be about the protection of non-human life. That outdated concept no longer rings true. It is humanity that is at risk. We have passed through an incredible 10,000 year journey of human settlement that goes back to the birth of agriculture. With this consolidation of human population centers has been a paradigm of empire and resource extraction. Yet now the equation is changed. We cannot use growth and conquest as our model for civilization now that we have reached the limits of planetary scale.
So change is inevitable. Either we grow beyond our capacity without the embodied wisdom of good design and healthy social norms — and overshoot to catastrophic collapse — or we unleash the incredible power of cultural creativity to evolve the very meaning of civilization itself and become sustainable in every sense of the word.
This year offers a moment of consequence. Let’s use the totemic power of 2012 as a catalyst for change. I’ll do my part. Will you?