See also Book II of the Waves of the Future Series
1. Non-Technological Revolutions
Entering the Third Millennium
In his 1980 book, The
Third Wave, Alvin Toffler talks about massive waves of change
bringing about a total transformation in the way people work, live,
and relate to each other. His work inspired many and became a cult
classic in the early 1980s.
In his analysis,
Toffler describes waves of change sweeping across the globe at
different paces in different areas, leaving some early societies
untouched but propelling others into the future. The waves overtook
each other, bringing about transformation in their passage. They
also clashed together, creating the disruptions associated with
the birth pains of new eras.
The tides of change
Toffler (1980) talks about began with the First Wave, or the
agricultural revolution that took place during the Neolithic period
of human history. While the First Wave lasted for thousands of
years, the second one—the Industrial Revolution—began around
1750 CE and has already seen its dominance overtaken by the
next one. He expected that our generation would fully bear witness
to the Third Wave and see it completed within possibly only
decades (p. 26).
some of his predictions have not come true, many did to a greater
extent than he even anticipated. The Internet and the computer age
are good examples of this. Even he did not forecast the extent to
which they would totally pervade our lives from the inside out and
the outside in.
argued that change was accelerating, a point of view echoed by many
others. This phenomenon could have a lot of relevance as the Fourth
Wave sweeps across the planet in the years to come.
are now talking about global warming happening faster than
predicted. The sudden spike in the price of oil caught most people
by surprise in the summer of 2008. It resulted in very dramatic
changes in economies, sharply increasing the price of gasoline,
boosting demand for renewable energy, causing the cost of food to
rise—dramatically in some cases—and sending the North American
automobile industry into a tailspin.
any other event in recent history, the July 2008 spike in the price
of oil heralds the beginning of a new era of shortages in resources.
Although still slow at the moment—and overshadowed by the current
recession—the process will accelerate.
would we be today—only a couple of years later—had it not been
for the slowdown resulting from the financial crisis? The short
answer is, in the midst of the summer of 2008 turmoil: expensive
fill-ups at the gas pump, the price of goods and food rising from
the higher cost of energy and transportation, starvation threatening
many parts of the world, etc.
would be under pressure to increase taxes and cut services to make
up for higher operating expenses. The worldwide increase in poverty
and suffering would mean a greater need for foreign aid and be a
breeding ground for discontent, radicalism, and protracted wars—all
of which would further strain government budgets. Cap-and-trade
would go back to the discussion table, and countries would pull out
of the Kyoto Accord or force lower targets.
budgets would likely be the first to face the axe worldwide. Green
legislation would be once again rolled back by governments under
pressure by right-wing elements arguing that environmental
regulations made economies less competitive. Two decades of hard
work by environmentalists would go down the drain.
problem is, even the above will not work this time. While over the
last few decades most governments have not had a problem with
continuing to poison the environment with toxic compounds and
carcinogens, they will not be able to apply the same solution to
resource depletion. It would only worsen the problem in this case.
Without conservation and a shift to renewable energy, the price of
gasoline will increase faster. The watering down of the Kyoto
Accord and environmental regulations will have little effect on
this. If anything, it would make things worse by enabling us to
wipe reserves out faster.
the Fourth Wave!
Technological and Non-Technological Waves
Toffler's first three
waves of change arose from technological developments. The fourth
one—the transition to a greener world—is very different. It is
being forced on us by our own neglect and destructiveness: global
warming, resource depletion, contamination, etc.
By the end of the
process, we will live in a greener society. What remains to be seen
is what condition the world will be in by then: highly damaged (many
resources depleted, others destroyed as a result of contamination,
high levels of toxic chemicals and carcinogens in our homes, cities,
and the environment, much lower standards of living, international
tensions, terrorism, etc.) or in a much better shape, with more
resources left, lower levels of contaminants, and thriving green
(cap-and-trade) and the manage-after-disaster approaches lead to the
first scenario. The strategy developed in this book offers a
different avenue, one leading to a much greener and cleaner world
and one that might be seen a few decades from now as ushering in the
21st century environmental revolution.
The Right Recipe for a Revolution
Major changes or
revolutions do happen given certain conditions. Technology was a
major factor in bringing about Toffler's Third Wave, the Information
Age. It will play a role in addressing today's environmental
problems, but the road to a greener world lies at the organizational
level, which is the source of the problem. We need to cure the
disease rather than just treat its symptoms as we are doing now.
Revolutions happen as
a result of a combination of elements. One of the key ingredients
is obviously new ideas or solutions. It is what this book is about.
Another factor is
popular support. Current levels of political commitment to
environmental protection can take us some distance but are often
dependent on disaster striking and people falling ill or dying.
Short of that, little happens. In addition, popular support varies
greatly depending on economic cycles, gains being made in good times
and losses incurred in bad ones.
In this new era of
resource depletion, most economies will likely decline unless we
find alternatives to the single-focus and manage-after-disaster
approaches. We will face a long-term process of shrinking
resources, rising consumer prices, and decreasing standards of
living. This will serve to erode funding and political commitment
for the environment. As such, a strategy that does not address the
problem of resource depletion is bound to fail, and popular support
alone cannot win the day for the planet.
Timing is very
important. For example, winning the right to freedom of speech made
many social changes possible. Before it happened, movements such as
the sexual revolution, gender equity, and unionizing were mere
possibilities. After it did, they became virtual certainties. What
were mere ideas at first became powerful and unstoppable forces for
change. With global warming pressures continuing to mount, the
choice to act is becoming less and less an option. The time is now.
This is our chance to do it right.
legitimacy is also a key element to create a successful revolution.
Many social movements overcame incredible odds primarily
because of their rightfulness. The fundamental legitimacy of
addressing environmental problems is unquestionable, especially
now that we are starting to pay the price for our neglect.
Given the right ideas,
timing, political support, and fundamental legitimacy, powerful
movements can come to life and change the world. The time is ripe
for an environmental revolution, but it will not happen via
cap-and-trade and manage-after-disaster strategies. We have to
look at more profound and fundamental solutions.
A structural approach
is what we need.
The Master Plan for the New Millennium
What would we like to
achieve in the next century? Do you recall hearing of any plan for
the long-term future? The extent of planning for this
millennium is often limited to coping with emergencies as they
come up—not before they do.
Of course, the Kyoto
Accord is somewhat of an exception, but before we celebrate our
achievements, we need to consider the facts that it is still fairly
shaky after over a decade of existence (with countries moving in and
out and China signing up on the condition that it is allowed to
continue increasing its emissions!) and that it leaves the majority
of issues on the environmental agenda unaddressed. The Kyoto
Accord is a band-aid, not a plan for the future.
What kind of planet
will our children inherit from us? Will it be better or worse than
the one that was bequeathed to us? What will be our final legacy?
There has been a
certain amount of legislation made with respect to the environment
but not nearly enough, judging from the lack of progress on global
warming, the absence of a plan to address the problem of resource
depletion, the pervasiveness of contaminants in the environment, the
continued wastefulness in the packaging industry, the intensive use
of chemicals in the agricultural industry, etc.
Fresh water is
considered a health hazard in many places to the point where it is
even dangerous to swim in, let alone drinking it! No matter where
you go, many pollutants are found in increasing levels in many fish
The issue of mercury,
for example, has been around for several decades. Yet, the Mercury
Policy Project (a U.S. initiative to reduce exposure to the metal
and eliminate its uses) reported that an American study which had
found mercury “in the blood of 2% of women in 1999... [detected
it] in 30% of the women by 2006” (Mercury Policy Project, 2009,
September 1). A separate analysis of fish and water streams across
the U.S. from 1998 to 2005 found “27% [of sampled fish] exceeding
levels safe for human consumption” (Mercury Policy Project,
2009, September 1).
find that our own body tissues and those of infants and children are
laced with dozens when not hundreds of toxic compounds and
carcinogens. The milk we feed our kids, the water they drink, the
food they eat are full of contaminants. Many of them will cumulate
over time and progressively poison the environment in which we
headlines and media focus on climate change overshadow the fact that
the contamination of land, water, and air continues unabated. While
much attention is paid to sudden and dramatic deaths caused by
global warming, little is made of the slow and chronic poisoning of
the planet and everything and everyone that lives on it.
Few speak of the
depletion of non-renewable metallic resources. Everybody has heard
about saving trees and global warming, but how much of the earth's
mineral resources are we going to leave future generations? The
metals upon which much of our lives and lifestyles depend are not
renewable. Generally speaking, once gone, they are gone. They do
not grow back.
We will start having
shortages within a decade or two! The problem is actually acutely
critical. Yet, the only planning with respect to non-renewable
resources is a conspiracy of silence: take as much as you can, and
don’t ask any questions or raise the issue. Metals and other
non-renewable resources are world capital that belongs to other
generations too. We will soon begin paying the price for our own
neglect... just as we have already started doing on account of oil.
Nature is catching up to us!
The Fourth Wave
We can continue to
react to crises and then deal with the aftermath of disasters and
increasing environmental destruction, or we can restructure
economies to make them green and work for us.
Global warming is only
one of the many issues that have to be addressed. The Fourth Wave
will force a transition to a greener society. Just how much
resource depletion, contamination, and destruction will have
occurred by the time this happens depends on us.
We are not doing so
well as stewards of the world we inherited. We’d better get our
act together soon, otherwise, there won’t be much of a planet left
for our children.
2. Toffler's Waves of Change
The Pre-First Wave
How would you define
our society? Perhaps, looking back at where we come from will help
in answering this question. As this book is partly rooted in Alvin
Toffler’s works, his own descriptions and definitions will be
societies go back over 10,000 years. Toffler describes them as
small bands of nomads living off the land by fishing, hunting,
and gathering wild plants. They still exist today in some parts of
the world—for example, some tribes in the tropical forests of the
Amazon River and Papua New Guinea—but, generally, their way
of life gradually came to an end when the First Wave—the
agricultural revolution—began taking hold about 10,000 years ago
era is generally defined by anthropologists as the first part of the
Stone Age—the Old Stone Age or the Paleolithic (500,000 BCE
to about 10,000 BCE). Early Stone Age people were nomads who lived
off the land. They constantly moved in pursuit of food. They
followed the herds of animals they hunted and moved away from an
area once it was depleted of game or the plants (fruit, berries,
roots, leafy greens, nuts, grains, etc.) they ate (Beers, 1986, p.
21). Their diet changed depending on food availability and season
of the year.
structure was generally simple. Their way of production was not
very effective. Because they migrated regularly, everything
they owned had to be carried with them. As a result, they could not
accumulate food surpluses and only produced what was needed. When
hard times hit—as a result of droughts or other natural
causes—they simply starved.
The First Wave: The Agricultural Revolution
Toffler describes the
First Wave as having begun with and been driven by the agricultural
revolution. He locates it in time between 8000 BCE and 1650-1750
CE. Farming and land cultivation began in the first part of the New
Stone Age (Neolithic), which ended around 3500 BCE.
During that period,
people gradually moved from hunting and gathering to herding and
agriculture. That span of time saw the domestication of wild
animals, for example, dogs, sheep, and goats. Vegetables and grains
were grown and harvested. Different regions of the world saw
different types of food being cultivated, depending on the
suitability of soils and climates. Rice and yams were grown in
Asia. Wheat, oats, and barley were staples of the Middle East and
Africa. South America's traditional crops were maize and beans
(Beers, 1986, p. 22).
that the agricultural revolution brought to the Stone Age way of
life and the implications it was to have for the future of society
were staggering. The adoption of agricultural practices led to
greater and more secure supplies of meat, grains, and other foods.
The risks of starving from having a bad hunting season were
lessened, and people no longer had to move constantly. Reserves
existed in the form of herd stocks and grain stores.
the development of a number of new tools and the building of
facilities for the storage of seeds. It necessitated land, which
not only had to be fertile but also needed to be made ready or
suitable for food growing; it had to be cleared of trees and root
systems, leveled and drained, tilled, etc. That led to the
abandonment of the nomadic way of life. As facilities and
cleared land could not be moved around and involved a lot of work,
people began settling down around them.
The Passing on of Wealth
A significant economic
aspect of agriculture was that wealth or capital could be built over
time and passed on to the next generation. Stores of grain,
land, equipment, a herd, and facilities could be accumulated over
the years and bequeathed to the following generation.
This meant that not
only food but also wealth and power could accumulate over the
generations. As a result, certain families, clans, and tribes
emerged as wealthier and more powerful. The economic surplus and
the ability to pass it on laid the groundwork for a social hierarchy
Toffler (1980) talks
of a generally parallel evolution in all major civilizations—be it
in Europe, Asia, or Latin America. Land had become the basis of
society. Life—economic, cultural, familial, and
political—revolved around it. The village became the center of
the social organization. They all saw the emergence of basic work
specialization (division of labor). A rigid and authoritarian
system of social classes (the nobility, priesthood, military,
peasantry, etc.) began to appear. Rank was determined by birth, not
merit (pp. 37-38). Neolithic economies were decentralized, and
communities were for the most part self-sufficient.
The Rise of the City
The other important
development that happened as a result of increased farming and
agricultural surpluses was the rise of the city. Large settlements
first appeared around 6000 BCE, but the actual urban revolution that
marked the beginning of civilization occurred later, circa 3500 BCE.
The Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East, the Nile in
North Africa, and the Indus and Yellow rivers in South Asia and Asia
were the cradles that gave birth to civilization.
Cities were largely
oversized agricultural settlements at first. With the growth of
food surpluses, they were able to support a larger non-agricultural
class. As the need for tools and technology increased, a new urban
class grew, the artisans. They were the forerunners of modern
While today the
percentage of people involved in agricultural activities in North
America is only in the order of 2% to 3%, virtually all members
of a tribe were involved in food generation.
Then, the Second Wave
The Second Wave: The Industrial Revolution
For Toffler (1980) the
Second Wave is defined and was brought about by industrialization.
It began around the middle of the 18th century, but some
of its precursors go back further: oil drilling on a Greek island as
early as 400 BCE, the existence of money and exchange, the network
of trade routes from Europe to Asia, the emergence of urban
metropolises in Asia and South America, etc. (p. 38).
Prior to the
industrial revolution, most people were essentially self-sufficient;
they produced what they consumed. With the Second Wave, peasants
lost their autonomy, and production became intended for markets.
Toffler (1980) argues that this created “a way of life filled with
economic tensions, social conflict, and psychological malaise” (p.
The Second Wave gave
rise to the division of labor, which allowed workers and trades
people to be better trained, hone their skills in apprenticeships,
and gain more experience in what they did. The division of labor
culminated with the invention of the assembly
line, a production technique which consisted in splitting up
an elaborate process into simple repetitive tasks that could easily
be performed individually by unskilled labor. Henry Ford is the
name most often associated with its introduction in America. The
new approach greatly accelerated production and reduced costs.
affordability of goods translated into increased demand, which paved
the way for another Second Wave phenomenon and defining
characteristic of industrialization: mass
production or the large-scale manufacturing of items
that are identical. This drove prices further down and gave rise to
today's style of consumerism.
Industrial Technology: The Power to Move
One of the key
elements in the development of industrialization was the
multiplication of human strength and power by several folds. For
example, to exploit the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, we have
created monster trucks having carrying capacities of 360 tons. In
comparison, the average vehicle used to deliver landscaping soil to
your home carries loads of 1/2 to 3 tons.
The piece of
technology responsible for our ability to move mountains is the
engine. Just like the water wheel and the windmill early on, the
invention served to multiply labor output. It powered a new era,
revolutionized transportation, and eventually created a booming
automobile industry. The invention of the engine resulted in a
massive increase in wealth and productivity.
earlier technology that used clean and renewable energies such
as the wind and water, the new contraption was fed by fossil fuels
produced in ancient times. This signalled a significant shift away
from clean sources of power and represented perhaps our first step
down the road towards global warming.
The fossil fuels that
we have been tapping into to support our lifestyles for the
last century have been a boon but also a scourge in their massive
contribution to pollution and global warming. By the early 1970s,
the petroleum industry had been so successful in expanding wealth
that virtually the entire world economy had become highly dependent
This is when the first
oil crisis hit.
The Third Wave: The Digital Age
Toffler (1980) argues
that up until 1973 industrialization had ruled unchallenged. The
Soviet Union and the U.S. were locked in the Cold War, both vying
for allies worldwide, seeking to expand their influence and shore up
their defenses. Multinational corporations emerged as a third
power—often under the protection of their national
governments—spreading their tentacles across the planet in their
relentless drive for cheap resources and greater profits.
Drunk on cheap and
bountiful oil supplies from the Middle East, the developed world saw
growing stability and unlimited economic expansion. The new wealth
set an upbeat mood. Until 1973, that is, when everything came to a
August 8, 1960, argues
Toffler, might be symbolic of the final stages of the Second Wave.
On that day, in a bid to increase profits, Monroe Rathbone,
Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Exxon Corporation, made the
decision to reduce royalties on imported petroleum. The other major
players in the industry followed suit within days. Oil producing
states—many of them, developing countries—were hit especially
hard by the losses. They organized an emergency meeting in Baghdad
to address the issue. On September 9, 1960, the Organization of
Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was born.
For many years, it
had little success in raising oil prices. However, taking advantage
of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, OPEC was successful
in cutting production and increasing revenues several folds.
production systems were highly concentrated and non-diversified with
respect to energy. Transportation was almost exclusively petroleum
based—and still is very much so today. The industrial base of
most countries also generally revolved around the same fuel. The
price of gasoline spiked up, sending world economies into
In 1980, just as
countries were emerging from the first oil crisis, OPEC struck
again. The cost of a barrel of oil tripled suddenly to above US$
35. The rise in prices resulted in austerity measures being
implemented in both developed and developing parts of the world.
The new economic conditions brought some countries to the very brink
of bankruptcy. In the years that followed, world oil prices dropped
back to lower levels.
Other cartels do
exist. However, none had struck so close to the heart of the
Today, the price of
petroleum is up to new heights. It peaked past US$ 147 a barrel in
July 2008 and has come down since, but it is expected to climb back
up as the world economy edges its way out of the current slowdown.
Because of the high inflation levels of the last two decades of the
20th century—not to speak of the drop in value of the
U.S. dollar—today's prices are not as high as they seem to be.
For example, in 2008 when the cost per barrel reached over $120, the
news media reported that level to be comparable to what it was after
the second oil crisis. Of course, that is little comfort to drivers
Second Wave industry
developed from mechanical inventions and focused on mass production.
With the advent of the Third Wave, the Digital Age, Toffler saw the
pendulum swinging back from the petroleum-based heavy industry
towards more appropriate-scale and less oil-intensive technologies.
Computers and the Internet would lead to a de-massification of
industry: decentralized operations, increased customization,
smaller production runs, etc.
also makes the case that the Third Wave industrial base would
operate on a more sustainable basis and be composed of a mix of
high-stream industries (large scale and science based) that
would be under tighter social controls and friendlier to the
environment, and of low-stream industries—of smaller,
more appropriate, and human scale—that would rely on new and
The Missing Link
valiant efforts, we do not have yet the answers to all the questions
posed by the 20th century. One of the most important
issues in socio-economic change is implementability. No matter how
good something looks on paper, it has no use if it is too expensive
or impractical. Neither has it much value if it is not powerful
enough to solve a given problem. An insufficient dose of medicine
will generally fail to cure a disease and can actually be harmful
and result in the patient's death.
It should be obvious
to all of us that with respect to the environment there is
still a piece of the puzzle missing. Despite the scientific
advances of the last century, we are not keeping up with problems,
let alone solving them.
The earth and the
atmosphere are slowly being poisoned by a number of pollutants.
When people do not get sick or die, the contamination continues
silently, unhindered. Environmentalists' efforts are laudable, but
they are not enough. Problems are massive and will not get resolved
with piecemeal or incremental solutions. This is where this book
comes into play. It brings in new thinking and takes an
appropriate-scale and comprehensive approach to problem-solving for
The New Millennium
At the beginning of
this new millennium, oil remains an overriding concern for modern
societies. If we continue down the same path and do not address the
problem of depletion, the future will be one where scarcity will
turn one non-renewable resource after another into objects of power.
This will dramatically raise international tensions and fuel
endless conflicts. Poverty will progressively increase in both
developing and developed countries.
Unless we change the
way we manage resources, we will be looking at a very chaotic
future, and the current turmoil will only be a taste of what is to