The human population has grown about fifty-fold in the last five hundred years, while world GDP has increased nearly 150-fold. As a result, humanity now occupies or exploits most of Earth’s productive surface area, creating a single, tightly linked social, economic, and ecological system spanning the planet. This system has dramatically improved our well-being: especially in the last century, rates of wretched poverty, infectious disease, and mass violence have all plummeted globally. In some ways, we are living in a Golden Age.

Yet threats to this collective wellbeing are now multiplying and combining in force. They include large disparities in human population growth between the world’s rich and poor regions, surging flows of migrants and refugees inside countries and across international borders, and economic distress within and between societies due to financial shocks, technological change, and widening inequalities of wealth and opportunity.

The threats also include worsening instabilities in key natural systems, such as Earth’s climate. As humanity’s immense resource consumption and pollution output push these systems out of equilibrium, coral reefs die; populations of mammals, birds, and insects, including pollinators, plummet; the Arctic ice cap shrinks; extraordinarily powerful storms ravage the world’s coastlines; droughts bake our croplands; and fires tear through the world’s forests. The impacts of these changes are unequally distributed, with poor and marginalized communities experiencing far greater burdens of disease and other harms.

People everywhere now see and feel these changes. They experience directly worsening economic insecurity, increasingly extreme weather, and often clouds of suffocating wildfire smoke that now regularly envelop enormous regions in Europe, North America, and Asia. So dark pessimism has infiltrated many societies. This shift in mood matters: when hundreds of millions if not billions of people become scared and resentful, the basic dynamic of humanity’s politics can shift abruptly, as we saw, for instance, during the Great Depression and its aftermath. Many people turn away from leaders who seem soft, incompetent, and beholden to powerful elite interests, and unable to come to grips with the problems affecting them, and turn towards those who are hard, angry, and decisive (yet often equally or more beholden to elite interests) and who declare they’ll protect families, communities, and nations with whatever means necessary.  Authoritarianism gains ground.

These changes are fraying the fabric of norms, treaties, and institutions that people worldwide have laboriously woven since the middle of the 19th century in innovative answer to world wars, genocides, financial crises, famines, pandemics, and environmental calamities. The fabric includes the Geneva Protocol banning the use of poison gas, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the World Health Organization, and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Threadbare even at its best, it’s now being shredded by neglect, underfunding, the outright hostility of many nations and, most importantly, the impunity enjoyed by those countries and leaders who regularly violate its makeshift moral framework.

Yet almost everywhere in the world, the academy’s response to these converging crises hasn’t matched their scale and urgency. Instead, whether in the natural or social sciences or the humanities, this response has been marked by sclerotic disciplinary divisions, intellectual turf wars, and the almost complete absence of break-the-boundaries imagination and creativity. And most fundamentally, it hasn’t generated the compelling ideas and practical solutions our current emergency demands.

The shortfall is largely a result of our poor understanding of the complex causal mechanisms of the planetary system in which we now live.

This natural-color satellite image was collected by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra satellite on July 05, 2015. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team. Caption: NASA/Goddard, Lynn Jenner

The Cascade Institute addresses this shortfall by:

  • studying, understanding, and communicating how the various environmental, economic, political, and technological threats confronting humanity interact as a complex system and how they must therefore be addressed systemically, not separately;
  • identifying intervention points of maximum leverage in these systems and also practical ways to exploit such intervention points—at all levels, from the local to the global—to achieve rapid, positive change; and,
  • generating clear and focused value added—in the form of scientific insights and practical solutions—that are distinct from, yet complementary to, the contributions of other research institutes around the world studying humanity’s crises.