The film The Hunger Games presents a heroic struggle in a world that has failed to make the transition to some form of sustainable prosperity. People are barely surviving on a ruined Earth and in a society that has regressed to ritualistic, annual killings for past misdeeds.
This is a horrifying view of the world ahead, particularly because it has a ring of authenticity -- we know that a future this terrifying could await us if we continue along our current path of climate disruption, resource depletion, species extinction, unsustainable population, and more. To turn from this path of collective ruin, it is vital that we step back and take a fresh look at the story of the human journey. We face big challenges and it will take an equally big vision to transform conflict into cooperation and draw us into a promising future.
A future of conflict and suffering is easy to imagine while a future of harmony and health is still a vague and unformed possibility in our collective imagination. Yet, there are numerous and compelling stories of great transition. These deep narratives describe how the world is in a predictable time of transition to a very different future, one that can only emerge if we consciously choose it. If we are to choose a promising future, there may be no more vital task than discovering the narratives that weave together the threads of the human experience into the larger tapestry of our collective journey.
An important starting point is to remember that we humans almost went extinct roughly 70,000 years ago. All of the people who now inhabit the Earth are descendants of a single community estimated to be fewer than several thousand persons who migrated out of Africa roughly 65,000 years ago. From a handful of survivors, we have now become an Earth community of 7 billion persons and we will likely reach 9 billion before stabilizing! Humanity has experienced extraordinary success and now completely dominates the Earth and its future.
The first step in creating a positive future is to imagine it. If we can visualize a future of promise, we can create that future.
One vision of promise is the view that humanity is maturing as a species and we are now going through the growth pains of our collective adolescence. Our self-image could therefore be that of a young species that is capable and gifted with untapped potentials. Instead of returning to a regressive and repressive society as in The Hunger Games, we could recognize and dive into the predictable struggles and turmoil of our adolescent years as a human community. Once we do, we will be on our way into our early adulthood and a concern for the well-being of the Earth and the long-term future of the human family.
To explore the story of "humanity growing up," as I have traveled in different parts of the world giving talks about the future, I have often begun with a simple question for the audience: "When you look at the overall behavior of the human family, what life-stage do you think we are in? In other words, if you estimate the social average of human behavior around the world, what stage of development best describes the human family: toddler, teenager, adult, or elder?" I give people a few minutes to discuss this among themselves and then we take a vote to see what people think or intuit.
When I first began asking this question, I had no idea if people would understand it or how they would respond. To my surprise, around the world, nearly everyone immediately understands this question. With little hesitation, people consistently vote that, as a social average, the overall human family is in its teenage stage of development. To illustrate, in 1999 I posed this question in New Delhi, India, speaking with an auditorium filled with several hundred young schoolteachers who were just graduating from college. There was no confusion about the question. The overwhelming majority voted confidently that the human community is behaving like it is in its adolescent years. I have received similar responses from business leaders in Brazil, spiritual leaders and futurists in Japan, and audiences of all kinds in Canada, Europe, and the United States. All have immediately responded in the same way: approximately three-quarters vote that, as a social average, the human family is in its adolescent stage of development.
Many people were quick to point out that this is a social average and therefore some people and cultures are well in advance of this stage. However, around the world, there is clearly a shared understanding that, putting us all together, the human family exhibits many adolescent behaviors.
Although many people described our species behavior as rebellious, reckless, and short-sighted, many others also pointed out beneficial aspects of the adolescent stage of development. Adolescents have a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm and, with their courage and daring, are ready to dive into life and make a difference in the world. Many teenagers also have a "hidden sense of greatness" and feel that, if given a chance, they can accomplish great things.
As the perfect storm of a world-systems crisis converges around us, and as we understand no outside force is coming to rescue us if we ruin the Earth, we can make the fiery rite of passage through our species adolescence and into our early adulthood. In shifting from our species adolescence to early maturity, we can seek a new relationship with the Earth, one another, and the universe. If "hunger games" are the price of a failed transition, then "sustainable prosperity" is the reward of a successful transition.
These narratives are extremely valuable because, without a story to give us a sense of collective orientation, we are lost. When we are lost, it is easy to be frightened and to focus on security and survival, to look for threats, and to pull together into "safe" enclaves. A story of the larger human journey that awakens our collective imagination could take us into another direction -- it could serve as the social glue that pulls us together in common effort. We may think we do not have that story now -- so we tend to fall back on old policies, old histories, old customs, old institutions, and old dreams. However, the story we seek is already present in our direct life experience! We contain within ourselves the wisdom of what is most valuable to grow from adolescence into adulthood.
In the weeks ahead, I will explore other stories of "great transition" that are drawn from the open-source Great Transition Stories website.