At the cutting edge of evolution, changing conditions and competition leave few options: species and societies either evolve or die off. Evolutionary change results when either random mutation (in plants and animals) or conscious invention (in human societies) produces new structures with new capabilities.
The need for environmental relevance means that useful changes are preserved, while useless changes disappear. At each new biological and social stage new and more complex forms and functions emerge.
We are the products of many successful evolutionary transformations: inorganic evolution from subatomic particles to complex molecules; biological evolution from single-cell organisms to humans; social evolution from hunter-gatherer societies to industrial civilizations.
Now we are in the middle of another evolutionary leap. However, our long history does not guarantee future success: most of the species and most of the civilizations that have ever existed on earth are extinct. Because industrial civilization is rapidly degrading the global environment, we have reached a critical point where the survival of humanity is threatened.
The problem is that limitless expansion is not possible on a finite planet. The danger is that our growth-based global system will collapse as critical resources become scarce and major ecosystems fail. The hope is that new ideas, values and technologies will enable us to avoid disaster and create a better world. Humanity has no choice: if global civilization is to survive, it must evolve into a completely new type of societal system. A consumer society cannot be transformed into a conserver society without structural change.
From Tipping Points to Transformation
In front of us are both an immense challenge and a wonderful opportunity. The challenge is to avoid the catastrophic collapse of our natural and social worlds. The opportunity is to finally end humanity’s ancient addiction to war and greed and to create a peaceful and healthy civilization. This is possible because the same forces that are driving us to self-destruction are creating the conditions for constructive change.
Human societies have been evolving for more than 200,000 years. Nomadic families of hunter-gatherers armed with stone spears have developed into industrialized nations armed with nuclear missiles. In the process, occasional contacts between isolated bands have developed into constant exchanges among international networks.
Globalization marks the beginning of a tremendous shift past tribal and national boundaries towards a planetary civilization. But it also marks the end of unexplored frontiers and the end of major resource discoveries. With the shrinking of time and space, our species has begun to realize that it lives on a finite planet with limited resources.
Globalization is triggering a profound shift in human consciousness. On one hand we are being forced to realize that we cannot do anything we want — the price of continuing to exploit nature and each other will be our own destruction. On the other hand, we are learning that our differences are less important than our commonalities — because we are all humans, if our species succeeds, our children and grandchildren will lead happy lives; if it fails, they will inhabit a dying world.
This is a time when we can — and must — make a great turning. The coming global crisis is a critical but inevitable part of the social evolution of our species. Our species has not failed — rather we risk being the victims of our own success. The Industrial Age has not been an evolutionary error, but a necessary stage in human development. It has encouraged the growth of science and technology; it has given most people better and longer lives. However, these benefits have come with enormous environmental and social costs, and the industrial system has now outlived its usefulness.
The continuing development of both destructive and constructive capabilities creates two trends:
- The dominant trend towards collapse — unsustainable consumption and environmental destruction.
- The emerging trend towards transformation — sustainable ideas, values and technologies.
These two trends are the major forces shaping the world today. There is no guarantee that all the necessary elements of a sustainable system will develop quickly enough to prevent irreversible environmental and social damage. Major evolutionary transformations only occur after a critical number of useful paradigm changing developments (functional mutations) have taken place within a biological or social system. If these new system components are compatible, their interactions can begin to change the form and function of the entire system.
All of the key social and technological components of a sustainable system will have to be present before it will be possible for our consumer society to transform itself into a conserver society. For this reason we need to actively support their development. In order to do this we need to understand not only the evolutionary process but also the requirements of a sustainable system….
Changing The World
The challenge is not just to change our values and social institutions, but to change them quickly enough to avoid environmental and social disaster. But how can a world system based on power, violence and inequality become peaceful and just? Global problems often appear to be too large and complex to understand, let alone manage. This is because human societies, like weather systems, are open systems with chaotic and complex dynamics.
However, since all open systems operate within definable parameters and follow predictable patterns, appropriate theories can be used to explain and predict the dynamics of both weather systems and societal systems. The key to analyzing and managing global change is to recognize that our industrial civilization is not only a dynamic system (with all the characteristics of dynamic systems) but also a living and evolving societal system. Evolutionary systems theory provides us with powerful tools from both the natural and social sciences for analyzing complex global problems.…
While previous societal systems (historical ages) took thousands of years to develop, we have only a few years left in which to transform our civilization. Fortunately, we do not have to start from square one. Because the shift to a holistic society began over a hundred years ago, many of the key components of a sustainable societal system are already present. Moreover, our species is constantly learning new skills and becoming increasingly adaptable.
At the same time as our civilization has become unsustainable, our species has acquired the ability to redesign living systems. We now understand biological and social processes well enough to make scientific interventions such as genetic modification and cultural interventions such as marketing. Scientists have now identified the basic components and codes of biological systems and are racing to create artificial life.
Understanding how living systems work is both powerful and dangerous knowledge. While it can be used in irresponsible and destructive ways, it can also be used constructively to help us design a sustainable societal system. Because evolution is about innovation (the emergence of new forms and functions), it is possible for humans to accelerate evolutionary processes. We can support the emergence of a sustainable civilization through consciously inventing and constructing critical technical and cultural components.
Of course there are profound differences between physical and living systems. Physical systems are externally created while living systems are self-organizing. Societal systems maintain themselves, reproduce themselves and change themselves. This means that in order to be successful, societal interventions must build on and support existing processes. If the interventions result in useful innovations (functional mutations), they are likely to be adopted and spread throughout the system….
The challenge that humanity faces now is to rapidly transform our unsustainable global system into a sustainable system. The survival of our species is a more urgent and important task than the space race, although it is in many ways a similar project. Like going to the moon, we only have a general idea of how we will do it. And although many difficult problems remain to be solved, we already have the basic theoretical skills that we will need to solve them.
We can expect to encounter enormous resistance. Technological innovations — like railways and cars — have always had to overcome initial derision and opposition, and social innovations — like democracy and public education — have been strongly opposed. Vested interests have always argued that progressive changes will cause economic ruin and social chaos. The same arguments are now being raised against efforts to protect the environment and to introduce renewable technologies.
As always, these arguments are self-serving and irrational. Because the global economy is no longer sustainable, the complete transformation of the existing system is not an option, but a requirement. Creating a more efficient and equitable economy will not cause a global depression — it is the only possible way to avoid economic collapse and sustain economic growth.
Excerpt from Graeme Taylor’s Evolution’s Edge: the Coming Collapse and Transformation of Our World. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, September 2008. (320 pages, 64 color illustrations, 584 references).
Available at amazon: Evolution’s Edge: The Coming Collapse and Transformation of Our World
It will look like this: At The Cutting Edge of Evolution