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Dec 23

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Alvin Toffler and Jeremy Rifkin: Do we still need industry in the “post-industrial era”?

Bookcover_of_The_Third_Wavethird_industrial_revolutionTheir books “The Third Wave” (1980) and “The Third Industrial Revolution” (2011) were divided by over 30 years, but had plenty in common. Both authors referred to the limits of our existing development path. Environmental destruction, reliance on finite resources, and even climate change (already in the late 1970s when Toffler wrote his book) were referred to by Toffler and Rifkin. Taking into consideration the oil glut of the 1980s, something that Toffler couldn’t predict in the midst of the second oil crisis, one of his statements was especially apt:

Statistics vary. Disputes rage over how long the world has before the ultimate crunch. The forecasting complexities are enormous and many past predictions now look silly. Yet one thing is clear: no one is pumping gas and oil back into the earth to replenish the supply.”

This applied as much to the 1980s, as to 2014, when the price of oil fell by almost 40% within a matter of months. The major difference is that back then we consumed 54 mbd, now we consume over 91 mbd. Many times we could hear that the “era of oil is near”, and many times these predictions were wrong. So many times, that we started to believe oil will be there forever. And yet Toffler is bringing this to the point – sooner or later it will run out. The question remains how dirty it will get in the meantime. The lower the prices are now, the less investment in energy efficient cars will be made, the higher the consumption and the higher the landing when we reach the peak will be. And sooner or later we will reach one. A fivefold increase in the price of oil between 1998 and 2007 shows how fast things can change.

But coming back to Toffler and Rifkin, the main similarity between these two books (and many other published by them over the last three decades) was the prediction, that the industrial era is nearing an end. For Toffler all signs in the heavens and the earth were indicating “the death of industrialism and the rise of a new civilization”. In this new stage of humanity’s development it was not the power of the machines, but the power of brains, facilitated by computers, that would be the main factor of change. In the final pages of his book, Jeremy Rifkin pointed out that the new era would “take us beyond the industrious mode that characterized the last two centuries of economic development and into a collaborative way of life”.

Bearing in mind these comments, it is interesting to listen to the current lamentations about the “deindustrialization” of the European economy reportedly caused by the European energy and climate policy. That this argumentation is completely wrong I have written elsewhere (and here in Polish). But what is wrong is not the fact that the role of industry is diminishing – this has indeed been taking place for decades – but the assumption that the European energy and climate policy is to be blamed for this. There are numerous factors that lead to a decrease of the share of GDP coming from industry, but the most important is the development of other sectors of the economy – broadly defined as services. We do not need less steel or cement – we actually need more of it if we want transform our economy towards a more sustainable one by developing renewables, replacing cars and planes by trains and building more energy efficient houses. But the value of this knowledge, which finds expression in our smart phones and computers, the variety of services which improve our standard of living, and the importance of research, which will make it possible for our civilization to survive without completely demolishing our planet, increases. All this finds – or should find – expression in the GDPs of our countries.

Those defending higher shares of industry in the GDP remind me of the farmers’ leaders, who in the early 19th century rebelled against machines that took away their jobs. Also at that time the role of one, earlier dominant sector, agriculture, was decreasing: not because people stopped eating, but because of technological development. These protests were in vain and former farmers became the new members of the working class toiling in inhuman conditions up to 14 hours a day. But this time we can do better. We need the industry as much as we need the food, but we have to move forward and prepare our economy for a postindustrial era. We need those who will use their “brain power” to make industry the solution, not an additional problem to the environmental challenges we are already facing. It is not the responsibility of the politicians to make this change, but it is their duty towards future generations to facilitate exploration of new ideas. As pointedly described by Toffler:

The responsibility for change, therefore, lies with us. We must begin with ourselves, teaching ourselves not to close our minds prematurely to the novel, the surprising, the seemingly radical. This means fighting off the idea-assassins who rush forward to kill any new suggestion on grounds of its impracticality, while defending whatever now exists as practical, no matter how absurd, oppressive, or unworkable it may be. It means fighting for freedom of expression—the right of people to voice their ideas, even if heretical.”

In the end it all comes down to the question asked by The Clash in their immortal song “Should I stay or should I go”. To use the perception of the 19th century English farmers: do we stick with the horse and the plow, or do we take the risk and replace the power of muscles with the power of the machines? But as much as the 19th-century farmers, also we don’t know what lies ahead. The Prophets of our times, like Toffler and Rifkin, despite all their wisdom, could be wrong. If Toffler failed to predict the fall of the Soviet Union (It is difficult for us to imagine the actual breakup of, say, the Soviet Union…”), what are the challenges that we need to prepare for? Who could have predicted just a few years ago, that Russian leadership will turn back the clock to discriminate against sexual minorities and take over some parts of former allies?

But the reaction to the unpredictability of our times shouldn’t be resignation, but preparation for things that we can predict. We know that fossil fuels will run out sooner or later. Still we behave like a highly addicted junkie who by increasing his dose is speeding up his death. We have enough evidence to realize, that by our addiction we are heating up our planet and making it uninhabitable for the large numbers of those who will come after us. We recognize that by satisfying our rapidly increasing needs we pose a huge challenge to the other species and lead to their extinction. So the excuse to our successors cannot be that we didn’t know. We also cannot purport that we just wanted to live a better life while ignoring the needs of the future generations: we can significantly improve our standard of life with new, more sustainable technologies. The only excuse coming to my mind could be ignorance: we decided to stick to the plow and horse (read: “re-industrialization ignoring the new potentials”) instead of moving forward.

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