Our Great Transition — leading to a new Middle Ages or a New Renaissance?

May 2012

 This Month’s Topic:

That we are living through a time of major changes, a Great Transition, is undisputed.  Where are we heading to is the question.  To a new Middle-Ages or to a Renaissance?

 What’s your take?

Our Debaters:

FABIENNE GOUX BAUDIMENT is a futurist, founding head of the consulting firm proGective, associate professor of Foresight and coordinator of the International M.Sc. Foresight and Innovation at the University of Angers. She is the Past President of the World Future Studies Federation (WFSF) (2005-2009) and Vice-President of the Center for Transcultural Foresight, Inc., Washington DC, whose publication, FUTUREtakes, is an independent educational resource.

ALEXANDRE ROJEY is the coordinator of a think tank called IDées involved in futures studies and the former Director for sustainable development of IFP, an R&D organization. He is lecturing about « Worldview and shaping of the future » at the University of Angers M.Sc. ”Foresight and innovation.”


Our civilization, and more specially the western civilization with the United-States at its center, has been often compared to the Roman Empire. Its power extends worldwide through the globalization process, supported by soft power as it is by an unprecedented military force. Still, it is threatened and challenged. The threats are diverse and serious: the economic crisis is one of them, but other dangers are even more challenging.

Global warming, pandemic risks, nuclear weapons, scarcity of resources represent threats for the Empire, but also for humanity as a whole. The optimism concerning human progress is now challenged. The  extermination of millions of human beings by totalitarian regimes have cast dark shadows over human nature and our potential future. The whole model which was initiated in Europe during the Renaissance period is now encountering its limits. These limits are those of the planet which becomes too small for supporting any more the impact of human activities and of the human brain, which encounters growing difficulties in mastering the complexity of the technological world around us. At the same time a loss of meaning and moral foundations makes difficult to think in a positive way about the future. Individualism and selfish interest predominate, leading to exclude an increasing number of people from any social protection.

Major economic or environmental disruptions would lead to very dangerous conflicting situations. Even if war does not extend world wide, an increasing number of conflicts and wars throughout the globe might open a “dark age”, during which complexity and knowledge would recede. Whole countries might leave the realm of normality and become controlled by terrorist or outlaw commanders. If the present situation becomes worse, a growing share of the world would become unsecure. The number of large shanty cities would grow. Health and education would decline creating a deadly cycle. New feudalities would emerge and create some restricted safe areas, surrounded by miserable and dangerous territories. Most wealthy citizens would remain inside gated cities protected by gunmen. Only a very limited number of scholars would survive inside such gated cities and would keep what would remain of the old science, as did monks during the Middle-ages.

Yet, during such dark ages, new vertical values might emerge, similar to those which had been introduced by Christianity during the Middle-ages, when money was despised and honor was the supreme value. If planet Earth is not destroyed meanwhile, these values might help to build a new promising era. Undergoing a new “dark age” might become the only way to restore vanishing values.


After the Second World War, many doomsayers (prophets of the end of the world) announced the arrival of the nuclear Apocalypse; in the aftermath of the oil crisis and the ensuing crisis (70s), the destruction of the planet and humanity by  natural resource depletion and widespread pollution was prophesied (cf. P.K. DICK and J. BRUNNER).

Today (2012) doomsayings multiply and generate different dystopias:

  • the advent of the Age of Machines, when artificial intelligence dear to Ray KURZWEIL take precedence over the biological intelligence;
  • the deterministic end of the world -as described by the so-called “Maya prediction” about 2012- without rational basis, as a general punishment of mankind for its immeasurable stupidity;
  • the extinction of humanity because of global warming and a planet become unsuitable for human life …

Together with this catastrophist thought, a new interest in the Middle Ages appeared (cf. popular writers such as K. FOLLETT, P. TREMAYNE or R. KHOURY), alongside the growing popularity of heroic fantasy among young Westerners. Should we see there a convergence leading to a “strategic moment” as foresight describe it?

Humanity is going through a period of major transition (Great Transition).This period was already anticipated in the first half of the twentieth century by Pitirim SOROKIN. More this perception extends to ordinary people and more become obvious the vision of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world which frightens our people, increases their pessimism and generates this doomsaying.

In search of bearings, one naturally tends to resort to analogies to try to understand (pattern recognition).The Middle Ages may appear as such a pattern, as a time of trouble and questioning between the Greco-Roman world and the European Renaissance; hence, maybe, this current appeal.

Within the reassurance that a superficial knowledge of the Middle Ages can bring, faith and order play a specific role. The faith in a Deus ex Machina which would substitute itself to our efforts to build a different future — more sustainable and happier — thereby delivering us from the dreaded responsibility for the future. The order that would regulate an economic universe — whose the dominant development model is now reaching its end — and would facilitate an existence within which everyone (and everything) would be in its right place.

The heroic fantasy-oriented video games often include these features: a hierarchical society where everyone has a specific role (wizard, hero), a recourse to the supernatural and mysticism, a Manichean worldview where good and evil compete while still remains a (paradoxical) illusion of free will.

However, there is more here. Like the Marvel Comics’, the Fantasy Hero can be anyone, from a pimply teenager to a wealthy heir. Harry Potter, Aragorn or Skywalker, he embodies the hope of a generation that economic crises, unemployment and catastrophism seem to condemn to ultra-pessimism.  Early projection of the Man of Tomorrow — transhuman , posthuman , or sustainable (wise) — he incarnates the implicit belief in a better world — antidote against the doomsaying ­— and the promise of the coming Renaissance.

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One Response to Our Great Transition — leading to a new Middle Ages or a New Renaissance?

  1. Art Shostak says:

    In the last 50 years Humanity has been making overdue gains in public health matters, in bringing women into power positions, in replacing tyranny with forms of democracy, in raising “Green” consciousness, in expanding access to alternative energy, and in going where we have never been before – as in biotechnology, genomics, integrated automation, fusion energy, and nanotechnology, among many other fascinating realms. While much still threatens, as has been true over the species’ long evolution, the Trend Line slopes up, and underlines the case for more cautious optimism than enervating pessimism. While we are well advised to “keep our powder dry,” we should also keep our eyes on the Stars.

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