The Great Transformation How the Shift in Values Is Generating Policy Shift

Protest Rally Toronto
Protest Rally Toronto | Photo (detail): © Gadjo Sevilla

The failure of the climate negotiations has resulted in a radical questioning of trust in the constitutive powers of policy-making. The gigantic, multilateral negotiations are all too obviously not the driving force for change. Instead, change must come from below, from a multitude of different actors.

1. The future is already underway – on the concept of the “Great Transformation”

The buzzword “transformation” is everywhere in current debates on environmental and political science, primarily stemming from a  report published in 2011by the German government’s scientific advisory Board „Global Environmental Change (WBGU). Its title is ambitious: World in Transition: A Social Contract for a Great Transformation (Gesellschaftsvertrag für eine Große Transformation):

The WBGU holds that a future for our civilisation is only possible through a profound transformation of all areas of society in favour of a changed relationship between human beings and nature as well as a transformation of the concepts of development and progress. At the heart of the matter is a cultural transformation as enablement of a shift in policy. 

What does the concept of “transformation” mean? It differs from revolution – the issue here is not one of violent change or a complete break with the past, but a process of change that picks up on existing potentials, but brings them to fruition in new ways. The prefix trans means to cross over, and therefore a change in identity, a departure from familiar patterns of problem-solving in policy-making, business and the economy and private consumption. The issue is therefore a profound transformation that changes cultural identity. The concept of a “Great Transformation” was first coined by Karl Polanyi in 1944 in connection with the establishment of modern industrial societies as a new social system.

The WBGU make special reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall and thus to the end of the Cold War, and to the Arab Spring – two events that have changed the world, that took everyone by surprise, were not directly predictable and yet demanded active participation and cooperation of everyone. In retrospect, it can be said that the potentials of this transformation were already latent under the surface.

Similarly, thus the WBGU, the potentials and the changes in values for the Great Transformation are already present in latent form. When exactly they will also have political and social effects is difficult to predict, cannot be planned, but nonetheless demands an active political and social conformation. We cannot “make” the transformation, and can control it only to a limited extent, but we must be open for it and provide it with social space for it to manifest. 
Some quotations from this remarkable report follow (WBGU 2011, 1):

In recent history, the ongoing pro­democracy movements in a number of Arab states and the fall of the Berlin Wall have served as proof of the power and dynamics of transformative processes. There are several lessons to be learned from these upheavals for the transition to sustainability: firstly, unsustainable situations can lead to dramatic collapse. Moreover, transformative forces often remain hidden below the surface for quite some time. This is evident today not least in the quantifiable global change in values to embrace sustainability. After all, the downfall of dictatorships whose mainstay has been the extraction of crude oil and natural gas (Soviet Union, Libya) also reveals the formerly hidden costs of a ‘fossil’ industrial metabolism.

Normatively, the carbon­based economic model is also an unsustainable situation, as it endangers the climate system’s stability, and therefore the natural lifesupport system for future generations. The transformation towards a low­carbon society is therefore as much an ethical imperative as the abolition of slavery and the condemnation of child labour.

Accordingly, the goal of the Great Transformation is to shape the structural transformation that is already underway in a manner compatible with social values by means of social and business initiatives as well as a corresponding overall framework, and to transform it into opportunities for new forms of economic management and social structure. In the view of numerous climate and environmental researchers, the timeframe for fundamental realignments of this kind is not very great: a palpable change of direction must take place and major obstacles must be overcome within the next decade (as already stated by Nicholas Stern).

2. The Anthropocene – a new epoch of geological time

The global transformation, i.e. the sum of all processes of transformation in the earth system, is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. It affects humanity as a whole, even if the anthropogenic causes of global transformation as well as its consequences are very unevenly distributed. Now, human beings are regarded as the dominant cause of these changes. For this reason, in ethical terms, climate change is not a predetermined fate, but a question of justice.

The summary of the situation analysis contained in the concept “Anthropocene” seems to me to be most instructive. This concept was proposed in 2000 by the atmospheric chemist and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen as designation for a new geological epoch.  Earth System Science as the science of global transformation maintains that it both aims to generate the knowledge and expertise concerning out future demanded by society that is required for the global transformations regarded as necessary (including the turn in energy policy and sustainability) and to be able to do so. In Crutzen’s terms, research on the earth system has become research on the  Anthropocene, as the further development of the earth system could no longer be understood without factoring in human influences.

Anthropocene research views and models the earth as a complex and dynamic (open) system. It studies the interactions of its natural subsystems as well as the mutual influences of human beings and nature. The knowledge of the future that society demands of Earth System Science thus requires a comprehensive modelling of the role of human beings in the earth system. Here, however, in “the human factor,” as it is often somewhat naively termed in the natural sciences, the greatest difficulties and misinterpretations are still rooted.  Thus the desideratum of Anthropocene research is a systematic and appropriate integration of the various culturally influenced and temporally extremely dynamic mental currents – of the noosphere, in  Teilhard de Chardin’s terms – into Earth System Science. 

The fundamental destabilisation of the “project of modernity” (Habermas) through the diagnosis of the Anthropocene cannot be adequately addressed by means of socio-technical management. It requires a critical approach to and assessment of human beings’ understanding of themselves in late modernity, and the meaningful core values of social evolution deriving from this self-understanding. The price of human beings’ new power in the Anthropocene is a new dimension of responsibility.

From the perspective of ecologically based social ethics, new templates for an adequately resilient (elastic) co-evolution of social, economic and ecological systems, and thus models of political governance that are context-sensitive, error-friendly and innovative and approach contingency and uncertainty more robustly than in classical theories of central predictability. The integration of ecologically based social ethics in Earth System Science thus links both complex interconnections to other modules as well as to our fourth priority issue, which inquires into the conditions for social transformation. 

The global transformation that is underway and its anthropogenic causes constitute the scientific basis for the demand for a Great Transformation of global society towards sustainability. The opportunity for the future thus delineated consists of a mode switch from an uncontrolled global transformation to one of Planetary Stewardship. In the language of the monotheistic religions: the ethical basis of the Great Transformation is responsible stewardship that protects and shapes Creation as the house of life for all creatures. This vision is now linked with the concept of Global Boundaries.

In the discussions of recent years, Planetary Stewardship has been erroneously constricted to Global Governance (the dominance of technical solutions such as geo-engineering). In emerging countries this often leads to disenfranchisement and technical and/or political paternalism, since the local population is unable to manage the high-tech products on the basis of their own capabilities. In contrast, an ethical and cultural-science based perspective emphasises that sustainable transformation only succeeds if participation is given central priority. Transformation needs capability justice (Amartya Sen). It foundation is a cultural transformation on the basis of active participation and empowerment of local populations. Actor-oriented models are helpful here; which brings us to my third section.

3. Transformers: actors for the cultural Transformation as enablement of a new social contract:

The failure of climate negotiations has radically called into question trust in the shaping power of politics. Peter Sloterdijk speaks of “future atheism:” although we know about the perils we are facing, we are unable to take this knowledge seriously in terms of political action and to draw conclusions from it. Despite all climate negotiations, the annual CO2emmission is continually rising. 
The impulse for change clearly is not being set by the gigantic multilateral negotiations, but instead must come from below, from a multiplicity of diverse actors, in other words from civil society and the pioneer thinkers and activists of cultural transformation.

Once again, a quote from the WBGU assessment cited above (WBGU 2011, 2):

This ‘Great Transformation’, then, is by no means an automatism. It very much depends on ‘organising the unplannable’ if it is to succeed within the available tight timeframe. This is unique in history, as the ‘world’s great transformations’ (Jürgen Osterhammel) of the past were the result of gradual evolutionary change. Adding together all of these challenges involved in the transformation to come, it becomes clear that the upcoming changes go far beyond technological and technocratic reforms: the business of society must be founded on a new ‘business basis’. This is, in fact, all about a new global social contract for a low-carbon and sustainable global economic system. […]

The social contract consolidates a culture of attentiveness (born of a sense of ecological responsibility), a culture of participation (as a democratic responsibility), and a culture of obligation towards future generations (future responsibility).

Even today, in contrast to the stagnation in political negotiations, much in the way of a new dynamism is already visible at the level of cultural and economic evolution, for instance in the turn in energy policy, for which Germany serves as a field of experimentation for the coming global transformation. 

Technical innovations and creativity are the most important resources for future viability. But technical innovations alone are by no means sufficient. We have been observing the so-called rebound effect for decades: all environmental benefits are neutralised and compensated by the simultaneity of even greater acceleration in the growth of consumer demands and market volume. The technological transformation must be joined by an ethical and cultural transformation, a transformation that gives progress a new direction, a new meaning.

Art and aesthetics are of central significance here, since the transformation will not succeed by means of moral appeals, but only through a gradual re-colouring of our conceptual templates of quality of life and progress.
We do not need renunciation, but higher demands in terms of our feeling for the aesthetic and ecological quality of landscapes, food and living spaces. We need a new ethics in the sense of an aisthesis of transformed perception. Here, art offers a fundamental education of the senses.

What we do need are rituals to generate and school ourselves in new attitudes, not primarily new theoretical justifications for the ethics of the Great Transformations. Theology and spirituality are of central significance here, since the ritual structuring of life transitions, hopes and encouragement for turning away from old habits and setting out on new paths is one of their core functions. Religion translates knowledge into emotionally effective ways of relating.

The transformative potential of religions is assessed in different ways. To many, the churches seem to be institutions for domesticating people into bourgeois morality, completely oriented towards the stabilisation of the existing order. Johann Baptist Metz has already strongly criticised this in his political theology. Appealing to the prophetic tradition, he contrasts this with the subversive and renewing power of the dangerous memory of suffering and injustice endured. In general, deeper transformative processes do not rest primarily on future planning and management, but for the most part have their origins in a solidarity-based response to painful experiences.

The role of the churches in the Great Transformation in the GDR and Poland during the collapse of the Iron Curtain must not be underestimated, but rather be recalled, analysed and utilised for transformative processes in the future.
Of concrete relevance to the current discussion on ecological transformation is an interesting programme at the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing (Bavaria): Transformateure (i.e. transformers), from whose policy statement Die Große Transformation. Die Herausforderung der ökologischen, sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Krisen annehmen (i.e. the Great Transformation: accepting the challenge of the ecological, social and economic crises) I shall quote in what follows. With the multiple crises of the present,

“We now find ourselves on the threshold of a structural rupture encompassing all areas of the economy and life: one of the fundamental preconditions of development to date is breaking down. (…) We need a Great Transformation in the sense of a viable transition to more sustainable economic forms and ways of life. This type of viable Great Transformation will not come about automatically. Instead, it is based both on knowledge of the inevitable as well as a conscious decision to act. From this perspective, a cluster of options that until now have been unimaginable in their depth and scope is opening up within the crises of the present. (…) This is a Great Transformation on a comparable scale with the Industrial Revolution in which fossil energy-based capitalism developed. No more and no less.”

The success of the Transformation depends above all on the persons shaping it, on the transformers: “These actors are at work on the positive examples and are contributing to their dissemination: from urban renewal aimed at living cities with more space for pedestrians and cyclists (Copenhagen) to regional marketing of organic products and self-sufficient regions relying on renewable energies, and products that are easier to repair, multiple use during their entire lifespan, etc. The range is wide and affects all areas of life and the economy.”

The crux of the matter is to venture a new beginning, individually and collectively. Often the seeming impossibility of a new, transformative beginning is not “out there,” but conditioned by inner, mental blockages: “It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.” (Seneca).