The broadest of perspectives can locate the shift underway on planet Earth as the most recent scene in a vast pageant of cosmic emergence. A cosmological panorama takes us beyond the ambit of daily life and beyond even the larger compass of human history, offering a vantage point for pondering the contemporary predicament.
A reminder of where we are in the immensity of space, the eons of time, and the majestic evolution of existence, this wide vista cultivates a sense of awe and humility, stirring resolve to renew the vitality of our precious island of life. Such reflections bring into focus a transcendent challenge: to navigate toward a new order of complexity in our corner of the universe, a flourishing and resilient global society.
The story of the cosmos begins nearly 14 billion years ago with the colossal energy eruption of the Big Bang. From the primal chaos of this prodigious event, structures consolidated in distinct stages, each adding new complexity to the grand unfolding of being: quarks and basic particles formed from the cauldron of radiant energy in the first fraction of a second; simple atoms stabilized after some 300,000 years as the universe cooled; galaxies coalesced around random asymmetries in matter distribution, eventually giving birth to stars and planets; and about 3.8 billion years ago, life appeared on Earth, opening a new chapter in the story of the universe.
Biological evolution has been a wondrous adventure of tenacity and inventiveness through titanic episodes of extinction and proliferation. In the fullness of evolutionary time, creatures with brains appeared, enjoying enhanced ability to repel danger and secure sustenance. Eventually, our diminutive mammalian forebears entered the stage, minor characters scurrying inconspicuously among larger and smarter Mesozoic contemporaries. Somehow, they found niches through the long reigns of the trilobites, fish, and reptiles. The actuarial probability of survival for these early mammals could not have been good, and the odds of hitting the jackpot in the lottery of evolution very long indeed.
Everything changed some 65 million years ago when Earth collided with an enormous asteroid, the single most cataclysmic day on this planet. This 10 kilometer asteroid from outer space struck with the force of a billion Hiroshima-size bombs, abruptly altering the scenery, plot, and cast of characters in the theater of natural history. The impact lifted immense dust clouds that blocked the sun and destroyed plant life. The death knell for the imperious dinosaurs (and three-quarters of then existing species) was the sound of opportunity for our furry ancestors, who made a fine living scavenging the insects and snails that flourished on the massive detritus of the global killing fields.
At the dawning of the Cenozoic Era, to be mammalian and small was highly adaptive. Multiplying and diversifying, they populated the Class Mammalia with innumerable design variations for warm blooded and lung-breathing animals. The grandeur of that variety, from schooner-sized whales to pinkie-sized bumblebee bats, remains on display in the 5,000 or so extant mammalian species still clinging to the shrunken habitats of today’s ecologically impoverished planet.
One uncommonly dexterous line—the primates—proved particularly consequential, giving rise to hominids, the first bipedal, tool-developing mammals. These brainy, social creatures jumped onto evolution’s fast track and never looked back. The advent of human consciousness marked both a culmination and an inception: the capstone of biological evolution and the cornerstone of social evolution. The appearance of human culture set off a second Big Bang in the generation of novel forms of existence in the known universe.
Cultural evolution (including technology, social structures, rituals, and symbols) entered into a reciprocal dance with physical and cognitive evolution. Selection for tool-making, language, and social cooperation produced beings of unprecedented ingenuity and adaptability. At each moment, the cumulative heritage of ideas, institutions, inventions, and artifacts formed a springboard for accelerated social change, leaving in the dust the far more gradual processes of biological and geophysical evolution. The power of culture to mold and control the environment liberated humanity from dependence on narrow ecological niches, allowing congenitally preprogrammed behavior to give way to more malleable, historically constructed forms of conduct and association.
In three million years, a mere tick of the geological clock, the primitive sentience of early humans evolved into the higher consciousness of our anatomically modern ancestors some 200,000 years ago. A creature was born that carried the awesome power—and heavy burden—of introspection and reason. This was a luminous and fateful moment in the long saga of cosmic emanation; when it begot a primate able to contemplate the mystery of existence, the universe lit up to itself.
The arrival of modern humans, the last surviving hominid, brought the new phenomenon of human history to the unfolding scene, and with it a qualitatively different kind of transition: the movement between historical epochs. The most far-reaching of these social shifts were great transitions that altered the entire socio-cultural matrix, yielding new relationships among people and between society and nature. At these junctures, reinforcing processes of change rippled across multiple dimensions—technology, consciousness, and institutions—and weakened existing regulatory structures and social norms. Of course, societies did not always survive these systemic ruptures; indeed, most civilizations of the past have fallen and vanished, spectacles of collapse that fascinate anew in our own time of vulnerability. But when they do not crumble, a fading order gestates a successor society, setting in motion a fresh dynamic of social evolution.
Through mechanisms of conquest and assimilation, change radiates gradually from centers of novelty, although earlier eras can long survive in places that are physically remote and culturally isolated. Today’s multitiered world overlays globalized dynamics across a mosaic of modern, pre-modern, and even remnants of Stone Age cultures. Naturally, the course of history cannot be neatly organized as schoolbook timelines with sharp ticks demarcating well-defined epochs. Real history is an intricate and irregular process conditioned by specific local factors, chance, serendipity, and human volition.
Various periodization criteria, such as the dominant political regime, major technology, and mode of production, offer complementary insights, but only partial truths. Moreover, perceptions of social change depend on the granularity of the historical lens through which we peer. Zooming in on finer spatial resolutions and shorter time frames provides greater detail; zooming out brings longer-term, larger-scale processes into focus.
A long view of the broad contours of the human experience reveals two sweeping macro-transformations. The first occurred roughly 10,000 years ago when Stone Age culture gave rise to Early Civilization. The second saw Early Civilization yield to the Modern Era over the last millennium.
The Modern Era itself confronts a deep structural crisis induced by its contradictions and limitations: perpetual growth on a finite planet, political fragmentation in an interdependent world, widening chasms between the privileged and the excluded, and a stifling culture of consumerism. In our time, an exhausted modernity is relinquishing the stage. A third macro-shift in the human condition is underway with implications as far-reaching as those of previous great transformations. History has entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization.
Scanning the contours of change across Stone Age, Early Civilization, Modern Era, and Planetary Phase epochs reveals a broad tendency for society to become more extensive and elaborate. Societal complexity (the number of variables needed to describe roles and relationships, and the degree of connectedness) increases over the course of these transitions. Each emergent phase absorbs and transforms its antecedents, adding novel attributes, greater intricacy, and new dynamics. The characteristic unit of social organization moves from the highly local to the global, overlaying new forms on preexisting ones. The economic basis shifts from Stone Age hunting and gathering to the highly diversified and far-reaching globalized commerce of this century. Communications innovations— language, writing, printing, and information technology—usher in progressively more powerful modes of social intercourse.
The complexification and enlargement of society also quickens the pace of social evolution. Just as historical change moves more rapidly than biological change (and far more rapidly than geological change), so, too, is history itself accelerating. The Stone Age endured about 100,000 years; Early Civilization, roughly 10,000 years; and the Modern Era, now drawing to a close, began to stir nearly 1,000 years ago. If the Planetary Phase were to play out over 100 years, this sequence of exponentially decreasing timespans would persist. Whether this long pattern of acceleration is mere coincidence or manifestation of an underlying historical principle, the fact remains that the vortex of change now swirls around us with unprecedented urgency.
The Planetary Phase
The astonishing quick rise of the dominance of a single two-legged species; in a flicker of historical time, humanity has become a geological force, its once diminutive footprint grown to the scale of the planet. We are on the cusp of a new era, and its defining feature is that the globe itself is becoming the locus of social evolution and contending forms of consciousness.
The world grows ever more complex in a blur of social and environmental change. Circuits of almost everything—goods, money, people, information, ideas, conflict, pathogens, effluvia—spiral round the planet farther and faster. Multiple interweaving threads of connectivity lengthen, strengthen, and thicken, forming the ligature of an integrated social-ecological system.
Whether denied, welcomed, or feared, a phenomenon of extreme significance is in progress, irrevocably transforming our lives and the planet. Heretofore, the world could be reasonably approximated as a set of semi-autonomous entities—states, ecosystems, cultures, territories—subject to external interactions. As a superordinate system forms and global-scale processes increasingly influence the operation and stability of subsystems, such reductive partitioning becomes inaccurate and misleading.
The crystallizing global system comprises differentiated, interacting subsystems: economic, environmental, technological, cultural, and political. Transnational corporations have spun far-flung webs of production nodes and distribution channels, spewed rivers of international capital, and generated a bewildering array of financial instruments for speculative investment. The human transformation of nature has reached the level of the biosphere—the thin planetary shell that supports all life. The revolution in information and communication technology has compressed cultural and physical distance, penetrating remote societies and expanding cross-border networks and communities.
Governments have created new international structures of dialogue (and occasionally governance), their number and diversity synchronized to proliferating challenges. The porosity of traditional geographic and cultural boundaries generates new fissures of conflict among powerful states and with non-state actors.
The Planetary Phase is entangling people and places in one global system with one shared destiny. Observers highlight different aspects— economics, corporations, climate change, health, technology, terrorism, civil society, governance, culture—all introduced by the modifier global. Looking through specialized windows, economists see globalization, technologists spotlight digital connectivity, environmentalists foreground the transformation of nature by human action, and geologists proclaim the arrival of the Anthropocene, a new geological age. Heterodox social scientists suggest other sobriquets: the Econocene dominated by the false ideology of neoclassical economics or the Capitalocene defined by capitalist relations of production and power. Meanwhile, visionary philosophers and theologians point to signs of an emerging global ethos, while realpolitik types see only clashes of civilizations and great powers.
Each of these apertures on the human condition illuminates a critical aspect of the social-ecological whole, but rather than independent phenomena, these aspects are varied manifestations of a unitary transformation process. The Planetary Phase infuses the old adage of systems theory—the whole is more than the sum of its parts—with fresh meaning: there is something fundamentally new on the face of the earth. The global system and its components shape one another in a complex and reciprocal dance that changes both the whole and its parts.
Global climate change, driven by an infinitude of local actions, feeds back to alter local hydrology, ecosystems, and weather. The World Wide Web plugs individuals into an intercontinental cultural pulse from the big cities down to isolated villages and outposts, roiling traditional values and cultures. Supranational mechanisms of governance buck the prerogatives of sovereign states. Economic globalization drives and episodically disrupts national and local markets. The global poor, inundated with images of affluence, demand justice and seek access to wealthy countries, while despair, anger, and displacement feed the globalization of terrorism.
This scaling up of interconnection in the tangible space of institutions echoes in the subjective space of human consciousness. The nascent Planetary Phase elicits contradictory responses as some resist and others celebrate increasing interdependence. Antagonistic reaction to cosmopolitan intrusion has many faces: fundamentalism, nativism, isolationism, and anti-globalization. These powerful centrifugal forces could carry the day. Still, even as the backlash swells and suppurates, an equally powerful centripetal force is at play: the enlargement of the human project presses for a corresponding enlargement of human identity.
The intertwined destinies of people, generations, and all creatures stretch the arms of empathic embrace across space, time, and the natural world. The Planetary Phase has unleashed a mighty dialectic of chaos and order that drives, at once, toward splintered and integral futures. The fundamental quandary of the journey ahead is how to navigate these powerful cross-currents to a civilized most desirable future world.