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.
If catastrophic outcomes for humanity are increasingly likely, a response portfolio must include a comprehensive search for “breakout” interventions that would have big-and-fast effects. But public and private sector leaders, policymakers, and activists working on critical problems like the climate crisis often can’t see the full landscape of opportunities for positive change. They’re deeply embedded in their work, under constant deadline pressure, and confronted with complex, rapidly evolving, and inadequately understood strategic environments. As a result, they tend to become locked into patterns of problem solving that favor incremental solutions. While such solutions might be feasible, they’re rarely enough.
The Cascade Institute provides these front-line leaders with analysis to help them see the landscape better, so they can dramatically magnify their impact. It scans current cognitive, institutional, and technological systems to identify “tipping point” interventions that could shift global civilization’s path away from calamity. Then, working with partner organizations, it examines the most promising possibilities in great depth to develop specific intervention strategies.