Famous physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton once wrote: If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. He referred, of course, to the breakthrough discoveries he has made, which were based on the research of scientists who came before him. Ironically, the quote itself may be much older, predating Newton by centuries. All the commodities humanity now has – hot water, cars, healthcare, mass produced goods, internet – all this is possible because humanity has been accumulating these attributes of modern civilization for centuries. But with them we also had numerous problems stockpiling one on top of the other – some resolved, some only partially so, others left for future generations to deal with. An important milestone on the road of progress was, undoubtedly, the industrial revolution.
Humanity has learned to build many new things, offer new services, increase efficiency of existing processes in the span of decades – but not without paying a hefty price. Massive pollution, poor working and living conditions and a massive and increasing gap between the rich and the poor are on the tip of the iceberg with which humanity collided when entering the industrial age. Dr. Sundeep Waslekar, the President of Strategic Foresight Group, outlines the exploitative nature of the industrial revolution.
We can see the levels of pollution going up, both in the air and in the water, we can see sharp increases in our population, we can see a shortage of civic amenities in many cities of the world. So the consequences of mass industrialization are obvious, they’re there to see. The situation in England in the early days of the industrial revolution was very, very exploitative. There were young people, children, who were made to work 12 hours, 15 hours a day; many of them died in different conditions. This has all happened inside the industrialized countries.
In order to feed the behemoth of industry, human lives and the environment were thrown into the furnace. And while developed countries have come a long way since then, going through their “troubled teenage phase” and arriving in a post-industrial society, this has not miraculously cured the problems that the industrial revolution brought. Some of the social and environmental issues were eliminated, sure. But afterwards came globalization – and, essentially, the developed world kick started industrialization in the third world. Society has cured the ails of industrialization, such as pollution from factories, unsanitary conditions due to urban overcrowding and forced child labor. But not really – these problems were just shrugged onto the countries that cannot afford not to take the opportunity to join the global economy.
Joel Kotkin, an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends, and distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California, notes the exploitative approach that has not really changed since the western industrial revolution.
“I think it’s a right question, and I think it’s something that we should be thinking about much more because globalization has its limitation, I mean there’re great things about it – it’s very useful to people who are educated and have resources, but we have to be thinking about, as we rapidly globalize do we protect others, I mean at what point the social stability matters”.
The coal furnaces and steam engines of yesteryear have paved the way to the internet, sure. But they also have paved the way to pollution, overpopulation and labor exploitation – problems which have no place in the post-industrial world.