At some point over the last decade, the human population crossed a remarkable threshold. Today, over half of humanity lives in cities and towns, up from one-third in 1960 and only 3 percent in 1800. By 2050, the United Nations estimates, two-thirds of the global population will live in urban settings.

The shift from rural to urban represents far more than a change in settlement patterns. It brings with it profound changes in social, political, and economic organization: the urbanization of the planet has been largely inseparable from industrialization and the rise of market economies.

Writing at the close of World War II, the sociologist and economic historian Karl Polanyi called that shift “the Great Transformation.” For most people over the past two centuries, the Great Transformation has entailed moving from subsistence agriculture to off-farm employment; from economic relations based upon barter, tribute, and reciprocity to those structured around markets and wages; and from economies in which arable land, and the amount of labor that could be applied to it, were the sole determinants of wealth and economic growth to economies in which capital and technology have untethered human well-being from brute physical labor.

In this, the sixth issue of the Breakthrough Journal, we consider the Great Transformation, if not fully in retrospect, then at least from deep within it. We live today on an increasingly urban and industrialized planet. The Great Transformation has solved old problems and created new ones. And while the nature of the shift from premodern economies to what Polanyi called “market society” has long been clear, what comes after has yet to be written.


In “Taking Modernization Seriously,” New America Foundation cofounder and long-time Breakthrough Journal contributor Michael Lind channels Polanyi, reminding us that “the Industrial Revolution remains the fundamental fact of our time.” Like Polanyi, Lind rejects the idea that modern economic relations represent either the natural state of human affairs or a spontaneous evolution of human relations.

For two centuries, he argues, modernization and industrialization “have been carried out by developmental states, not on behalf of consumers or humanity as a whole, but to secure their own position in global struggles for relative wealth and military power”—a sentiment with which Polanyi surely would have agreed. “The primary units in the world economy,” Lind argues, “are not private actors—workers, consumers, investors, firms—but states.”

But while Lind refuses to naturalize modern economic relations, he also refuses to reduce modernity to little more than markets, capitalism, and the creation of self-interested individuals, as Polanyi would have it. At its core, “modernization is mechanization,” Lind argues. “What drives prosperity in the long run is not markets, but the substitution of human and animal labor by machinery or software, powered by energy sources other than human and animal muscle and biomass.”

The distinction is a critical one. With the end of the Cold War, contemporary debates about human progress and modernization have largely become proxies for debates about capitalism. Tied up in pitched, ideologically driven arguments about economic relations and the environment, critics of capitalism have often conflated basic economic development and capitalism, and then proceeded to deny, or at least ignore, the extraordinary and broadly shared advances in material welfare that most humans on the planet have experienced over the past two centuries. And where those benefits have become too widespread to be deniable, they have suggested that they simply can’t be sustained, largely on ecological grounds.

The latter claim, that capitalism “harbors the seeds of its own ecological destruction,” is the subject of economist and Breakthrough Institute Senior Fellow Harry Saunders’s new essay. The idea, Saunders observes, “owes its provenance to a most unlikely duo of canonical economic thinkers,” Thomas Malthus and Karl Marx. Ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Costanza found common cause with Marxist scholars such as Paul Sweezy, Fred Magdoff, and John Foster, combining Marx’s insight that capitalism required continual economic growth with Malthus’ warning that human demand for food and resources would inevitably run up against resource constraints.

The resulting mashup, Saunders argues, “made Malthusian arguments accessible to elements of the global left that had historically rejected them” and struck a chord in the popular environmental imagination. In recent years, charges of extractivism and calls for degrowth have moved from the fringes of the environmental discourse toward the center, as a new brand of climate activist demands a fundamental shift in modern economic and political arrangements. Incrementalism simply will not do.

In “Does Capitalism Require Endless Growth?” Saunders marshals a raft of economic evidence, along with neoclassical economic theory, to challenge this narrative. It may be inevitable that capitalism will collapse without endless economic growth. But that problem would seem to obviate the inevitability of capitalism running up against ecological limits. “The long-term challenge for capitalist economies,” Saunders observes, “is too little growth, not too much.”

But Saunders also observes that the headwinds facing growth in advanced developed economies are primarily due to saturating demand for material goods and services. When most people achieve a certain level of material consumption, growth slows and leisure increases. That need not inevitably lead to economic collapse, Saunders argues. Households continue to save for retirement even when returns to their investment fall to zero, for the simple reason that people want to have some money around to live on when they stop working. And producers continue to invest in new capital because while, on average, returns to capital may begin to approach zero, that doesn’t mean that they will always be zero. There will still be opportunities for profit in a zero-growth economy.

“A capitalist economy,” Saunders argues, “is as likely as any other to see stable and declining demands on natural resources and ecological services. Indeed, with the right policies and institutions, capitalist economies are more likely to achieve high living standards and low environmental impacts than just about any other economic system.”


Marx and Malthus, Paul Robbins sagely observes in “After the Baby Bust,” both wrote their foundational works during an extended period of unprecedented population growth across the United Kingdom and Western Europe. “All the major works of classical and contemporary political economy were written during an era of rapid demographic growth,” Robbins, a geographer and director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, writes. Today, however, fertility rates across the planet are plummeting. Even though virtually all advanced developed economies and many emerging economies now have fertility rates below replacement, “our habits of thinking, in economics, ecology, and politics, have hardly changed.”

Arguments about population growth and scarcity have so dominated political and economic discourse that little thought has been given to a world in which both might be absent. But the absence of population growth and scarcity may bring its own challenges. “Can prosperity be decoupled from demographic growth in a way that is just, equitable, and good for the planet?” Robbins asks.

The answers aren’t easy. Falling birth rates, migration, and the resulting shifts in ethnic composition have sparked rising ethno-national tensions around the world. An aging population and the inversion of the traditional population pyramid bring daunting intergenerational equity challenges, most obviously the question of who will support and care for an aging population when the old outnumber the young. The emptying out of the countryside as rural populations decline can bring land abandonment and the return of secondary forest and other wild landscapes. But with fewer people and communities in the way, depopulation can also lead to greater resource exploitation. Even when it doesn’t, unmanaged lands do not always lead to greater biodiversity and better ecological outcomes in the Anthropocene.

Robust demographic and economic growth, Saunders and Robbins remind us, may be more an artifact of the early phases of the Great Transformation than a permanent condition of modernizing societies.

Scarcity, too, science journalist John Fleck observes, is not inevitable. Contrary to the notion that economic growth throughout the American West is driving ever-higher water use, water use in California has fallen 40 percent since 1980. Water use in the Colorado River Basin similarly peaked in the late 1990s and has been declining ever since.

In “High-Tech Desert,” Fleck tells the remarkable story of the decoupling of water use from economic output and population growth in the American West. Efficiency improvements, together with smart planning, have increasingly meant that there is plenty of water to go around for both farms and cities.

Greater water efficiency doesn’t always lead to better environmental outcomes. Acreage for water-hogging crops like alfalfa and cotton has fallen, but much of the water savings has been redirected to higher-value, water-intensive crops such as almonds. And the impacts of a century of water use on fish and wildlife have been enormous. Restoring habitat for fish and wildlife that has been sacrificed for water development will require continuing improvements in water productivity and better collaboration among users.

But the long-term trend offers tremendous opportunities for environmental restoration. Across the American West, aquifers have stabilized or are refilling, because both farmers and cities are using water much more efficiently. “Contrary to the narratives of apocalyptic doom or a need for ever-growing supply,” Fleck writes, “these communities have demonstrated an adaptive capacity that has allowed more people and economic activity using less water.”

Unfortunately, the old western water ethic dies hard. Throughout the American West, water use planners continue to plan for growing demand for water, even as water use has been in decline for decades. Apocalyptic narratives, and the tensions between water users that those narratives create, don’t help, Fleck concludes, making “environmental policies harder, because water users afraid of shortfalls are less likely to be willing to cooperate in reallocating supplies to environmental restoration.”


Prognosticators of one stripe or another, of course, have been predicting California’s demise since the state’s earliest days. A life so comfortable and pleasant surely couldn’t last. In this, the state’s reputation for hedonism and easy living belies the remarkable engineering and labor that has gone into making California a habitable and prosperous place. Those efforts have made California and its population more resilient to environmental change, not less.

But the expectation that humans will be punished for their success is evergreen and has deep religious roots. The Genesis story is frequently taken as a cautionary tale against hubris and efforts of all sorts to remake the world. Humankind’s original sin is to have tasted from the tree of knowledge and fallen out of harmony with nature.

In “Modern Pope, Catholic theologian Sally Vance-Trembath argues that this is a misreading of scripture. The Genesis story, rather, represents “an explicit rejection of the notions of the natural world in the cultures adjacent to Israel and then later, Christianity,” Vance-Trembath argues. “The great insight of Judaism is that humans experience both harmony with the natural world and alienation,” she observes. “Unlike trilobites or dinosaurs, human beings can transform their environment for the sake of their own future existence. The Judeo-Christian tradition understands this as a blessing.”

Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s recent encyclical on the environment, has more than its share of problems, Vance-Trembath acknowledges. The Pope reduces environmental destruction to nothing more than human greed, failing to acknowledge that humans have also transformed the planet in ways that have made it a vastly better place for humans to live. “Self-destruction may now be a feature of our situation,” Vance-Trembath writes, “but the people who first domesticated animals and built dams to support farming and reserved seed that they gathered for planting in more fertile places in the next year’s growing season did not do so as acts of greed or self-destruction.”

Yet despite its flaws, Vance-Trembath urges us to read Laudato Si in the larger context of Catholic social teaching and not simply present-day, overheated environmental debates. Laudato Si can only be understood in the context of Pope Francis’s efforts to reform the Church and drag it, once and for all, into the modern world. “One homily, one interview, one new appointment, and one request for retirement or transfer at a time,” Vance-Trembath writes, Francis is “shedding the Western, Roman, and feudal framework that had provided the superstructure of the institution for more than a millennium.”

The confusions in Laudato Si, Vance-Trembath argues, are eminently correctable, for the simple reason that Francis’s approach, in contrast with that of his immediate predecessors, is inductive, finding Catholic principles and values in the world as it is, not demanding that the world remake itself to better comport with Catholic dogma. His approach is one that seeks dialogue and engagement with the world and can evolve with new information, as it must if it is to offer the Catholic community useful guidance as to how to reconcile human well-being with environmental preservation.

Making peace with the past, and our former selves, animates Michael Zimmerman’s “Love and Vinyl Chloride. Zimmerman, a philosopher and early theorist of Deep Ecology, writes about his alienation from his father, a chemical engineer, and the ways in which it shaped his environmental identity as a young man.

Zimmerman’s search for authenticity and emotional connection drew him away from his father and toward environmentalism. His study of Heidegger and human consciousness drew him to Deep Ecology. Zimmerman proposed, in an influential 1976 talk, that Heidegger be read to provide the philosophical underpinnings of Deep Ecology. But after several years of attempting to reconcile the two, Zimmerman was forced to conclude that Heidegger’s work actually deeply undermined Deep Ecology.

“Heidegger maintained that Darwinism and other efforts to interpret humans as clever animals have the opposite effect to the one that many environmentalists hope they will,” Zimmerman concludes. “If humans are no different from other animals, and if animals seek to maximize their reproductive fitness, then humans are perfectly justified in giving free rein to their own reproductive Will to Power, leading to total domination of the planet by the human animal.”

Deep ecologists, at Zimmerman’s instigation, had made Heidegger’s famous call to “Let Being Be” a rallying cry. But for Heidegger, letting being be was actually a profoundly anthropocentric act. It is only human consciousness that allows an appreciation for the rest of creation. “Humans are animals plus,” Zimmerman writes. “What they add is the awareness through which beings can reveal themselves in ways that they cannot do so within the awareness allotted to nonhuman animals.”

Reconciling himself with modernity and the Anthropocene led Zimmerman to reconcile with his father. “My father and his cohort were determined to materially improve the world and mostly did so with the best of intentions,” Zimmerman writes. “Reconciling with my father forced me to reconcile my aversion to the industrial aspect of modernity with my support for its emancipatory aspect…. Having long looked down upon industrial production, I came to see what a remarkable expression of humankind’s desire to re-create the world it is.”


The Great Transformation is far from complete. As Lind notes, at least a billion people have not even begun the journey. For those trapped in deep agrarian poverty, modernization is no certainty. Changing fashions in international development programs have “undermined traditional development pathways,” he writes. “In the early years of the twenty-first century, many international development agencies promoted a kind of synthesis of Washington Consensus neoliberalism and Green sustainability.”

But poor nations would be better served to reject the latter-day wisdom of rich nations and instead do what those nations actually did to become prosperous. “Since the Industrial Revolution began, the successful communities have been those in which governments and industrial and financial enterprises have worked together to promote the community’s relative share of global wealth and power,” Lind argues. “No country in history has ever become rich thanks to the efforts of small-scale peddlers taking advantage of free markets to sell each other low-value-added items in the equivalents of flea markets and garage sales.”

The case for free trade, Lind reminds us, originated in nineteenth-century Britain, then the dominant global manufacturing power, and has always been made by nations with already mature manufacturing sectors. The notion that poor nations might somehow skip or otherwise avoid the basic process of mechanizing and industrializing their economies is similarly held mostly by those who already take modernity for granted.

Polanyi was right that the rise of urban, industrial societies, like the rise of agriculture before it, leads to the creation of new values and ultimately new humans. But those processes did not end with the initial stages of urbanization or the rise of capitalist economies. New values and identities continue to proliferate. “The only way forward, for humans and nature,” Zimmerman writes, “is to integrate our modern commitment to abundance and liberation with our postmodern consciousness of the nonhuman world and our responsibilities to it.” In this, as in so many other ways, Paul Robbins reminds us, the Great Transformation does not mark “the end of history, economics, or politics. Instead, it is the beginning.”