The premise and motivation for this entire website is that we are in an unprecedented moment, both evolutionarily and historically, characterized by numerous world crises, and that therefore we need to transform how we live and think – a transformation that is personal and collective. (The climate crisis is probably the most global and media-hyped of all these crises, and therefore useful as the single overarching crisis that implies all the others.)
Could that characterization of our present moment be wrong?
There is a great deal of evidence – or in keeping with a metaphor I’m using alot in these webpages, a “critical mass” has formed – in favor of the notion that we are in such a time of great transformation. Karen Armstrong, an independent scholar, wrote a book in 2006 called “The Great Transformation” referring to the Axial Age (800-200 BCE); part of her interest in researching that period was because of its analogy to our own time as also a time of “great transformation”. (The economist Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) used the same phrase to describe the emergence of the modern economy – yes, a great book with a compelling argument, but NOT used to refer to our contemporary decades.) The Berggruen Institute, founded in 2010, uses the phrase “great transformations” (in the plural) in its concern with the changes it sees happening in “technology, cultures, political economies, and global power”. The Institute has created Noema magazine, whose reason for being is to “exploring the transformations sweeping our world”.
David Korten uses the phrase “The Great Turning” as the title to his 2007 book wherein he argues that we need to turn from “empire”, which is the political pattern of the last 5,000 years and is manifest today in the form of big power and big money and corresponding corporations and governments, to an “earth community” that is far smaller in scope and scale – and hence, more ecologically viable, too. The notion of the great turning is not original with David Korten; he has adopted and adapted the phrase from the great psychologist of climate change Joanna Macy. She uses the term “The Great Turning” to describe “a shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization.” (She has adapted the phrase from Buddhism, which talks about different eras or epochs as “the turning of the wheel”.)
Joanna Macy’s position is quite similar to and overlaps with Thomas Berry’s argument for “The Great Work”: transforming human being and all of our inherited historical and cultural modes of being into an ecologically-viable way of being, an “Ecozoic Era” in his terms. (See the webpage devoted to him within this section of the website.) Karen Litfin in her 2014 book Ecovillages uses the phrase “The Great Unfoldment”, saying there (relative to the phrasings The Great Turning and The Great Work): “Work and turning describe where the story leads but not the story itself, which I prefer to call The Great Unfoldment.” (p. 254) Litfin’s distinction emphasizes how we “lyrically” story our times of great change.
The list of “Great [Fill-in-the-blank]” could be greatly extended (yes, dry little joke there). Note: while all that have been mentioned here are all of a piece in terms of wanting us to recognize and realize the ecological imperative, not all the arguments for “great change” today necessarily follow that reasoning. (For example the World Economic Forum argues for “the Great Reset“, saying the recovery from the COVID pandemic is an opportunity to embed the technological, industrial, capitalist mode even deeper and further into global functioning.) Perhaps the best generic term for all of these is “Great Transition”, and in fact there is Great Transitions website that presents an organization of numerous of the various stories (including those mentioned here) about our current transformational time. There is also a 1999 book The Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead, looking at various scenarios in order to maximize the possibility of sustainable development into the future. It was published jointly by the Global Scenario Group (“an independent, international and interdisciplinary body to examine world prospects and ways of fostering a more sustainable and equitable future”) and the Stockholm Resilience Center (“an international research centre on resilience and sustainability science”).
The Stockholm Resilience Center has supported some major research of relevance, in particular their research into “the Great Acceleration” deserves some special attention as it provides evidence provided by careful empirical science supporting the claims that our time is one of great change. A research team led by Will Steffen show (initially in 2004, then updated in 2015), quite convincingly, how human systems of production have been dramatically intensifying and expanding since 1950, with corresponding effects on natural earth systems. This dramatic increase in production they call “the Great Acceleration”, and use as evidence for an argument that we are now in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. The 12 socio-economic trends representing human systems of production they present alongside the 12 earth systems in a series of graphs. These display a hockey stick shape that have become famous amongst climate scientists and scholars as a clear and direct visual representation of the evidence for a “great acceleration” in human activity that is also evidence for the causes of the climate crisis.
The environmental historian John McNeill, too, uses the notion of the Great Acceleration, in a 2015 book co-authored with Peter Engelke, “The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945”.
In short: just like the climate crisis, there is an overabundance of evidence attesting that we are in an unprecedented time, characterized by, and demanding, a great transformation. Clearly, the evidence shows a breadth and variety of how that “transformation” is characterized, whether as a transition, an acceleration, an unraveling, and so on. (My own preferred version? That of an “Axial Age”, a dividing line within history that is both a repetition of but more importantly a transformation of and beyond, the first Axial Age.)