The story of the twenty-first century may follow very different paths, depending on how we respond individually and collectively to the perils and opportunities of a globalizing world. Possible global scenarios fall into three broad channels flowing into the uncertain future: evolution, degeneration, and transformation. We call these Conventional Worlds, Barbarization, and Great Transitions.
Conventional Worlds are governed by the forces that have dominated globalization to date. Economic interdependence increases and consumerist values spread. Developing countries seek to emulate the patterns of production and consumption of the richer nations. Powerful global actors advance the priority of economic growth, while governments seek desperately to mute the mounting economic, social, and environmental stresses that unbridled markets induce. These dubious futures face a formidable obstacle—creating adequate global governance mechanisms in a world of conventional values and institutions.
Barbarization might emerge from the wreckage of Conventional Worlds. With market adaptations and policy reforms insufficient, a suite of interacting crises—climate change, cultural conflict, economic instability—reinforce and amplify each other. In response, powerful international forces intervene to impose an authoritarian order with harsh environmental mandates. The result is a kind of global apartheid with elites in protected enclaves and an impoverished majority outside. In this dark vision, the twenty-first century witnesses the erosion of civilized norms or, if chaos spirals out of control, the unmitigated collapse of institutions and culture.
Great Transitions envision, instead, a widespread rising of the world’s citizens for a fundamental shift in the model of development. The conventional values of individualism, consumerism, and domination of nature are gradually replaced by a new triad: solidarity, quality of life, and ecology. Solidarity becomes the foundation for a more egalitarian global civilization. Human fulfillment serves as the measure of well-being, displacing the narrow metric of GDP. An ecological sensibility grounds the collective project of healing the earth. With a widening recognition that we have entered the Planetary Phase of Civilization that takes us beyond nationalism, people seize globalization as an opportunity to forge a more cosmopolitan outlook and build transnational institutions of democratic participation. Within a context of global commitment, this is a pluralistic society that embraces diversity in regional cultures and multiple approaches to modernity. Over time, a sustainable, inclusive civilization emerges that allows humankind to thrive and prosper in a world of limits and planetary interdependence.