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.

Now, study after study indicates that if humanity stays on its current path, the confluence of these global stresses will cause devastating harm by disrupting vital natural systems, crippling economies, deepening social divisions, and ultimately generating widespread societal breakdown and violence.

If such catastrophic outcomes are increasingly likely, a response portfolio must include a comprehensive search for interventions with potentially big-and-fast effects. Yet such break-out possibilities are largely invisible to our societies, because prevailing institutions and locked-in patterns of thinking and problem solving almost always favor incremental solutions. While incremental solutions might be socially, economically, and technologically feasible, they are rarely, even when taken together, remotely enough.

NASA, EOSDIS, September 12, 2020

Also, the civil society organizations, community leaders, youth activists, policymakers, and faith and business leaders working to address critical problems like the climate crisis are both deeply embedded and over-extended. So they often cannot clearly see the full landscape of opportunities for positive change that surrounds them. They confront rapidly evolving strategic environments and complex, inadequately understood interactions with other crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability, and deepening political polarization.

The Cascade Institute is designed to fill these gaps in practical knowledge. It identifies intervention points in cognitive, institutional, and technological systems that, if effectively exploited, could shift global civilization away from calamity and towards fair and sustainable prosperity. And it provides frontline leaders with the analysis and tools they need to influence the complex conditions in which they operate, rank their priorities, and maximize their impacts.