What Time Is It?

Finding our place in history

One of the articles in Toward A Sustainable World Order (IC#36)
Originally published in Fall 1993 on page 11
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

There is a lot of talk these days about being in the “post-Cold War era.” Certainly, the end of the Cold War was a major event, but is this really the most helpful way to characterize the present time historically? I don’t think so. Indeed, to me the end of the Cold War is just part of a much larger set of historical trends. Understanding these trends can enable us to work with history, rather than struggling against it, and thus be much more effective in contributing to the development of a humane and sustainable world.

What are those trends? I would emphasize three:

  • Looking forward to the next few decades, it appears that our fossil fuel-based industrial society will be increasingly encountering the ecological limits of this lovely small planet.
  • Looking back over the decades since World War II, it is apparent that the social and technical context in which nation-states find themselves has changed dramatically, but our understanding of these changes still lags behind the reality.
  • Looking back much further, over the past 50,000 years of human history, there are many indications that we are at one of those rare cultural watersheds when a whole new cultural epoch is being born.

In this article I’d like to look at these trends more closely to see what they can tell us about what time it is.


IN CONTEXT #30, #31, and #32, have a series of articles that draw heavily on the global computer model – know as “World3” – that provided the basis for Beyond The Limits (the book by Meadows, Meadows, and Randers that gives wonderfully insightful descriptions of how population growth and industrial growth are driving human society beyond its ecological limits – highly recommended.)

Figure 1 summarizes one of their key results by showing the growth of world population and world average industrial output per person as calculated by World3. From 1900 up to 1995, the curves, while generated by the computer model, closely follow the actual historical data. Beyond 1995, they follow two possible scenarios.

a choice of futures

Figure 1: Sustainable development vs. business-as-usual
The dashed curves illustrate the consequences of continuing with the same policies and assumptions that have governed global growth up to now. The pattern of rise and fall in the curves is a cycle that system theorists call “overshoot and collapse.”

In the model, exhaustion of nonrenewable resources, degradation of renewable resources such as soil, and the overwhelming of the environment’s capacity to assimilate society’s wastes all contribute to the collapse. Figure 1 illustrates what happens as fuels and raw materials decline in quality and accessibility, requiring ever-increasing amounts of capital and energy just to get them into usable form. The economy becomes trapped. It can’t provide what it used to in the way of investment in agriculture, consumer goods, and services, and it no longer has the flexibility to invest in restructuring itself to make better use of renewable resources. The economy thus spirals down, pulling down agriculture and health care with it, yet still gobbling up lots of nonrenewable resources along the way. Death rates rise dramatically through hunger and disease, while desperate humans ravage what is left of the world’s ecosystems.

It’s not a pretty picture, and World3 doesn’t even include the Yugoslavia-like violence that could arise, or nuclear war, or a dozen other hideous scenarios that could all too easily develop as part of the collapse.

What can we do to avoid such a fate? We have to change the way we live. The solid curves illustrate one way this could happen if the world were to adopt some major, but technically possible, changes in policy and behavior starting in 1995. These changes, as described in IC #31, involve shifting to more efficient and less polluting technologies, voluntarily limiting world industrial output, and slowing population growth.

It is easy to see obstacles to these changes – political opposition, institutional barriers, and so on. Yet all of these obstacles are a matter of human choice. We are not physically or technologically prevented from making any of these changes. And given the likely outcome from continuing with business-as-usual, better to overcome these obstacles now than to have humankind and millions of other species suffer the consequences.

How seriously should we take these results from World3? The authors of Beyond The Limits would be the first to insist their model is intended to provide qualitative insights, not detailed numerical predictions. Nevertheless, there are many signs that the world is already beginning to encounter the kind of ecological limits the model indicates and that World3 may even be overly optimistic (see related story below).

Figure 2 illustrates one particularly significant indicator.

It compares the world average food supply per person as projected by World3 (essentially the same as the original 1972 projection) with actual grain production (from Vital Signs 1993 by Lester Brown et al.). Grain is, of course, only part of the total food supply, but it is a major part, and the total food supply will likely follow closely the trends in grain production. Both curves grow, reach a peak, and then decline – and for the same reasons. The growth comes from both increases in cropland and increases in fertilizer, irrigation, and other agricultural inputs that can raise crop yields. The curves stop growing and then decline because:

  • degradation of cropland (through soil erosion, conversion to urban use, salt buildup in irrigated land, etc.) begins to outpace the addition of new cropland
  • the effectiveness of fertilizers and other inputs reaches a point of diminishing returns
  • air and water pollution cause lower crop yields.

The only thing that is really different between the two curves is that the real data peaks 10 years earlier than the World3 projection.

Clearly, world grain production, grown largely with our present industrial methods, appears to have already encountered ecological limits. We still have enough agricultural capacity for the world to feed itself, and many under-used techniques (less industrial and more biological) for maintaining and even increasing yields, but this data should serve as a warning to take the general outlines of Figure 1 quite seriously.

What time is it? Taken together, the two figures and Robert Goodland’s accompanying story suggest that one answer is that this is the first time in history when humanity as a whole is encountering global environmental limits. The impact of this encounter will reverberate in profound ways throughout all aspects of our lives. Since all of our institutions – as well as our ways of thinking about economics, governance, war, and peace – were developed when humankind’s activities were safely small compared to the Earth’s capacity, we can expect we’ve got some major rethinking and restructuring to do.


Next, let’s turn our attention back over the recent past. The fixation on the superpower contest between the US and the USSR during the 45 years or so after World War II reinforced certain assumptions about our world:

  • It focused attention on military and ideological issues as the threats to national security.
  • It gave the impression that the US and the USSR were the significant players on the world scene.
  • More subtly, it assumed that nation-states, rather than other human groupings, were the significant players on the world scene.

In the waning years of the Cold War, these assumptions began to crumble right along with the crumbling of the Soviet Bloc. We are now waking up to discover:

  • Environmental, social, and economic problems pose at least as big a threat to national security as military or ideological issues ever did. Today, military violence remains a threat, not because there is the political will for a major war, but simply because the world has so many weapons of such destructive capability. As for ideological concerns, the past few years make it clear that modern communications technologies – from videotapes, to faxes, to e-mail – have made the old-style totalitarian society impractical. In such a setting, the whole notion of “national security” needs to be profoundly rethought.
  • You may well have heard the observation that the winners of the Cold War were … Japan and Germany. I don’t think life is quite that simple, but it certainly is true that while the US and USSR were exhausting each other through their military competition, other parts of the world were quietly putting their efforts to more productive use. The result now is a much more complex, multi-centric world.
  • Perhaps even more importantly, you could well say that the winners of the Cold War were … transnational organizations, particularly transnational corporations. The real shift of power hasn’t been from one set of nations to another set, but from the nation-state to various nongovernmental organizations and systems. Many transnational corporations have budgets larger than the Gross National Products of many countries represented in the UN. International financial markets now impose a discipline on governments that was unheard of 20 years ago. Outside the economic arena, transnational citizen groups like Amnesty International do more to set the international human rights agenda than many nation-states do. Likewise, CNN and other international media groups often have more influence on world opinion than national governments. Within nations, ethnic groups often retain more loyalty than the nations of which they are a part.

What time is it? It is the end of the era when global society was essentially defined by military rivalries between nation-states, and the start of an era in which the global community is a rich mix of government, business, and citizens’ groups, and economic, environmental, social, and military issues are thoroughly intertwined.

To this I would like to add a special reflection for those of us who live in North America, for we often seem to have a hard time comprehending how historically unusual, how materially easy, the post-war decades have been for most of us. North America emerged from the war as the only major industrial area still intact, enabling it to dominate the world without half trying. In spite of the rivalry with the USSR, the United States was, in many ways, the superpower – economically, technologically, militarily, and in popular culture.

This position provided easy control of the world’s resources, which allowed Americans to develop many wasteful habits and create a myth that ever-increasing consumption was a law of nature. The 1980s were a last hurrah, defiantly upholding this myth in the face of the evidence. Now in the 1990s, we are uncomfortably and reluctantly readjusting our expectations, although many still hope for “the next big upturn.”

There may well be another upturn, of sorts, but it won’t be like the easy growth of the 1950s and 1960s, or even like the debt-based growth of the 1980s. We need to come to grips with the fact that many of the advantages the US inherited by default after World War II are now ebbing away.

What time is it?It is a time when Americans will have to become just another part of the world in a way to which we have not been accustomed. The result could be wonderful.


All of these answers to “What time is it?” fit comfortably within a much larger historical process. Back in IC #12 (Winter 1985), I described human history as comprised of three major cultural periods, separated by two transitions:

arrow of history

The first period, up to about 10,000 years ago, was tribal, based on hunting and gathering. (This dating is, by necessity, very rough and refers only to the leading edge of cultural evolution. Obviously, many tribal cultures continued to exist, and even thrive, during the past 10,000 years, but they were no longer at the leading edge of human cultural evolution.) It was a remarkably successful, sustainable cultural mode so long as human populations were small.

The next major period I call the Empire Era, in full dominance from about 5,000 years ago to about 500 years ago. The cultures in this period were characteristically city-based military empires with agriculture as the economic base. These cultures were clearly different from the earlier tribal cultures and can be thought of as the empire family of cultures.

The third major period, which hasn’t come into full expression yet but could do so as early as some time in the 21st century, I call the Planetary Era. I suggest, in the accompanying chart, some of the characteristics this era might have (see IC #12 for more discussion). I expect that it will also be made up of a family of cultures, as different from those of the Empire Era as these were from the Tribal Era.

This outline of history suggests another answer to “What time is it?” for it says we are in the later part of the transition between the Empire and Planetary periods. If this is so, we can perhaps get some useful perspective on our own time by looking back at the transition between the Tribal and Empire periods (from about 10,000 years ago to about 5,000 years ago).

That transition began with agriculture and settled village life, which in turn lead to considerable population growth. For a long time, however, these Neolithic villages retained the old tribal social structure based on clans. Yet eventually the increased wealth, population, and technological capabilities of these cultures provided more social complexity than could be managed within the old social structures. Someone then discovered that it was economically viable to herd people instead of cattle, and with the help of the new tools of writing and the images of powerful, universal sky gods, the “warlord” system ousted the old clan-based system.

We can see in this transition a pattern of cultural change:

  • driven first by new technologies and means of livelihood
  • accelerated by population growth
  • opened to social change by new opportunities that come with new technologies and changing social conditions
  • brought to a crisis by the inability of the old social order to manage the new complexity
  • resolved by the arising of new social institutions capable of handling that complexity.

Moving ahead to our own transition during the past 500 years, we can see at least parts of a similar pattern. The start of Western science and the rise of commerce during the Renaissance initiated a technological/economic process that has been a major driver of cultural change ever since. Population growth has followed in its wake, accelerating the change away from the old conditions in which the Empire Era cultures flourished.

The slowest area of change has been the move away from the social institutions characteristic of the Empire Era, again matching the pattern. It is only in the 20th century that democracy has replaced authoritarian rule to any broad extent, and one of the most important institutions of today – the corporation – is still non-democratic.

We are now at a point where:

  • Our encounters with the ecological limits of the Earth are providing a looming challenge for which our present social, economic, and governance institutions are ill suited.
  • The enormous destructive power of modern weapons and the fragile interconnected character of industrial society have made warfare no longer the viable economic strategy it was during the Empire Era. The trend, most visible since World War II and still far from complete, is away from war as a means of gain through conquest and toward other forms of international dispute resolution.
  • The power of modern communications and travel technologies is making authoritarian institutions increasingly difficult to run. Indeed, I would argue that the collapse of the Soviet Bloc is best understood as the victory of decentralism rather than the victory of capitalism. The waning of large, centralized organizations is also clear in the business world, where company after company is finding ways to collapse its hierarchy and decentralize its operations.
  • Modern communications and travel are also shifting the sense of community and loyalty away from local geographic groups to non-geographic “communities of interest.”
  • The nation-state is sharing more and more of its power with business and citizen groups.

If our present transition continues to follow the same pattern as the earlier one, we should be close to the point where the complexity of our times is overwhelming the ability of the old institutions to cope (sound familiar?). This long-term historical perspective thus invites us to re-invent our social institutions at a far more profound level than we are normally accustomed to doing. At the same time, our need to avoid “overshoot and collapse” is urging us to do so as well. If this whole analysis is correct, such re-invention is indeed the task of our time.

What time is it?It is time to create the new cultural, social, economic, and governance institutions for the Planetary Era.


In its broadest scope, this is the territory IN CONTEXT has been exploring for more than a decade. In this issue, we focus particularly on the critical interplay between economics and governance in a global context.

Earlier I listed three areas – technology, industrial output, and population – in which change needs to occur to move us toward a sustainable future. Implementing change in any of these areas is a complex, multi-faceted social challenge, yet woven through all of them is the strong – and currently counter-productive – role played by the economic system.

As we begin this issue, it will be helpful to explore why our present economic system is not producing sustainable results. To do so, we need to distinguish between the economy as a physical process and as an information system.

As a physical process, the economy is a system of producing, distributing, and using various goods and services. This process is clearly an interconnected part – a subsystem – of all human activity, which in turn is a subsystem of the natural world. Physical economic activity affects, and is affected by, these larger systems in highly interdependent ways.

As an information system, the connection is much weaker. Our market economy gets its rules from various laws and social norms which define what are legal and acceptable business practices. Then it guides people with the signal of price as they choose how to allocate their scarce resources. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of important information, particularly about society and the environment, that is not included – or is misrepresented – in prices.

For example, if the full social and environmental cost of driving were included in the cost of gasoline, reasonable estimates are that we should be paying at least $7 per gallon (see IC #33, page 9). We pay all that cost now, of course, but indirectly through taxes, health insurance, damaged lives, and fragmented communities. We don’t get to see the connection directly, nor do we get the full benefit when we make wiser choices.

This kind of distortion is pervasive throughout our pricing system both because of the failure to include social and environmental costs and because of all kinds of tax-based subsidies. In effect, the whole system is rigged – for the benefit of today’s generation, of certain groups of people, and of certain favored industries.

With this distorted pricing, our present economic system attempts to operate in a world of its own, as unaffected as possible by the larger human and ecological systems in which it is physically embedded, with its only imperative being its own growth.

In biological systems, subsystems that ignore their surroundings and concentrate only on their own growth are known as parasites or cancers. Unfortunately, in its present form, our economic system is the cultural and ecological equivalent of a cancer that, if not transformed, will kill its host in a few short decades.

If we are instead to get the economy to produce sustainable results, we will need to get its information side to be as closely interconnected with the surrounding social-ecological system as its physical side is. Such an economic system should, among other things, guide its various players to select activities with the greatest net long-term value for the whole. This would be helped by, for example:

  • full-cost accounting that brings into the price system all the social and environmental costs associated with the complete life-cycle of a product or service
  • patient capital that invests in the long-term
  • job flexibility that enables a meaningful choice as to how people allocate their time between the marketplace and the rest of life.

While there are technical challenges here, they are not nearly as daunting as the political challenges, for these changes would involve adopting, and enforcing, significant new “rules of the game.”

There are at least two levels of political challenge. First, political jurisdictions (e.g. nations) need to be willing to redo the “rules of the game” for the economic activity within their jurisdiction. Second, any jurisdiction that does so needs to be able to control the impact, via trade and the movement of capital, from businesses outside the jurisdiction who are playing by different rules.

Neither of these steps look particularly easy, but trade and the movement of capital form a particularly thorny problem. Consider what would happen if all the nations of the world except one were to adopt ecologically and socially responsible rules of the game, while the one dissenter allowed its businesses to “externalize” and ignore social and environmental costs. If there was free trade among countries, the businesses from that one country could presumably out compete those of the other countries. If there was also free movement of capital, many businesses in the other countries would move to the one “low-cost” country.

Thus, not only do the rules of the game need to be determined within nations, they need to be determined among nations.

All of these issues are questions of governance, that is, the overall process by which society determines and enforces its rules. Governance encompasses more than just government, for it includes the interplay among government, business, citizens’ groups, the press, and the public at large. Because these issues involve many geographic scales – local, national, and global – they also present us with the challenge of getting governance to work on all these scales.

Pulling all these threads together suggests that developing a humane and sustainable society for the Planetary Era will require changing the rules that govern our economic and governance systems so that we get the relationships right among:

  • economic activity, community, and the environment
  • economic activities between different communities, i.e. the rules of trade
  • governance at various scales of community – local, national, and global.

As overwhelming as this may all seem, the articles in this issue illustrate that this complex territory may turn out to be more friendly than you might suspect. There are more than glimmers on the road ahead!

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