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The Great Transition
As we see our present interconnected global challenges of
widespread environmental degradation, crippling poverty, social
inequities, and unrestrained militarism, we know that the obstacles to
the flourishing of life’s ecosystems and to genuine sustainable
development are considerable.
In the midst of these formidable challenges we are being called to
the next stage of evolutionary history. For the evolutionary life
impulse moves us forward from viewing ourselves as isolated individuals
and competing nation states to realizing our collective presence as a
species on the planet. The human community has the capacity now to
realize our intrinsic unity in the midst of enormous diversity. And,
most especially, it has the opportunity to see this unity as arising
from the dynamics of the evolutionary process itself.
Our sense of the whole is emerging in a fresh way as we feel
ourselves embraced by the evolutionary powers unfolding over time into
forms of ever-greater complexity and consciousness. We are realizing
too, that evolution moves forward with transitions, such as the movement
from inorganic matter to organic life and from single celled organisms
to plants and animals, that sweep through the evolutionary unfolding of
the universe, the earth, and the human. All such transitions come at
times of crisis, they involve tremendous cost, and they result in new
forms of creativity. The central reality of our times is that we are
in such a transition moment.
We are in a transition from an era dominated by competing nation
states to one that is birthing a sustainable multicultural planetary
civilization. This birth is beginning to take place within the context
of our emerging understanding of the universe story. At the same time
that we are discovering the story of evolution, we are also realizing
that we are destroying the life systems of the planet.
Evolutionary Dynamics of the Simple to the More Complex.
The difficult transition we are making to a sustainable planetary
civilization is profoundly coherent with the evolutionary dynamics of
the universe. Drawing on the history of the evolution of the universe
and Earth we can see both the cost and creativity of transitions.
The greatest discovery in the history of humanity is that of the
birth and development of the universe. Four hundred years of modern
science has culminated in our understanding of cosmic, biological,
terrestrial, and human evolution. We can summarize this by saying that
13.7 billion years ago the universe began with a great explosion of
light and elementary particles that, over time, complexified into
giraffes, rosebuds, and humans.
We have learned not only the historical details of the mainline of
this cosmic evolution; we have also acquired some understanding of the
fundamental forces that brought about this evolution. These forces or
processes are invisible to us and yet they shape so much of what takes
place all around us. These are the forces of gravitation and
electromagnetic interactions, as well as the strong and weak nuclear
forces. By studying them in isolation in the laboratory, we have learned
the details of these interactions, but, with our discovery of cosmic
and biological evolution, we can now see these processes from the point
of view of the large-scale universe.
We are, just now, coming to understand the processes of the
universe primarily as self-organizing dynamics aimed at developing
complex structures. This development always comes with a cost. We are
now able to appreciate this from our deepening knowledge of evolution.
When the universe was very young, only a million years old, it
consisted predominantly of hydrogen and helium atoms billowing out in
great clouds that filled the universe from one end to the other. One
can imagine such a scene unfolding for all eternity. But that was not to
While the clouds were hot they continued to expand, even though
their gravitational attraction pulled them in the opposite direction.
But as the atoms cooled sufficiently, they arrived at a state in which
the gravitational attraction could overcome the thermal expansion. The
cloud would now collapse under its own gravitational pull, everything
being drawn into a point. But in this crisis situation of extreme
temperatures, a surprising twist took place. At temperatures of 10
million degrees, hydrogen began fusing together to form helium. In
this fusion process mass was converted into energy, so a new burst of
energy appeared at the center of the cloud. A new system had emerged
that would be called, billions of year later, a star.
Concerning this process of complexification, it is worth noting
that a single atom cannot produce a star. Nor can a million atoms.
It requires trillions of atoms, and when such a cloud of atoms reaches
an extreme state of temperature there is the possibility of the
emergence of a more complex system. This more complex system can avoid
the destruction of total collapse, but there is a cost. The cost is
the loss of hydrogen through its conversion into helium. Those
hydrogen atoms are lost, being needed for the energy to stave off total
collapse. But out of all this there is the creativity of bringing
forth a new being. A star is composed of atoms but is so very
different from an atom. A star has its life cycles: its birth, its
development into maturity, and its death as it exhausts all its atoms
These same dynamics of the universe are also at work in the
evolution of life, biological and human. They show themselves most
clearly in a moment of crisis.
Transformations in Human History
Just as we can see the great transitions in evolutionary history
from smaller units to ones of larger complexity, so too can we identify
some of the significant transition moments into greater complexity in
human history. Our own period is experiencing such a major transition
from that of separate nation states to a sustainable multicultural
Twentieth century historians of world history have helped us take
in the sweep of human presence on the planet—brief as it is in relation
to evolutionary time. The first major transition occurs when nomadic
hunter and gatherers, after 100,000 years, settled into more complex
agricultural villages10,000 years ago. These villages cohered into more
developed societies, which in turn gave birth to the great classical
civilizations along the river valleys of the Nile, the Tigris and
Euphrates, the Indus, and the Yellow Rivers, some 5,000 years ago.
Our current transition to forming a planetary civilization began
2,000 years ago with the linking of the great Eurasian landmass through
trade along the Silk Road. The Roman Empire and the Han Chinese Empire
initiated this intricate exchange of ideas and goods. A further step
toward the creation of planetary civilization emerged when these trading
connections exploded from land routes to sea routes with the Columbian
expansion out of Europe 500 years ago.
Our recent understanding of world history shows us that these
interactions included a significant cost. In all of these exchanges
there existed both a dialogue and a clash of civilizations. So too, in
our own period, we are participating in the intensification of the
transition toward planetary civilization. We find ourselves poised
between persistent conflict and the hope of mutually beneficial exchange
and dialogue among individuals and communities, and among different
cultures and religions.
This creative process of historical exchange reached a new level of
intensity several hundred years ago with the scientific and industrial
revolutions. With the explosion of population, with our search for food
and resources, and with increased industrial-technological power, our
presence has become overbearing. As the February 2005 Millennium Ecosystems Assessment Report
made abundantly clear, the planet is now being encircled by an
industrial-technological juggernaut that is extinguishing the very
foundations on which life depends.
Within the last 50 years the clash of humans, not only with each
other but also with the planet, has become especially heightened. The
widespread destruction of topsoil, pollution of air and water, and the
loss of species, is beyond the capacity of the individual nation states
to handle and of the Earth to absorb. The challenge now is to construct a
responsive civilization that is truly planetary in its scope and
sustainable in its functioning.
In looking at the historical record, the transition from smaller
and disparate states to greater units required the provision of internal
coherence and ecological stability. This was true, for instance, 2000
years ago in the early formation of China. The first emperor of China
created economic, political, and cultural unity out of disparate ethnic
groups. Economically, he standardized currency and weights and
measurements. Politically, he instituted the civil service exam system,
based on the Confucian classics, to insure that qualified and moral
ministers would rule the country. This was the first such meritocracy of
its kind and was much admired by the French Enlightenment thinkers.
Culturally, Confucian humanism was linked to political rule in order to
create a broad sense of Chinese identity across the vast geography and
among the far-flung peoples of China. The transition from differentiated
states to a unified civilization, from diverse ethnic groups to the Han
Chinese people, was consciously crafted using human ingenuity and
statecraft. The struggle to maintain the larger unity was threatened at
times, yet this unity successfully continued for two millennia. This
long-lived cohesion was also based on sustainable agriculture and
irrigation practices, in addition to economic, political, and culture
All of the great empires of human history faced similar challenges
of creating larger and more complex units. This was accomplished through
a sense of power and privilege, as well as with the dazzling spread of
art and culture. The transition from the age of empires to the age of
nation states has occurred in the blink on an eye—hardly 200 years since
the French revolution and the emergence of nation states in Europe,
Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We are now entering a period that is
beyond the nation state as a privileged unit, to the Earth community as a
In our present post war period, we have a remarkable example of
that movement from clashing states to a cooperative whole. Two world
wars have resulted in the European Union (EU), in which the individual
nation states of Europe are finding their way toward a larger common
good in political and economic union. As imperfect as this may be, and
as challenging as it still is to find cultural unity, it is an important
illustration of what is happening on a larger planetary scale. Namely,
we are at a moment in history when we can imagine that our common good
as a species, rests on care for our common ground, the Earth. Ignited by
collective purpose, the European Union is an illustration of how we are
moving toward a larger unity, guided by a sense of shared destiny.
Beyond world wars and the cold war, there beckons the sense of a larger
planetary whole—an emerging, multiform, planetary civilization. It is
in participating in this transition moment that we will fulfill our role
as humans on behalf of future generations.
Mary Evelyn Tucker was a Professor of Religion at Bucknell University until 2005 where she taught courses in Asian religions and Religion and Ecology. From 1993 – 1996 she was a National Endowment for the Humanities Chair at Bucknell. She is currently Research Associate at the Harvard-Yenching Institute.
Fall | Winter 2016