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This is an extract taken from my new book, written with Alan Murray,  Sustainable Economics: Context, Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st  Century Practitioner. Due out on 15th April, 2015, you can find it at Stylus Publishing in the Americas or Greenleaf Publishing in the UK.

The history of humankind has been a journey of change, as all journeys are, but the drivers of change have altered.  The Hunter-Gatherer Age, in which our race has spent 95% of our time on Earth, was shaped by the environment, and our existence relied on our relationship with nature.  The feedback loops were simple, rapid and direct, stemming from the sun and the rain.  The rest was the outcome of the particular food web of which we were a part. Our energy was mostly dedicated to acquiring the food and water needed to sustain us. We existed in an egalitarian relationship socially and with the environment. Human capital represented the only limit to human economic development (e.g. the number of fishermen limited the number of fish caught), if economics even existed. The environment was a source.

The Agrarian Age still relied on the sun and water, but we began taking control of the food webs, altering them to suit our needs.  Soon these outcomes formed the basis of profits, allowing trade, and settlements facilitated the development of trade routes and export/import. Our energy was spent creating agricultural surplus, or trading this surplus, as an economic system developed.  Inequality entered not only human society, but the human-environment relationship. In the Agrarian Age, the environment was now a source and a sink.  Man-made capital limited economic development (e.g. the number of fishing boats limited the number of fish harvested). While the industrial revolution has often been observed as the most significant transition in human history, in fact the transition from the Hunter-gatherer Age to the Agrarian Age was much more elemental, laying the foundations for all that was to come.  Three developments in particular would pave the way to the modern world:

  1. The onset of agriculture
  2. The onset of urbanization
  3. The onset of economics
The population underwent division of labour (food producers and those not involved in agriculture), and with a sedentary, trading race, social stratification emerged.  With the basics more than taken care of, wealth, power and tokenism prevailed.  This lead to wider uses of renewable and non-renewable resources, and with an increasingly large trading floor, industrialization of production emerged, ushering in the Industrial Age.  Our energy was spent creating wealth either for ourselves or our employers, and inequality increased at both the social and environmental levels. 

The Industrial Age superseded the Agrarian Age by industrializing agriculture, while colonialism all but wiped out the remnants of the Hunter-Gatherer Age, except in areas where the colonial powers could see no exploitative advantage.  In the early Industrial Age, man-made capital limited the potential for economic development (e.g. the ability of an automobile factory to make lots of cars), but in the later stages, it is the natural capital that limits that development (e.g. insufficient lithium to make enough batteries for the new generation of electric cars). It is fossil fuel deposits, not the number of refineries that limit oil production; it is the area of forest, not the number of saw mills, which limits forestry. Yet the Industrial Age was merely an intensification of the Agrarian Age.

The Information Age now controls the financial, industrial, agricultural and cultural domains of our existence, and we live in a largely controlled world. While improving our social interactions and enhancing industrial efficiency, the Information Age has so far not altered our relationship with the environment in any meaningful way.  Its replacement of humans in the workplace may also erode social structure while enhancing economic growth.  It is yet to be seen if this will change, but at present it merely contributes to the source and sink exploitation of our existence, while introducing new risks due to our increasing dependence upon technology.   While the Information Age excludes environmental considerations within its solution space, then its solutions will continue to fail nature, and further erode the natural capital of our planet. Yet again, the information age is merely an intensification and optimization of the Agrarian Age in principle.

 

The path of the last 12000 years has been one of increasing intensification and optimization of our race at the expense of everything we used to hold dear as hunter gatherers.  The ghosts of our past still walk with us in the form of the indigenous peoples of our world. Each age has brought a population explosion, as technology has raised the carrying capacity by allowing access to greater energy resources for humans. Through the ages of humankind there has been a shift from using portable utilitarian, easily acquired, replaceable, easily recycled artefacts to using heavy, elaborate, multi-resource artefacts requiring prolonged manufacture, maintenance, and increased waste. From the Agrarian Age onwards, with the advent of economics came the age of possession, inequality, envy, greed and individualism: the age of the plastic crown.


 


Comments

07/05/2015 9:59am

You've made a very good point in each sentence. Thank you so much for posting such idea.

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05/08/2016 10:31pm

Cool! Very cool that you began taking control of the food webs, altering them to suit our needs!

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07/05/2016 11:36pm

What should we do? Tell us.

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11/16/2016 2:07am

Thank you so much for sharing. What a wonderful information.

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