‘Global Phase Shift’ as a New Systems Framework for Collective Intelligence
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‘Global Phase Shift’ as a New Systems Framework for Collective Intelligence

I've just submitted a new research paper to 'Foresight', a major peer-reviewed journal for the study of the future. The paper is a scientific synthesis of my theory of the 'global phase shift' - the key subject of this newsletter. Will welcome your thoughts!

  • Nafeez M Ahmed
59 min read
Nafeez M Ahmed

Below, I'm making available the full draft of my new academic research paper setting out the scientific, empirical and conceptual basis of 'Global Phase Shift' theory as a new systems framework to understand, well, basically 'everything' going on in the world right now.

Currently under review at the journal Foresight, this paper encapsulates the cutting edge of my current systems approach, underpinning both my writing and consulting. It shows that global civilisation is in the midst of the deepest transformation in human history, one that signals both the inevitable demise of the fossil fuel era and the possibility of a new postmaterialist ecological civilisation unleashing previously inconceivable levels of prosperity within planetary boundaries: and it reveals that this precise inflection point is what's responsible for the key social, political and cultural trends of our times, both hopeful and destabilising. We fail to understand this process at our own peril.

The paper is still a work in progress, and in many ways provokes a whole array of new questions which I could not address in the paper itself. But I want to make it available here now, in draft pre-review form (it's gone through a preliminary editorial review process and is about to enter into peer-review). I'll really appreciate your thoughts and feedback.

It's long and dense, but I think it will help provide you a powerful whole systems lens that, once digested, will be indispensable. So I suggest, if you're so inclined, to sit down with this and spend some time with it over a few days with copious cups of tea, coffee or your beverage of choice.

‘Global Phase Shift’ as a New Systems Framework to Navigate The Evolutionary Transformation of Human Civilisation Between Collapse and Renewal

Paper under review by Foresight: The Journal of Futures Studies, peer-reviewed journal published by Emerald Global Publishers


Global phase shift theory offers a new collective forward intelligence framework for foresight study and practice, formalising the notion that humanity has arrived at an unprecedented historical and geological turning point. It is based on a transdisciplinary integration of C. S. Holling’s adaptive cycle with phase-transition phenomena across biology, physics and chemistry, applied on societal and civilisational scales. Using a systems methodology to integrate empirical data across the energy, food, transport, materials and information sectors of civilisation’s production system, the proliferation of multiple global crises across both earth and human systems is shown to be a symptom of moving into the last stages of the life-cycle of global industrialisation civilisation as part of a whole system global phase shift, which in turn is the potential precursor either for collapse, or for a new civilisational life-cycle that may represent a new stage in the biological and cultural evolution of the human species. This new life-cycle could comprise a new postmaterialist ecological civilisation unleashing an unprecedented possibility space for an Age of Abundance within planetary boundaries. Breaking through to this new potential civilisational life-cycle, however, requires a fundamental reorganisation of the governance, economy, politics, culture, worldview and value-system of our societies, along with an acceleration of the deployment of key technologies.


Humanity faces an unprecedented convergence of global crises cutting across society, geopolitics, energy, the environment, the economy and food systems, among the core features of which is rapid and exponential change.

Climate change is widely recognised as a pre-eminent global crisis, due to credible projections of major risks to the continued functioning of societies, economies, food systems and even civilisation itself well within this century, and in some cases within a matter of decades. Of less visibility in policy and scientific literature is the intersecting risks from related crises developing within global energy, economic and food systems.

Of even lesser visibility is how these escalating and often exponential trends are related to and interact with exponential trends across politics, culture and technology. In the latter, for instance, technology disruptions in the energy, transport, and information sectors are scaling exponentially with actual and potentially revolutionary consequences for society. Similarly, rapid, exponential and highly disruptive change has become a hallmark of cultural, political and geopolitical events across both national life and the wider international system.

Despite a growing recognition of the need for trans-disciplinarity, multi-sectoral analysis and holistic systems thinking, foresight methods and tools such as horizon scanning, megatrend analysis and scenario development remain hampered by a disciplinary specialisation and fragmentation that fails to capture the whole-systemic complexities at play. (Saritas, 2013)

As societies have increased in complexity, foresight studies and activities have widened and proliferated, resulting in a huge diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches. While creating a rich theoretical base, the lack of a unifying framework has in turn led to foresight studies suffering from mixed efficacy. (Miles, 2003; Minkkinen, 2020) Many of these approaches are further shaped by the political and economic context of the institutions deploying foresight methods. As a result, instead of providing insights into the potential of the future, foresight studies can end up simply reflecting the structures that inform the present, with scenario modelling leading to exploratory narratives that refract and unconsciously reinforce prevailing assumptions. “Perhaps foresight, or the social systems which engage it, are in need of reinvention to produce better plans for the future”, concludes Neels. (Neels, 2020)

As foresight studies has attempted to come to grips with these limitations, a major focus has been on a constructivist solution based on exploring the knowledge production methodologies within the discipline, rather than grounding foresight methods in the empirical study of the systems which foresight studies attempts to understand. (Bialystok University of Technology and Magruk, 2020)

This paper suggests that the crucial remedy for this is to develop unifying ‘collective forward intelligence’ frameworks grounded in systems thinking. However, this requires a somewhat distinctive approach to conventional efforts at integrating systems theory into foresight studies. These approaches tend to focus on ‘systems mapping’ methodologies which demonstrate connections and feedback loops between seemingly disparate entities – however, they often do so in the absence of a robust theoretical and empirical framework to understand the specific rules and properties of the systems and entities being mapped. This can often result in system maps of proliferating complexity which, due to their impenetrable nature, are increasingly difficult to actually inform concrete decision-making. (Craven, 2020) Limitations, barriers, and blind spots that are specific to prevailing social, political and economic structures can mean that efforts to map systems end up reifying those structures rather than illuminating the systems by which they are actually constituted. (Heesen et al., 2014)

This paper attempts to address this challenge by developing a new ‘collective forward intelligence’ approach based on integrating multiple, empirically-grounded systems frameworks at different levels of analysis into a single whole-system conceptual framework. This framework can be used to not only make sense of the trends and processes described above as symptoms of a wider global system, but to construct accurate and plausible future scenarios on this basis to underpin national and international decision-making. It can also be continuously adjusted and corrected based on new empirical data, and in turn theoretically reconceptualised to adapt to that data.

Drawing on key concepts derived from the study of dynamic system changes in evolutionary biology, chemistry and physics (Heffern et al., 2021), as well as in human societies and civilisations, this paper advances the transdisciplinary theory of the ‘global phase shift’ (Ahmed, 2017) as a ‘collective forward intelligence’ framework capturing current major systemic drivers of global change, the possibilities, risks and opportunities these drivers are opening, and the implications for societal decision-making. The theory of the global phase shift suggests that over the next two decades human civilisation is experiencing a fundamental socio-ecological, cultural and technological metamorphosis oriented around the demise of fossil fuels that could result in a range of scenarios from societal simplification and collapse, to renewal and evolution. (Ahmed, 2010) This can provide a more theoretically and empirically robust foundation for the deployment of traditional foresight methods to support decision-making.


The first part of this paper puts forward CS Holling’s four-stage adaptive cycle framework from the study of multiple biological systems as the conceptual blueprint for a new theoretical framework to understand societal and civilisation change. Doing so suggests that human civilisation can be conceptualised as a planetary-scale biological system or energy-dissipating ‘superorganism’ (Hagens, 2020) moving through the last stages of its current life-cycle transitioning from ‘release’ to ‘reorganisation’ – culminating in either the demise of the system, or its regeneration for a new life-cycle.

Holling’s work demonstrates that the adaptive cycle is a defining feature of the evolutionary life-cycle of living systems. This chapter explores new empirical work suggesting that it is also widely applicable to understanding the dynamics of human societies. Sociologists and economists are increasingly demonstrating that the adaptive cycle can be used to make sense of system dynamics within human systems, such as organisational structures, economies and societies.

The second chapter integrates Holling’s adaptive cycle with the scientific concept of a ‘phase-transition’ derived from the empirical study of diverse physical systems – a fundamental reordering of the system under external pressures involving inherent uncertainty and entailing the emergence of new rules and properties. That allows the large-scale planetary process of a civilisational life-cycle to be understood as the unfolding of multiple simultaneous phase-transitions across major defining sub-systems of both the earth system, and the human system, cumulatively comprising the global phase shift. However, this suggests that the final outcome of each ‘phase-transition’ and the cumulative global phase shift during the last two stages of the current adaptive cycle of human civilisation, cannot yet be known and depends on key human choices at multiple scales. This illuminates central leverage points and intervention opportunities in the context of the global phase shift that foresight methods should focus on.

This chapter thus attempts to show how an integrated conceptualisation of the starting and end points of the adaptive cycle as higher-order phase transitions throws light on the systemic interconnections between societal, ecological and technological change. Extensive data from environmental sciences demonstrates that multiple ecosystems on which the stability of the Holocene has depended and considered essential for the survival of the human species are now facing phase-transition tipping points through which the pressures of human activities are forcing these critical ecosystems to tip over into new configurations that decrease the ‘safe operating space’ for humanity.

Data also reveals that human civilisation is experiencing a series of fundamental phase-transitions across every foundational sector of its production system (energy, transport, food, information and materials); and that these are coinciding with major reorderings of the organising systems of human civilisation and society (from major political dislocations, to geopolitical reorderings such as the end of unipolarity and rise of multipolarity; as well as the spread of culture wars and political polarisation). Together, these multiple simultaneous phase-transitions across the human system and the earth system provide compelling empirical confirmation of a comprehensive transformation of human civilisation captured in the concept of the ‘global phase shift’.

The third chapter draws on the theoretical work of Stephanie Wakefield to explore how this empirical data can be used to understand current global megatrends as symptomatic of historically and systemically specific features associated with the so-called ‘backloop’ of Holling’s adaptive cycle – that is, the last two stages of release and reorganisation. This chapter further critically examines a range of technology forecasting approaches that can anticipate which technologies and industries will become dominant, and which will be disrupted. While most technology-based foresight projections are often too reductionist – with some verging on unjustified techno-optimism – when seen through the lens of global phase shift theory, they suggest that the production system of human civilisation over the next few decades will be transformed by new and emerging industries (such as renewable energy, precision fermentation, and AI) that will lead to a new equilibrium with two potential consequences: either a breakdown in civilisational capabilities, or the emergence of higher capabilities.

Cumulatively, the possibility of leveraging these disruptions to reorganise the human system into an energetically and ecologically regenerative superorganism is now visible, identified as ‘The Great Leap’ by the Club of Rome (Dixson-Decleve et al., 2022). Global phase shift theory shows that technological disruptions are central to the coming obsolescence of fossil fuels. However, global phase shift theory also shows that technological change will not determine the outcome, which instead depends on whether organisational structures of human societies (encompassing governance, economics, culture, worldviews and ethical values) are able to adapt to this historically unprecedented combination of technological change and earth system disruption. (Wajcman, 2002)

In the discussion and conclusions, I argue that global phase shift theory provides an empirically-robust systems framework by which to understand the drivers of accelerating uncertainty and change in coming decades, and to anticipate potential scenarios by which to guide decision-making at all levels.

1.The Adaptive Cycle

The pattern of change in diverse ecosystems

The linchpin of this paper is the adaptive cycle framework developed by systems ecologists Crawford Holling and Lance Gunderson to capture the long-term dynamics of change in ecological and social-ecological systems ranging from cells to ecosystems to societies. Derived from the study of a wide range of different ecosystems including forests, predator-prey relations and population dynamics across different animal species, the adaptive cycle provides a powerful conceptual model for how different ecological systems transform at multiple scales.

The adaptive cycle consists of four phases which characterise the distinct behavioural features of how the system acts to grow, structure, decline, or reorganise. Though sometimes described with slight variation across the literature, for the most part the four phases of the adaptive cycle are the “r” (exploitation or growth) phase, the “K” (energy conservation) phase, the “Ω” (release or collapse) phase, and the “α” (reorganisation) phase. All living systems appear to move through these phases in their life cycle. (Allen and Holling, 2010)

Fig 1. Visualisation of Holling’s adaptive cycle. Source: (Castell and Schrenk, 2020)

For a forest, for instance, in the ‘r’ phase the adaptive cycle begins with the rapid growth of new species of trees in a recently cleared environment, premised on exploiting available resources. In this phase, there are fast-emerging new points of connection, interconnection and relationship across a forest structure that is quickly taking shape.

As the vegetation becomes denser, and the linkages within the system proliferate, the forest moves into the ‘K’ phase, a slower-growing state of conservation. During this phase, the forest system takes on a robust and defined form, that becomes increasingly stable within, and highly adapted to, a limited number of conditions in its immediate environment.

However, as the forest ecosystem grows, it trades resilience for efficiency, preferring to reuse existing structures to increase connectivity. Eventually, an environmental disruption occurs that changes the wider landscape to which the existing structure of the forest system is adapted. The “Ω” phase begins as the forest collapses to a simpler state. Materials and energy that had been previously accumulated are now released.

Within this clearing, there is now a space for renewal and uncertainty. Novel combinations of new forest species spring up in the fourth and final “α” phase, as they mobilise new information about the environmental conditions, harnessing solar energy and translating this into new material adaptions utilising the resources of the old forest.

This provides the groundwork for in a rapid new “r” phase of phase, thus leading to a new life cycle for the forest system.

Among Holling’s great insights was that the capability to move through the adaptive cycle is a key feature of resilience in living systems. The circle of life consists of a complex web of different species, different complex adaptive systems, all of which are integrally interrelated through adaptive cycles of growth, stabilisation, decline and renewal.

The pattern of change in human societies?

The adaptive cycle framework has been widely applied in the study of diverse ecological systems. Yet there remains a key question as to whether there is any firm empirical evidence suggesting that it can be usefully applied to human societies. An increasing number of studies show that the adaptive cycle is such a ubiquitous feature of the natural world that it applies to a wide range of phenomena across complex systems in human societies, including technology, organisations, the global economy, and human civilisation as a whole. This suggests that the adaptive cycle is not simply a useful conceptual model, but a powerful framework capturing the thermodynamics of fundamental physical processes as they unfold at different scales across systems from cells to societies. (Fath et al., 2015)

The adaptive cycle has been found to be ubiquitous across complex adaptive systems at all scales. Thermodynamic indicators can now be used to quantity the operation of the adaptive cycle at these scales. (Sundstrom and Allen, 2019) The adaptive cycle has been identified to be operating within organisations and institutions, within national economies and across the global economy. A wide range of complex human social systems exhibit dynamics which can be understood using the adaptive cycle. (Rogers, 2017) Several studies show that the adaptive cycle could provide an accurate framework for understanding the evolution of human civilisation as a dynamic process involving constant interaction and feedback loops between human society, its energy and food consumption, and wider environmental conditions. (Rosen and Rivera-Collazo, 2012)

The adaptive cycle framework has been used to explain the rise, fall and behaviours of  a wide diversity of human societies and institutions, including: human hunter-gatherer communities (Thompson and Turck, 2009); pre-Neolithic human societies in western central Europe (Gronenborn et al., 2014); Maya civilisation (Dunning et al., 2012); tropical civilisations in Southeast Asia (Faulseit, 2016); and even polities in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee in the United States (Hally and Chamblee, 2019).

Fig 2. Adaptive cycle mapped chronologically

Research gaps

Despite this, there has been little metatheoretical work exploring how the adaptive cycle can explain the undulating patterns of growth and collapse across human civilisation as a whole, conceived as one of the largest social-ecological systems on the planet, and its implications for global industrial civilisation. The systems approaches that have been used so far in a more global capacity tend to be constrained by rigid system modelling assumptions. We therefore require a more flexible theoretical framework which is attentive to empirical facts and capable of being applied to a range of historically-specific circumstances. (Løvschal, 2022)

One exception to this is research by Stephanie Wakefield, which uses the adaptive cycle as a “heuristic device” to explore the emerging socio-behavioural dynamics of the “Anthropocene” – the concept some geologists use to categorise our current times as a whole new geological epoch defined fundamentally by the impact of the human species on planetary systems (Wakefield, 2018).

Wakefield points out that the four phases of the “adaptive cycle” can be seen as two distinctive but interconnected ‘loops’ of movement: “a front loop of growth and stability and a back loop of release and reorganisation.” Although traditionally applied to local and regional ecosystem dynamics, it can be applied on a planetary scale: “Are we in a ‘deep back loop’ that presents the same opportunities and crises as the regional back-loop studies that we have described?” 

Global civilisation is now experiencing parallel escalation of environmental crises and political disruption – from “anthropogenic-induced tipping points crossed or neared” to a new era of “riots, revolutions, local experiments and social movements from left to right”. These phenomena suggest that the life-cycle of human civilisation is entering the stages of release and reorganisation, in which the old order unravels while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for the emergence of the next life-cycle: “If the front loop was the ‘safe operating space’ of the Anthropocene… this complex, nonlinear ‘post-truth’ world of fragmentation, fracture, dissolution, and transfiguration is what I propose we call the Anthropocene back loop.”

Adopting this lens permits the destruction of the old order to be conceptualised as integral to the emergence of unprecedented possibilities for the emergence of a new ‘front loop’ related to the next emerging life-cycle of civilisation. Wakefield suggests that the Anthropocene then appears “not as a tragic End or world of ruins, but a scrambling where possibility is present and the future more open than typically imagined.” This repositioning of the human condition within the framework of the ‘back loop’ opens up space to envisage this as part of a longer historical series of civilisational cycles of decline and renewal, in which the task ahead is for human societies to embrace their role in activating and enhancing the possibilities for civilisational renewal.

In the back loop, encompassing the third and fourth stages of the adaptive cycle, everything is up for grabs — not just old infrastructures, but also political ideologies and assumed philosophical realities: “What the back loop suggests to us is that the Anthropocene is now a time to explore, to let go — of foundations for thinking and acting — and open ourselves to the possibilities offered to us here and now. This is an ‘unsafe’ operating space because we have passed thresholds already, but also because there are no blueprints, no transcendents, no guarantees, and no assurances: the only thing to do is become creators of new values and new answers.”

As insightful as this heuristic approach is, it is a largely discursive one that lacks a coherent systems-grounding which is able to substantiate the delineation of the current era as part of this ‘backloop’ of release and reorganisation. To render the adaptive cycle useful for foresight studies requires integrating it into a wider scientific and theoretical framework which can capture the specific ecological, social, political, technological and cultural trends of our current era accurately, while illuminating the new possibilities these trends are apparently opening up.

2.Phase transitions and S curve dynamics

The adaptive cycle can be situated in the context of well-known phase transition dynamics regularly observed across physical systems. The idea of ‘phase-transitions’ comes from the extensive study of physical and biological systems and how they change. A ‘phase-transition’ occurs when a system undergoes a fundamental change of state, due to a “sharp transition” in the degree of organisation within the system as a result of changing external conditions or pressures.

At the small scale of physical and biological systems, the parameters that scientists use to understand what ‘phase’ a system is in – the level of organisation it exhibits – involves physical forces ranging from temperature to magnetism. However, phase transition theory is increasingly being used to understand large-scale complex ecological systems, including population dynamics. (Heffern et al., 2021)

Applied more precisely to the adaptive cycle framework, an adaptive cycle can be understood as the whole life-cycle of a particular system, whose behaviour is defined by a distinctive set of rules and properties, equivalent to its ‘phase’ or level of organisation. In this context, the birth of a new adaptive cycle can be understood as a phase transition defined by the emergence of new life cycle, at first rapidly growing and forming new interconnections and relationships which form the overarching structure or phase of the entire system. In the second stage, conservation, the system becomes more stable and defined. However, in the third stage energy and materials are increasingly released as systemic fragility gives way to breakdown and collapse. At this point, a new phase transition begins as the old structure of the system enters a state of flux and indeterminacy, entering a period of accelerating decline. Eventually that creates space for the emergence of a new system defined by a new organisational phase.

Given that all systems can either be recognised as comprising smaller interlocking networks of sub-systems, and further any system is ultimately a part of a wider system, adaptive cycles and phase-transitions occur at multiple, overlapping scales. The overall adaptive cycle of an ecological system will depend on the extent to which its constituent sub-systems all enter into phase transitions which culminate in fundamental reordering of their respective phases. When every single component sub-system of a higher order system enters into phase transition, then the rules and properties that define that whole system will be subjected to fundamental reordering.

This means that the precise chronology of the adaptive cycle for the current phase of human civilisation can be delineated based on key indicators derived from how the whole organisational phase of human civilisation is defined. These key indicators consist of the core overlapping systems whose structures are foundational to determining the overall system properties of the wider human system as a whole: systems of production, economy, politics, military and culture. Rather than the overall structure of the system being chronically overdetermined by, or reducible to, one of these systems, the rules and properties of the whole system are defined emergently by the complex interaction of all these sub-systems. This means that system changes in one sector will transmit across and drive changes across all other sectors; and vice versa. (Ahmed, 2010; Mann, 2012a, 2012b, 1986)

A civilisation’s phase is therefore defined by the total nexus between its systems of production (the systems by which it produces commodities to meet human material needs) and the way these systems are governed, regulated and managed by society (through economic, political, military, cultural and ideological structures and values). In their seminal study, Rethinking Humanity, Arbib and Seba integrate a wealth of historical literature to develop a compelling unifying theory of the rise and fall of civilisations in history. They argue that the growth of new civilisations was driven by innovations affecting the production system of a civilisation, comprised of five “foundational sectors”: how we create and share knowledge (information), eat (food), get around (transport), power ourselves (energy) as well as extract and make things (materials). A civilisation’s five-sector production system supplies the totality of a society’s material needs. These sectors are foundational because they can be found at the core of all other production sectors of a society, which are their sub-sectors. (Arbib and Seba, 2020)

However, while expanding production was the driving force of a civilisation’s capacity to grow (leading to military conquest for territorial expansion), the factors determining its ability to survive depend on what Arbib and Seba define as a civilisation’s “organising system”. The organising system co-evolves with its production system and defines how that civilisation understands the world and governs behavior, encompassing models of thought, belief systems, social systems, political systems, economic systems, and governance structures which impact ways of thinking, seeing and making decisions at individual, institutional and collective scales. How civilisations developed their organising systems played the key role in determining whether a civilisation was able to successfully manage and regulate the production system, which in turn would prefigure its capacity to survive and expand, and shape the final design or phase of the civilisation. Societies which failed to adapt to both the new material capabilities of their production system and emerging environmental conditions faced collapse, while those that succeeded broke through to new vistas of possibility. (Arbib and Seba, 2020)

Fig 3. Organizing System’s Interconnection with Technology. Source: (Arbib and Seba, 2020)

This framework suggests that a civilisation’s trajectory can be unpacked by exploring the phase transition dynamics across its foundational systems of production (energy, transport, food, information, and materials) as well as its defining organisational systems (politics, economy, culture, ideology and ethics).

While this can be difficult to measure quantitatively for organisational systems, production system changes can be more accurately mapped using more well-known foresight tools such as technology cost-curves and adoption data. Technology studies show that successful technologies scale disruptively along a nonlinear sigmoidal or S-shaped curve driven by fundamental economic dynamics. Regularities displaying a clear link between an exponential decrease in cost and an exponential increase in production are visible across 62 different technologies. (Nagy et al., 2013)

Fig. 4 Technology disruptions exhibit a decline of the old parallel with the exponential adoption of the new. Source: (Arbib and Seba, 2020)

As costs decline while capabilities improve, the tool or technology will often scale as quickly as between 15 and 30 years, though it can also take between 50 and 100 years depending on the context. Today, technology cost-improvement curves show the rate at which a given technology improves over time, driven by a combination of factors, including increased investments, research and development, manufacturing scale, experience and learning effects, openness, competition, standards, ecosystem integration, application across industries and the size of the market(s). By understanding the nonlinear technology cost curves of the product, it is possible to anticipate when the product will disrupt an existing product in the market. (Seba, 2016)

The greater value proposition offered by such disruptive technologies outcompetes and disrupts any products, services, markets, and industries that are wedded to older technologies. The new technologies tend to both expand existing markets and create entirely new ones by supporting novel business models and forms of value creation. Technology disruptions tend to confound conventional analysts and industry experts whose forecasts and projections misunderstand their speed, scale, and transformative dynamics due to the way they converge with and disrupt social, economic and cultural organisational structures. (Seba, 2016)

While the Arbib and Seba technology thesis is powerful and non-reductive due to its recognition of wider social and organisational dynamics, its utility for foresight studies requires a more direct integration with Holling’s adaptive cycle framework and a wider view of the interconnections between the earth system and human system. Doing so generates key insights about the global phase shift dynamics of the current era. Ultimately, as technologies are not things in themselves but merely material extensions of human activity – derived from natural resources and designed to advance human capabilities to supply material needs – the rise and fall of different technologies is not only intimately related to the rise and fall of societies, but therefore consistently follows its own adaptive cyclical patterns.

As a technology scales within a given society or civilisation, it grows rapidly and exponentially – as part of the growth stage of the adaptive cycle of that civilisation – before gradually saturating the market and reaching stability. At this point, key technologies, whether in energy, transport, food, information or materials, will increasingly define the material structure and capabilities of a society or civilisation as it becomes more ubiquitous. However, technology only delineates a society’s potential material capabilities. Ultimately, the Arbib and Seba thesis indicates that the society’s organising system decisions will determine the extent to which it is able to manage, regulate and distribute the benefits from these material capabilities. This opens up the space for Wakefield’s focus on human agency in determining the way in which new material possibilities are organised.

The system reaches a de facto peak during the second stage of conservation, at which point it reaches a period of homeostasis where positive and negative feedback loops within the system appear to balance each other out. This homeostasis, however, becomes unbalanced in the context of new forces disrupting the status quo balance. Within the earth system, this can consist of new environmental disturbances related to the structure of the system and how it interacts with its environment (e.g. climate change); within the human system it can consist of a range of issues such as disrupted energy flows, or major (geo)political perturbations (Ahmed, 2017); and it can also consist of the emergence of major new technologies of production across energy, transport, food, information and materials with improved costs and capabilities.

The escalation and convergence of these new forces rapidly moves the system out of equilibrium. In particular, the convergence of new competitive technologies of production with wider social and earth system disruptions drives the incumbent technologies into decline. This wider holistic framework suggests that this process cannot be viewed technocentrically. The decline of incumbent technologies coincides with the disruption of the political, economic, cultural, ideological and ethical structures that evolved to manage them. As the old technology-organising system nexus moves deeper into obsolescence, this clears the way for a new technology-organising system nexus to emerge in the fourth stage of reorganisation, although this is by no means an inevitability and depends on contingent historical circumstances and societal choices. That in turn paves the way for the emergence of a new adaptive cycle. The new adaptive cycle will then consist of a completely new system phase, with distinctive rules and properties which are premised on novel technologies and radically different organising structures by which to manage them.

3.Defining the Anthropocene backloop

This framework provides the basis for identifying the order parameters by which we can determine the chronology of the current adaptive cycle of human civilisation based on a survey of its historical evolution over the last several hundred years. In this chapter, we marshal a range of historical and empirical data to explore how we can integrate the adaptive cycle framework with the theoretical models elaborated here to make sense of the evolution of global industrial civilisation.

It is worth bearing in mind here that the adaptive cycle framework should not be used rigidly to categorise the different stages of a civilisational life-cycle, but rather to understand the dynamics of that life-cycle as an overall evolutionary process.

Stage 1: Growth/Exploitation

While many scholars define the Anthropocene as beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a more accurate approach situates its origins at the dawn of modern European colonialism. British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have put forward a much earlier date for this unprecedented era, one that “adheres to the geological criteria for defining an epoch: 1610. This date marks the irreversible exchange of species following the collision of the Old and New worlds”, which coincided with “an associated unusual drop in atmospheric CO2 captured in Antarctic ice cores.”

This alternative dating for the Anthropocene derives from the measurable impact of farming in relation to the colonisation of America by the Spanish, a pivotal event which many historians see as marking the inception of a new, distinctive age of empire that culminated in the birth of global capitalism. The drop in CO2 at the time, visible today in the ice cores, resulted from “vegetation regrowth on abandoned farmlands following the deaths of 50 million indigenous Americans (mostly from smallpox brought by Europeans). The annexing of the Americas by Europe was also an essential precursor to the Industrial Revolution and therefore captures associated later waves of environmental change.” (Lewis and Maslin, 2015)

Centuries later, America’s textiles industry played a crucial role in Britain’s Industrial Revolution which accelerated between the 18th and 19th centuries. And while this was a fundamentally material transformation indelibly linked to European colonisation, involving the shift to the exploitation of coal, steel manufacturing, textiles and so on, it was also facilitated by a transformation in Europe’s information systems. For thousands of years, manuscripts were the primary mode of written communication, and thus the passing on of information from generation to generation remained a process largely monopolised by tiny elite groups. In Europe, this information monopoly was closely associated with the social authority and political hegemony of church and state, and associated structures feudalist and pre-capitalist social property relations (Teschke, 2003). But this monopoly was rapidly disrupted by the invention of the printed book in the 1400s, which led manuscripts to become obsolete within mere decades and drove the emergence of a new educated class operating outside the religious establishment. (Buringh and Zanden, 2009)

The printing press came about as a result of the convergence of technologies across multiple sectors: metal, movable type, paper, new inks and an adapted wine press. It led to the cost of book production becoming ten times lower than before, making information cheaply available to a mass audience for the first time in human history. Printed books were not simply a one-for-one substitution for manuscripts, but created a phase transformation of the information sector that rippled out across other sectors enabling vast new societal changes. The loss of control over information flows by the church and state paved the way for the mass transmission of ideas that eventually led to the Reformation, the separation of church and state, and the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. This revolution in ideas played a key role in the emergence of a new understanding of reality, and with it, new visions for social organisation around democracy and free market capitalism, which in turn dovetailed with the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution. (Arbib and Seba, 2020)

While the transformation in the information sector clearly allowed societies to fully harness the new possibility space opened by the emerging industrial production system, the colonial factors that enabled the emergence of that production system are obscured by Arbib and Seba who systematically occlude the role of European imperialism from their analysis. Yet Lewis and Maslin’s work suggests that these seemingly disparate system factors – climate change, European colonisation of the Americas, and the industrial revolution in the European heartlands – were intimately interconnected. A compelling body of literature has demonstrated that the colonial textiles industry combined with the trans-Atlantic slave-trade played crucial roles in the vast accumulation of capital in England which facilitated the industrial revolution. (Ahmed, 2009) Arbib and Seba also do not account for crucial interactions between European empires and colonised subjects which facilitated the transmission of ideals of freedom and liberty from colonised societies into the centres of imperial power, undermining the assumption that the ideas of the Enlightenment were exclusively enabled by an information technology disruption (Gopal, 2019) – rather the systemic overlap of all these factors drove this process.

These dynamics, therefore, converged with the unfolding impacts of the transformation in Europe’s production of information, enabling a wider transformation in societal organising systems which otherwise would have been inconceivable. Medieval governance structures could never have managed the new industrial production capabilities. Thus, as the industrial model began to expand and outcompete others, so too did the new visions of reality, society and values enabled by revolutions in ideas that followed the invention of the printing press.

Ultimately, this suggests that the global adaptive cycle that defines industrial civilisation began somewhere around the period of the 15th century. Several sub-system phase transitions and adaptive cycles relating to different technologies and social-organising systems across different regions helped drive forward this wider global adaptive cycle.

While this exponential growth stage - the first part of the global adaptive cycle - appears to have begun slowly during the colonial era, it took off exponentially from around the period of the Industrial Revolution. Key indicators of this exponential growth stage include exponential increases in consumption of hydrocarbon energy sources in the form of oil, gas and coal; global population growth, driving exponential growth in demand from transport; the production and consumption of food exemplified in the agricultural ‘green revolution’; the material footprint of civilisation (to the point of ‘overshooting’ the earth’s natural systems, and exceeding the rate at which they can renew along natural timelines); and an exponential increase in the volume and complexity of information. (Add Ahmed ref for each thing)

Stage 2: Conservation

However, across all these systems, key indicators demonstrate that the global system moved into the second conservation stage of the adaptive cycle roughly over the last four to five decades. The period from 1945 to the 1970s was widely considered the ‘golden age’ of global capitalism, which perhaps can be designated as the emerging ‘peak’ of the global system. The period of the actual ‘peak’ appears to be situated from around the 1970s to 2000 in the transition to neoliberal capitalism.

During the conservation stage, the system becomes increasingly more stable, with complex internal networks adapted to a set of prevailing external conditions. In the period 1980-2000, circumstantial evidence of this stability can be found in dominant perceptions that extant systems had reached a peak of progress which was believed to become self-perpetuating and self-sustaining. The organisational structure of these systems also became more defined and articulated.

The systems of production associated with this global scale equilibrium included centralised control of fossil fuel resources (energy), global mobility networks powered by the internal combustion engine and rail premised on these energy sources (transport), industrialised agriculture and livestock farming (food), centralised control of mass media amidst the dawn of the computer age (information), and complex economies of scale introduced by industrial manufacturing and distribution (materials) capable of operating across national borders. (Ahmed, 2010)

The organisational systems in question comprised neoliberal capitalism (economy), homo economicus (ideology of human nature), consumerist materialism (culture), scientific materialism (worldview), liberal democracy (politics), the United Nations system (international politics) and NATO (international military). (Ahmed, 2011) The latter international structures relate to the nexus of state military power deployed to protect alliances to secure and control energy and other material resources required for system maintenance and growth.

It was widely believed and in fact actively propagated during this period that this global system was reaching its most stable state. This was reflected in movements such as that led by Ayn Rand – which concluded that capitalism represented the pinnacle of human progress. (Van den Berg, 2004) But it was perhaps reflected most articulately in the thesis of The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, which argued that the confluence of liberal democracy and capitalism would not only inevitably subsume the entire world, but would gradually eliminate most conflicts and social problems. (Fukuyama, 2012)

Stage 3. Release

Following this period, the global system began to experience an escalating convergence of global-scale crises including intensifying economic and financial crises, environmental crises, energy crises and food crises from the period 2000 to 2020, signalling a shift into the third release stage of the adaptive cycle. These crises appear to have been distinct from previous waves of crisis occurring in the global system which were either regional in nature, or concentrated around particular sectors (e.g. geopolitics or oil). For the first time from the 2000s onwards, we began to see with clear visibility an overlapping convergence of multiple global-scale crises across seemingly disparate sectors.

Fig 5 – Feedback loop between Human System Destabilisation and Earth System Disruption. Source: (Ahmed, 2017)

The release phase involves an accelerating breakdown of prevailing systems as they demonstrate a stubborn brittleness which prevents them from being able to adapt effectively to rapidly changing environmental conditions. Evidence of entering the release phase is visible from examining empirical trends across the earth system, and across key systems of production and organisation in the human system. Although they became especially visible in the 2000s, their causal roots actually began decades earlier.


There is now mounting credible research on the ‘collapse’ risks facing global industrial civilisation due to earth system crises. This is evident not only in climate change, but in many other critical ecosystems whose stability was pivotal for the long period of stability during the Holocene which permitted the emergence of a ‘safe operating space’ on earth in which human civilisation could survive and flourish. Mounting scientific evidence, particularly the planetary boundaries framework, demonstrates that human activities are at risk of breaching the vast majority of these boundaries across multiple land, water, soil, forest and atmospheric ecosystems. This research suggests that the risks of triggering irreversible feedback loops in the climate system that could lead to an uninhabitable ‘hothouse earth’ scenario are already high – long before we have reached the 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in global average temperatures – but also fundamentally unquantifiable due to the sheer complexity of the climate system. (Rockström et al., 2009; Steffen et al., 2018, 2015)

Fig. 6 Planetary boundaries framework. Source: (Steffen et al., 2015)
Fig. 7 Climate tipping points. Source: (Armstrong McKay et al., 2022)


In the energy system, multiple studies including the flagship report of the International Energy Agency agree that we are rapidly approaching the “beginning of the end of the oil age”, driven largely by the emergence of new renewable energy and transport technologies. Though the precise parameters of the coming decline in demand of oil remain disputed, most major analysts project that by 2050 – less than three decades from now, global oil production will be massively diminished. (Mayor et al., 2020)

However, these largely linear projections are likely too conservative. They do not account for multiple nonlinear processes, including internal challenges within the fossil fuel industries. Data shows that the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) of oil, gas and coal – which measures the quantity of energy inputs required to extract corresponding energy outputs – peaked around the 1960s before declining rapidly (almost by half) over the last few decades. This process involves increasing production costs being used to generate declining energy returns. (Brockway et al., 2019; Court and Fizaine, 2017)

Fig 8. Global EROI decline. Source: (Court and Fizaine, 2017)

High energy prices resulting from a combination of this process and geopolitical conflicts destabilising global oil and gas markets has masked the EROI decline, by providing larger profits that have buoyed much of the fossil fuel industry, allowing them to pay off debts and continue if not expand operation. (Rhodes, 2017) However, the inexorable decline of EROI means that fossil fuel industries will become increasingly cannibalistic. By 2030, the global oil industry will consume about 25% of the energy it produces just to keep producing more energy. By 2050, this will rise exponentially, requiring about 50% of the energy it produces to keep producing more energy: a situation that is patently economically and energetically impossible to sustain. (Delannoy et al., 2021)

Fig 9. Exponential rise in energy inputs needed for global oil production. Source: (Delannoy et al., 2021)


The long-term decline in the EROI of the global fossil fuel system is directly connected to the long-term decline in the rate of global economic growth. (Hall, 2017; Murphy, 2014) Periodic debt crises, such as the 2008 global financial crash, are part of this deeper longer term structural process. Robust economic modelling demonstrates that declining global EROI is a fundamental causal factor in recession, stagnation, stagflation, and increasing inequality. (Jackson and Jackson, 2021) The 1970s saw the end of the postwar economic boom, followed by a long-term decline in the rate of economic growth in the key industrial heartlands of the US, Europe and Japan. (Hall et al., 2014; Hall and Klitgaard, 2018) This was accompanied by the outsourcing of industrial manufacturing to developing nations, reinforced by structural adjustment programmes designed to open and deregulate markets to the flows of foreign financial capital largely from US, UK and European countries; along with the concerted financialisation of the global economy to facilitate unregulated expansion of credit, which however compounded the risk of national and regional debt crises. These two processes greatly increased levels of global debt to a point that far exceeded the size of the real productive economy, and paved the way for vulnerabilities that would be unleashed with the 2008 global financial crash. (Ahmed, 2011, 2010) Although concentrated in the collapse of global housing markets, that crash was triggered by debt-defaults caused by inflationary dynamics due to elevated oil prices, themselves caused by the plateau of conventional oil production and the shift to more expensive unconventional forms of oil and gas (Hamilton, 2009; Inderwildi and King, 2016)

Comparison of global economic recessions since the twentieth century corroborate the conclusion that the system is entering the release stage, with mounting evidence of the system moving increasingly out of equilibrium as recessionary crises become longer and larger with time. (Rye and Jackson, 2020)

Systems approaching major bifurcation points due to an abrupt phase transition demonstrate a behaviour known as ‘critical slowing down’, during which the system exhibits a slower recovery from perturbations. UK economic data shows that this critical slowing down phenomenon characterises crises in the economic system over the previous century, indicating that it is approaching a major phase transition bifurcation point.

Fig 10. Critical slowing down in the UK economy. Source: (Rye and Jackson, 2020)


The global food system is reaching multiple critical thresholds as a consequence of feedback loops between these multiple overlapping environmental, energy and economic crises. These crises appear to be directly related to the nature of industrial forms of agriculture, livestock farming and fishing. (Monbiot, 2022) Soil degradation has reached severe levels that are now surpassing the rate of renewal and endangering continued food production. (Gomiero, 2016) The collapse of biodiversity driven by industrial expansion is manifesting in record deaths of pollinator species (Lever et al., 2014) These are being compounded by the growing impacts of droughts, heatwaves, flood and other extreme weather and disasters, which are leading to increasing risks of simultaneous crop failures across the world’s major food basket regions. (Kornhuber et al., 2023) Rising energy costs are increasing costs of the inputs into industrial food production and distribution, which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. (Marshall and Brockway, 2020) Modeling funded by the British Foreign Office shows that the global industrial food system is on track for collapse within decades without structural transformation. (Ahmed, 2015)


As these crises escalate, our individual and institutional capacity to sense-make in response to them to underpin decision-making is unable to keep up. Across the global human organising system, indicators of major political, economic, cultural, ideological and ethical systems moving out of equilibrium is undeniable. The volume of information in the global system has never been higher – but so too are the levels of confusion and polarisation. Instead of responding to systems crisis, societies are focusing on their symptoms, in the process wrenching societies apart as people blame ‘outsider’ groups rather than recognising systemic drivers of crisis requiring collective transformative action. In politics, once dominant liberal norms and values are now widely contested. Levels of political polarisation are at record levels across the world’s liberal democracies. (Casal Bértoa and Rama, 2021) Culture wars have come to dominate public discourse, and record numbers of people around the world now fundamentally question the efficacy of representative democracy as a functional political structure. (Haggard and Kaufman, 2021) These political and cultural trends have been reflected in social media trends which demonstrate the emergence of closed loop filter bubbles in which communities of interaction coalesce around self-reinforcing closed circuits of mutually-compounding memetic communication. (Milczarek, 2023) (Flew, 2020)

These tend to block out contrarian ideas and views which do not fit that of the respective community, undermining the flow of information, the capacity for self-criticism and error-correction, as well as the overall capacity for collective societal sense making. Conventional societal identities of belonging and inclusion are being eroded, contested and replaced with narrower forms of identity politics premised on specific ideologies, ethnicities, and affiliations. One of the clear hallmarks of this process is the shift from a widely hailed era of ‘globalisation’, to a widely criticised concept of ‘globalism’, indicating the mainstreaming of public scepticism toward the neoliberal project which has driven the resurgence of nationalist populist politics into the centre. (Flew, 2020)


Together these interconnected crisis trends demonstrate that the global system has moved deeply into the release stage of the adaptive cycle, which is the third stage of the life-cycle of our civilisation. In this stage, the system moves out of equilibrium as the dominant technologies of production as well as the prevailing social organisational systems entwined with them enter into accelerating decline.

Even as this happens, it opens up radical new spaces for systemic and structural innovation. Thus, in many of these sectors we are simultaneously seeing rapidly emerging evidence that the release stage is paving the way for a shift into the fourth and final reorganisation stage of the global adaptive cycle.

Stage 4. Reorganisation

There is now a robust body of evidence supporting the conclusion that global industrial civilisation is moving into the reorganisation stage. Empirical data relating to each of the foundational sectors of the production system of civilisation demonstrates that each of these sectors is currently experiencing disruption from postcarbon technologies that are on track to become an order of magnitude cheaper than incumbent fossil fuel based industries. The implication is that human civilisation has entered an unprecedented period in which all five foundational sectors of production are simultaneously experiencing phase transitions, entailing the mass adoption of entirely new products and services in energy, transport, food, information, and materials.

Across all these sectors, as the capabilities and performance of key technologies are improving exponentially, they simultaneously experience an exponential decline in costs of production and deployment. This process accelerates through a self-reinforcing feedback loop which, in turn, drives an increasing rate of market adoption. Eventually, this reaches an inflection point after which it begins to rapidly outcompete and displace incumbent technologies in the market. This process scales exponentially, largely eliminating the incumbent technology as the new one reaches market saturation. As this happens, the new technology brings with it completely new properties and behaviours which reshape the social, cultural and economic landscape of not only that sector, but sectors connected to it. Recent disruptions in the information sector show that the speed and scale of this transformation can often be astonishingly fast – with the bulk of the disruption taking place within 10-15 years. Disruptions can also take place over longer periods as well depending on the social, organisational and market context. (Bond and Butler Sloss, 2022; Seba, 2016)

This is not, therefore, simply a new ‘industrial revolution’, but something far more profound: a whole system phase transformation of civilisation’s production system over the next two to three decades, in which incumbent industries in the information, food, transport, energy and materials sectors are simultaneously becoming obsolete as they are completely replaced by new industries premised on the disruptive technologies. This entails the rapid emergence of a whole new production system before or around mid-century.

Technological forecasts by Dorr, Arbib and Seba have been the most bullish in identifying these disruptions, and attempting to explore their often counterintuitive implications for transforming the rules and properties of key systems. Many of their forecasts have been startlingly accurate.

However, several of these forecasts have been incorrect, rendering them vulnerable to being criticised as too ‘techno-optimistic’, due to the adoption of specific assumptions which no longer hold due to new emerging societal and political conditions. In this chapter we adjust for actual conditions and draw on a range of credible technological forecasts to develop a more robust picture of how key technology disruptions might unfold over the next decades, which will illuminate their potential consequences for human civilisation.


The key disruptive technologies in the energy sector which are scaling exponentially are solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, and battery storage. Numerous studies have shown that solar, wind and batteries are experiencing exponential cost declines over recent decades which are on track to continue over the next two to three decades. As this has happened they have experienced exponentially increasing adoption rates. (Butler-Sloss et al., 2023) Projecting these cost curve and adoption rates forward shows that solar, wind and batteries are on track to disrupt, dominate and transform the global energy system, starting with the electricity sector, within the next two to four decades. (Way et al., 2022)

Fig 11. Cost declines of solar, wind and batteries. Source: (Butler-Sloss et al., 2023)
Fig. 12 S curve exponential adoption of solar, wind and batteries. Source: (Butler-Sloss et al., 2023)

The precise speed and impact of this transformation will depend on societal choices at multiple scales – governments, businesses and civil society will be able to delay or accelerate the transition, which will also be highly variegated by nations and regions. Deployment, while ultimately inevitable, could be slower in developing nations due to lack of funding and logistical support; equally, it may be faster in some of these regions due to higher solar potential, for instance, which could generate higher returns on investment. Dorr, Seba and Arbib have projected that this emerging renewable energy system will become dominant as early as 2035. Although this might be viewed as potentially too techno-optimistic, they explicitly acknowledge that this outcome could be significantly delayed if regulatory barriers and poor financing decisions persist, resulting in dangerous environmental consequences. (Arbib et al., 2021)

Notably, a 2014 projection by Seba of solar adoption for the US turned out to be a significant overestimate. He forecasted that the number of solar installations would grow from 300,000 to 20 million in the US by 2022 – in reality it grew to 3.6 million. (Ahmed, 2014) Although the actual rate of solar adoption was still a fast 1200% exponential increase, it was an order of magnitude lower than Seba’s forecast. This shows how in some cases Seba’s modeling while broadly accurate does not sufficiently factor in the decelerating effect of societal and political barriers.

However, modeling by technology forecasters at the University of Exeter confirms the accuracy of the direction of travel. Using empirically well-established technology cost and learning curves, they find that economic factors alone will drive solar power to approach global dominance between 2050 and 2060. (Nijsse et al., 2023) A separate team offered projections closer to the RethinkX timeline, finding that solar will be the driving force of this global energy disruption, reaching dominance as early as the 2030s. Fossil fuel and nuclear use will therefore peak by 2030 due to economic factors, and thereafter be rapidly overtaken by renewables. (Mercure et al., 2021)

Fig. 13. Projected global renewable share of electricity. Source: (Nijsse et al., 2023)

Less well known is the system change opportunities this postcarbon disruption will enable across the energy landscape. In much the same way that the Internet permanently transformed dozens of other sectors, solar, wind and battery storage will make clean energy so cheap and abundant that it unlocks scope for further radical innovations.

An emerging body of research has identified ways to optimise the new energy system in counterintuitive ways. Among these is a deployment approach based on supersizing the solar and wind generating capacity around three times existing demand, which can be done well within potential material supply constraints. (Desing et al., 2019; Perez, 2014) This creates a mechanism that the International Energy Agency’s Photovoltaics Power Programme calls implicit storage, because it allows the quantity of battery storage to be reduced by up to 90% while still maintaining 100% system stability even during the winter period. (Perez and Perez, 2023) This dramatically reduces system costs and materials intensity as battery storage is the most expensive component of the system both economically and in terms of critical materials and raw materials inputs. (Perez et al., 2016) It also creates new opportunities to use the surplus electricity generated by the system for new applications during low demand periods.

Fig. 14 Graph displaying the u-curve relationship between solar and wind generating capacity and battery storage. Source: (Perez et al., 2016)

Dorr and Seba have shown that this approach can potentially supply 100% of energy demand all year around while generating between three and five times current demand levels, leading to a new phase of clean energy ‘superabundance’ available at near-zero marginal costs for most times of the year. (Dorr and Seba, 2020) This new energy system is potentially an order of magnitude cheaper than conventional fossil fuel generation. Instead of curtailing the surplus electricity generated, Dorr and Seba argue that the new possibilities of this vast amount of excess energy will incentivise further grid expansions to enable new and diverse applications described as a form of ‘superpower’. Several other scientific teams have corroborated this picture, noting that instead of curtailment grid expansion will permit surplus electricity to be utilised for novel applications. (Barnhart et al., 2013) One of these applications is generating sufficient surplus energy (as much as ten times current global demand) to power a global ‘circular economy’ system in which materials are rigorously recycled. (Desing et al., 2019)

The energy system will therefore shift from domination by centralised utilities competing over limited flows from scarce fossil fuel resources, to greater local decentralisation of ownership of a standing stock of abundant renewable technologies. This could facilitate the emergence of a new model of global postcarbon energy sharing enabling the emergence of self-sufficient communities, companies and regions, while creating new jobs, products, business models, and organisational capabilities. That will make it possible at least in theory to fully electrify road transportation and heating, water desalination and treatment, waste processing and recycling, metal smelting and refining, chemical processing and localised manufacturing, cryptocurrency mining, distributed computing and communications, and carbon removal – and much more. (Dorr and Seba, 2020)

Some researchers have argued that there may still be instabilities and demand gaps in this system. (Clack et al., 2017) They have, however, overlooked a range of opportunities to close these gaps in a way that remains cost competitive with incumbent energy systems, including cross-sector energy interconnections (Bogdanov et al., 2021); creating cross-border regional grid interconnections to enable regionally interdependent global energy transmission (Wu et al., 2021); and using surplus electricity to generate clean fuels such as ammonia and hydrogen. (Pfennig et al., 2023) The postcarbon energy transformation will therefore provide the biophysical foundation for key disruptions across other sectors.


As with key renewable energy technologies, electric vehicles are also experiencing exponential declines in costs of production, exponential improvements in capabilities, and as a result exponentially improving adoption rates. The most bullish forecasting models suggest that this will drive internal combustion engine vehicles to extinction within the next 10 years-15 years. (Arbib and Seba, 2017) More conservative models suggest a timespan for electric vehicle market dominance by around 2050. (Carlier, 2022) Either way, petrol and diesel vehicles are on track for obsolescence over the next three decades.

Fig. 15 The X pattern for electric vehicles, showing declining costs, driving exponential adoption. Source: Ramez Naam

The systemic convergence between the information sector and electrical vehicle technology will likely accelerate this, while driving the emergence of new transportation models. In 2017, Arbib and Seba argued that electric vehicles and eventually the emergence of autonomous driving would reduce costs to a point that facilitates a new model called Transport-as-a-Service (TaaS). In this context, it will eventually become cheaper to use an electric and eventually electric autonomous public bus or private taxi, than to privately own and manage a vehicle. Supported by continued exponential improvements in battery storage, including new non-lithium battery chemistries (with over 1,000-mile range already here), these cost dynamics will therefore drive the collapse of individual ownership, leading to the emergence of new forms of public and private TaaS systems. Private car ownership will drop by about 90%, leading to a fraction of cars on roads compared to today. (Arbib and Seba, 2017)

The Arbib and Seba forecast for autonomous vehicles, however, significantly overestimated the speed at which they would become technologically viable enough to pass regulatory approval in major cities. Actual rates of performance improvements of autonomous driving suggest that safe and reliable self-driving vehicles will not be road ready until at least between 2030 and 2035 (explaining the many persistent reports of problems with the current technology). This suggests that they will become widely adopted between 2040 and 2045. (Litman, 2023)

Fig. 16 Exponential learning rate for autonomous vehicle technology, suggesting maturation around 2035. Source: (Olson, 2019)


The two key disruptive technologies in the food sector relate specifically to the production of vegetable and animal proteins through precision fermentation (PF), a technology which uses the same process used to brew beer, and cellular agriculture (CA) which combines with PF to programme animal proteins. PFCA is already widely used to produce key food ingredients and over the last two decades its costs have dropped exponentially, and are set to drop even further. Projections by Rethinkx, which coined the term ‘precision fermentation’, suggest that this cost decline will drive exponential adoption out to the 2030s, and is on track to disrupt the livestock industry in the process. (Tubb and Seba, 2019)

Currently, the main barrier to implementation is from incumbent energy system costs. However, if powered by clean energy, PFCA is several orders of magnitude more energy and environmentally efficient, using less water, land and fertiliser. Optimising and accelerating postcarbon energy disruption will therefore further drive down costs while providing abundant cheap energy for precision fermentation of proteins, potentially making them more than 10 times cheaper than animal proteins by 2035. (Tubb and Seba, 2019) Food scientists now acknowledge that precision fermentation is “projected to completely disrupt traditional animal-based agriculture”, although they are less bullish on the time-scale. (Nielsen et al., 2024)

Fig. 17 Cost declines across precision fermentation and cellular agriculture driving exponential increase in market share (Arbib et al., 2021)

Industrial-scale brewing of single-celled organisms could allow nutritious and fresh food to be produced locally, anywhere, at low cost. (Tubb and Seba, 2019) PFCA’s disruption of livestock agriculture and fishing over coming decades will also potentially free up vast areas of land no longer needed for animal farming. That land – some 2.7 billion hectares worth – will then be available for rewilding, reforestation and regenerative agriculture, which will create new opportunities for large-scale natural carbon sequestration. (Arbib et al., 2021)


Exponential cost reductions in additive manufacturing, nanotechnologies and precision fermentation will disrupt extractive resources and chemical synthesis, spurring the creation of a dizzying array of materials. Costs and capability improvements across precision biology, 3D printing, sensors, communications, computing, and robotics will feedback into new unthinkable innovations across these other energy, information, transport and food sectors in a self-reinforcing dynamic. The most important dynamic of these innovations is that the capacity for complex design and manufacturing of a wide range of products will become far more accessible and distributed across society. (Arbib and Seba, 2020)


The information sector has already experienced a series of escalating disruptions in the twentieth century with the age of computing leading to the emergence of the smartphone, the Internet, video streaming, digital media and social media. Along the way, we are seeing huge disruptions of conventional legacy forms of media, including print news and video rentals. The next great information disruption is from artificial intelligence (AI). The most visible of these is in the Large Language Models (LLMs) which have experienced exponential declines in cost, improvements in capabilities, and are now experiencing exponential adoption rates. At current rates of improvement, operating LLMs will become so easy and cheap for anyone to use that they will become ubiquitous. Other forms of AI are increasing efficiency in backend business processes, programming, manufacturing and beyond.

These rapid advancements in AI will only be sustainable on the basis of an optimised postcarbon global energy system enabling surplus electricity. In that context, they will have revolutionary implications cross all other major sectors of the global production system encompassing energy, transport, food and materials, which will accelerate existing technology disruptions in these sectors, while also driving new convergences that spark further disruptive innovations creating new business models and value chains.

Fig. 18. Graph illustrating how exponential growth in AI could impact all key production sectors

Humanity appears to have moved through four significant revolutions in information with major civilisational implications: firstly, the invention of writing; secondly, the invention of the printing press; thirdly, the invention of digital computing; and fourthly the invention of the internet. We are now moving into the fifth such revolution, driven by AI, which suggests we are moving into a new era for humanity that like previous information revolutions will completely redefine human civilisation. (Ahmed, 2023)

One of the biggest impacts of AI will be in the disruption of manual labour. Whereas AI is unlikely to disrupt more complex forms of labour across most areas of employment, it is experiencing significant areas of exponential improvement that some forecast models suggest will have the most significant impact on autonomous robotics. The tipping point for AI’s capability to disrupt manual labour will likely follow the emergence of autonomous driving, which will spark new AI capabilities in 3D sensing and mobility which will be applicable to other sectors. (Dorr, 2022)

The disruption of manual labour has often been viewed with fear. However, it will also eliminate the most fundamental limiting factor in economic growth – labour productivity – potentially unleashing a new era of near-limitless economic productivity. An entire new economic order will be able to emerge at this point. However, its fundamental nature will depend on how it is organised – whether it remains owned and controlled for the benefit of a few, decentralised for the benefit of all, and whether it is organised with respect or contempt for planetary boundaries.


Integrating the empirical data discussed here with the adaptive cycle framework provides extraordinary confirmation that human civilisation is experiencing a convergence of earth system disruption and human system destabilisation consistent with the idea that the global system as a whole has entered a period of flux related to the last stages of the life-cycle of industrial civilisation.

This analysis demonstrates that the material infrastructure of civilisation organised around the industrial paradigm of ecologically-destructive extraction is in rapid structural decline. This is indicated not only by major earth system trends, of which climate change is one, but also across all of civilisation’s key production systems, as well as across fundamental organising structures including governance, the economy and culture.

This analysis suggests that the escalation of disruption across these disparate sectors is no accident, but a core feature of a whole system crisis. However, the adaptive cycle framework demonstrates that this whole system crisis is only one dimension of a wider process in the life-cycle of human civilisation comprising a global phase shift.

As the prevailing industrial paradigm enters accelerating decline in the third ‘release’ stage of the life-cycle of our civilisation, we are moving rapidly into the fourth ‘reorganisation’ stage –paving the way for the emergence of a whole new civilisational life-cycle that in effect entails the transformation of the superorganism.

This new postcarbon civilisational life-cycle, however, is by no means an inevitability. The adaptive cycle framework demonstrates that the release stage opens up unprecedented uncertainties in the context of the breakdown of the incumbent system. In this novel context of uncertainty, the role of human agency encounters a new possibility space containing hitherto inconceivable scope for system-wide reordering which simply did not exist in previous stages of civilisation’s life-cycle.

Major signals of having moved into the phase transition period between the release and reorganisation stages of industrial civilisation’s life cycle come in the form of the rapid disruptions sweeping across all five foundational production sectors of civilisation. These are not only taking the form of major technology disruptions bringing with them fundamental reorganisation of every sector of production, they are simultaneously turbocharging social, cultural, demographic, political, economic and economic phase transitions.

This means that multiple, simultaneous phase transitions are occurring across all the key sectors that define how civilisation produces goods and services to meet material needs. These phase transitions are not only already interconnected, but as they scale, they are further amplifying each other in self-reinforcing feedback loops which together is driving a whole-system restructuring. While we know that this restructuring is taking place, we do not know what its final outcome entails as that will depend entirely on critical decisions made at all scales of civilisation within the next decades.

The technological dynamics of the global phase shift suggests that it holds the potential to collectively transform and uplift the material capabilities of human civilisation in ways that were previously inconceivable, including the possibility of ushering in an advanced ‘ecological civilisation’ that operates within planetary boundaries. Viewed holistically, the global phase shift portends the possibility of a new post-carbon energy-based production system that, if properly designed and organised within a paradigm committed to safeguarding planetary boundaries, could enable a new civilisational paradigm premised on the abundant, local and cheap production of energy, food, knowledge, tools and materials for the benefit of all. This potential new epoch, in which human beings for the first time in history can be free of concerns around material survival in a way that regenerates natural ecosystems, could be seen as a potential postmaterialist ‘Age of Abundance’. Viewed through the lens of biological evolution, it heralds the possibility for humanity to transform from a dissipative superorganism degrading its own life-support systems into a regenerative superorganism that enriches and enhances those systems.

However, while the breakdown and disappearance of the industrial paradigm is inevitable, the emergence of this postmaterialist Age of Abundance is not. In order for human civilisation to survive the global phase shift, the entire social, economic, cultural and political organising systems of civilisation need to be rapidly redesigned and reorganised. As humanity moves deeper into the global phase shift, incumbent social, political, economic and cultural systems which have evolved around the centralised, fragmented competing hierarchies of industrial structures will increasingly lose effectiveness and meaning. That is because as incumbent industrial systems breakdown, the prevailing industrial organising systems which regulate them – their worldviews, cultural norms, ethical values and governance systems – are losing appeal as they are becoming increasingly ineffective during the global phase shift. The emerging postmaterialist system will require new decentralised models of localised ownership and creation, new global collaborative models of product design and technology development, new participatory economic structures, new worldviews which recognise the symbiosis of human life with the earth, and new values which privilege human interconnection and mutual thriving over unlimited material consumption.

However, the eruption of chaos in this period as the incumbent system declines could lead to suboptimal decision-making at all scales, one consequence of which would be to accelerate the collapse of the industrial paradigm before a viable postmaterialist paradigm is able to emerge and become stable. As prevailing systems decline, the resulting crises will increasingly lead societies to fall back on familiar and comfortable narratives and tropes linked to the success of the industrial order – fuelling regressive efforts to resuscitate that dying paradigm. Instead of accelerating a global phase shift to a whole new civilisational life-cycle premised on a new postmaterialist possibility space for humanity, this could potentially disrupt if not abort that process, culminating in escalating social and cultural polarisation that, at worst, increases the risks of intensifying mass violence. It could also lead to a dystopian paradigm vulnerable to collapse, trapping the postmaterialist production system within the centralised, predatory hierarchies of industrial age systems of extraction. Therefore, the biggest obstacle to the Age of Abundance, premised on a new ecological civilisational life-cycle, is the failure to understand the dynamics of the global phase shift, its unprecedented risks and opportunities, and most crucially, its function as a potential precursor to a new era in human evolution.  


Global phase shift theory has been developed here as a new collective intelligence framework for foresight studies and practice. This approach provides a powerful explanatory basis to understand the systemic drivers behind many key global trends, to assess their unfolding dynamics and to anticipate plausible scenarios for future trends in coming years and decades across both major production sectors and social systems.

Its central insight is that civilisation is currently experiencing a dual global-scale process of breakdown and renewal, in which prevailing structures are becoming increasingly obsolete, which in turn is paving the way for the fundamental reorganisation of key sectors and systems – and ultimately of civilisation itself. Crucially, global phase shift theory is conceptually agnostic on several polarising debates which often derail constructive collective action, but in a way that can potentially bridge divides. For instance, it suggests that both techno-optimism and techno-pessimism are flawed in different ways, by suggesting that while technological solutions are crucial to current global transformation, ultimately it will not be technology that ‘saves us’ but social, organisational, and cultural transformation. It also neither automatically favours ‘growth’ or ‘degrowth’ prescriptions, meaning that it remains open to question which of these approaches will ultimately characterise the next life-cycle, if indeed, there is one. It also suggests that cycles of growth and degrowth are integral to all life-cycles of major natural systems, and therefore that the next civilisational life-cycle will need to carefully and consciously navigate this dynamic in order to reach a viable systemic planetary-scale equilibrium.

This not only opens up the potential for an urgent new transdisciplinary research programme to better understand the global phase shift, but also suggests new areas of inquiry focused on exploring how global phase shift theory can be applied to decision-making at multiple scales. Global phase shift theory reveals that individuals, organisations, businesses, corporations, nonprofits, international institutions, governments, and intergovernmental agencies are currently pursuing decisions in the dark: in the absence of understanding the most significant tectonic drivers of systemic change today. Enhancing consciousness of the global phase shift at individual and institutional scales is therefore a crucial imperative not merely to survive, but to breakthrough to a future ecological civilisation unleashing a new era of postmaterialist prosperity.



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