Waves of the Future - The Magian Age

Climate Change, Non-Renewable Resources, Energy, Contaminants, Carbon Pricing...

The 21st Century Environmental Revolution

1. Non-Technological Revolutions

2. Toffler's Waves of Change

Alternative Solutions and Strategies for Global Warming, GHG & Carbon Emissions, Renewable Energy, Fossil Fuels, Resource Conservation, Toxic Chemicals, Recycling...

Overview  Reviews

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).

Although 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.

Toffler 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.

Scientists 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.

More than 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.

Where 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.

Governments 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.

Environment 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.

The 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.

This is 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 economies.

The single-focus (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.

Fundamental 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.

Our Legacy
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 species.

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).

Increasingly, studies 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 live.

The news 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.

Non-Renewable Resources
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 used.

Pre-first-wave 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 (p. 29).

Pre-Agricultural Life
The pre-agricultural 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.

Their social 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).

The transformations 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.

Cultivation required 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 to emerge.

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 tradespeople.

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 hit.

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. 53).

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.

The greater 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 Mountains
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.

However, unlike 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 upon it.

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 screeching halt.

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.

Second Wave 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 inflationary spirals.

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 industrial economy.

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 and consumers.

Toffler's De-Massification
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.

He 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 sophisticated technology.

The Missing Link
Despite Toffler's 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 environment.

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 come.

Copyright Waves of the Future, ©2010

More information: National Wildlife Federation Alliance to Save Energy