Dr Harari’s fourth lecture under the general heading of ”The Scientific Revolution” covers the Industrial Revolution.
During the last 200 years, the combination of science, imperialism and capitalism produced the Industrial Revolution. This revolution gave humankind control of enormous new energy resources, and enabled humankind to start manufacturing far more things than ever before, far more quickly, and far more cheaply. How did this change the global ecology, daily life, and human psychology?
This week’s lectures attempt to answer these questions. These are my lecture notes created using the subtitles from the Coursera videos.
When the oil runs out.
We have seen that the modern economy grows thanks to our trust in the future, and to the willingness of capitalists to reinvest the profits in increasing production. Yet, that does not suffice. Economic growth also requires energy and raw materials. Without it, the economy cannot grow. Many people ask what will happen when the energy sources and the raw materials run out. This is central to arguments among the general public as well as economists and scientists. The danger of humanity running out of energy sources and raw materials is actually smaller than it at first seems. Over the last two or three centuries the amounts of available energy and raw materials just keeps growing and growing, instead of diminishing as common sense would have us expect. Whenever there is a threat of shortage of either energy or raw materials which threatens to slow down the growth of the economy investments begin to flow into scientific and technological research on the relevant subjects. So far the scientists and engineers, thanks to this financial support, have always managed to solve the problem and find more efficient ways of exploiting existing resources, or to discover completely new types of energy and of raw materials which previously we didn’t know about.
Consider for example, the vehicle industry. Over the last 300 years, humankind has manufactured billions upon billions of vehicles, carts, wagons, trains, cars, motorcycles, airplanes, ships and space shuttles. One might have expected that such a prodigious effort of building vehicles would exhaust our energy sources and raw materials which are available for vehicle production, but just the opposite is the case. Whereas in 1700, the global vehicle industry relied overwhelmingly on wood and iron, today it has many completely new materials, such as plastic, rubber, aluminium, and titanium, which were simply unknown to our ancestors in 1700. In the 17th or 18th century, carts, wagons and ships were built mainly by the muscle power of carpet, carpenters and smiths. Most of the energy to build a ship came from people and animals. Today the machines in the factories of Toyota, Mercedes and Boeing that produce a cars, airplanes and ships are powered by petroleum combustion engines and nuclear power stations, which did not exist two or three centuries ago.
The industrial revolution
A similar revolution, of having more and more energy and raw materials, has swept almost all other fields of human industry and human production. This revolution in production is called the Industrial Revolution. The most important things that happened in the Industrial Revolution was not the discovery of this or that particular raw material or energy source, but, the new understanding of humans that they are in fact surrounded by enormous, almost limitless quantities of energy and raw materials. The main thing we really need to do is to find and invent ways to harness and control all this energy and raw materials. What is really lacking is not energy, but ways to harness it. Over the last few centuries, every few years, or decades, scientists and engineers have managed to discover new sources of energy, new raw materials and new ways of harnessing them for our needs.
The first really important breakthrough that began the Industrial Revolution occurred in British coal mines in the late 17th and early 18th century. During this period, the British population grew at a very fast rate and forests were cut down in order to fuel the growing economy and to make room for houses, fields and villages and so forth. Therefore Britain began to suffer from a shortage of firewood when people wanted to heat their houses in winter or to boil water and so forth.
The British came up with a solution. They began to use coal instead, and more and more coal mines were opened in different parts of Britain to supply coal. There was a problem. Many of the coal mines were in waterlogged areas so when they began to go deeper, the mines suffered from flooding which prevented them from accessing the lowest strata of the coal mines. To solve this problem, around the year 1700, engineers in British coal mines invented the steam engine, the first big invention of the Industrial Revolution. They are all kinds of steam engines, but they all work in the same basic way. They burn some sort of fuel like coal, and the resulting heat is used to boil water. When water boils, it turns into steam which expands and is used to push a piston. The piston moves and anything connected to the piston moves along with it. The amazing thing about the steam engine is that it converts heat energy into movement. This is very counter intuitive. It’s very easy to understand that burning coal can boil soup or heat a house. But the idea that burning coal can move something is very counter intuitive, which is why it took thousands of years for people to think about it. The piston was connected to a pump and the pump extracted water from the bottom of the mines in order to prevent flooding. This was the first usage of the steam engine. In the decades after its invention, British business people took the steam engine out of the coal mines in to factories and began to connect steam engines to all kinds of other things like looms to make cloth and textiles.
Steam power was the really beginning of the Industrial Revolution which very quickly turned Britain not only into the leading industrial nation of the world but also into the leading economic and political power of the world. The next stage in the process came in 1825 when a British engineer had another great idea. If we can connect the piston to textile machines in factories, why not use the same principle of burning coal to move things, in order to start moving vehicles. This engineer connected the steam engine to a wagon full of coal and it drove the wagon along an iron rail some 20 kilometres long that connected the coal mine to the nearest harbour. This was the first steam-powered locomotive in history. Five years later, on the 15th of September, 1830, the first commercial railway line, that moved not only coal but other goods and people, was open for business. It connected the city of Liverpool to the city of Manchester in Britain, two of the earliest centres of the Industrial Revolution. The trains connecting these two cities were propelled forward using the same steam power that was previously used in order to pump water and to move textile looms. Twenty years later, in 1850, Britain already had tens of thousands of kilometres of railroad tracks connecting all the major cities.
This invention of the steam engine was important not only in itself, but also because it broke a big psychological barrier. It proved that by inventing the right machine, you could use almost any kind of energy in the world for any purpose you want. Using the energy from burning coal in order to move trains was something very hard for people to grasp until the steam engine. However once people realized it they began to invent all kinds of other machines that used various types of energy for various purposes. For example, when in the late 19th and early 20th century, physicists realized that immense amounts of energy are stored within atoms, in the connections that keep atoms together. They immediately started thinking about how they might release this energy and harness it in order to produce electricity, in order to power vehicles, in order to win wars and annihilate cities. Only 40 years passed from the moment that Einstein determined that E equals mc square, until the first atomic bombs obliterated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. E equals mc squared, the big equation that Einstein discovered, what it means, E is energy and m is mass. It means that any mass of matter can be transformed, and can be converted into immense amounts of energy. This is what the atom bomb does, it releases the energy stored within matter and uses it to destroy a city. This energy can be used for other purposes. Today we have nuclear power plants all over the world which provide us with cheap electricity.
Petroleum and electricity
Another crucial discovery of the last two centuries was the internal combustion engine, which took little more than a generation to completely revolutionize numerous transportation systems, cars, planes, and so forth. This engine turns petroleum into liquid political power, into a very important asset that countries fight over, petroleum oil. Petroleum had been known to humans for thousands of years. Even in ancient Mesopotamia, what is today Iraq, the Babylonians and the Assyrians knew about petroleum. They encountered it but they didn’t do anything with it. They didn’t know what could be done with it. They used petroleum to waterproof ships and lubricate axles, but that’s about it.
Until just a century ago nobody thought that you could do much with petroleum. The idea of fighting wars, of spilling blood for the sake of petroleum, would have sounded ludicrous to Napoleon, and Genghis Khan, and Julius Caesar. Napoleon or Julius Caesar might fight a war to get land or to get gold or pepper or slaves, but to fight a war in order to get petroleum, this was ridiculous. Only in the last 100 to 150 years, people discovered that you can use petroleum to fuel cars and planes and so forth and then they started fighting about it.
Even more startling was the career of electricity. Two centuries ago, in 1800, again, people knew about electricity, but it played no role in the economy. Electricity was used by scientists for all kinds of arcane experiments, and by magicians to perform cheap magic tricks, but nobody knew what else electricity could do. Over the last two centuries a series of inventions turned electricity into a kind of universal genie in a lamp, that do anything we want. We flick our little finger and electricity runs to the ends of the world to fulfil our every wish. If an electricity supply breaks down then a lot of things stop. Hardly any of us really knows how electricity does all these things. Physicists and electricians know, but most people don’t know what electricity actually is, and how it does all these amazing things. Hardly any of us can even imagine our lives without electricity.
The Industrial Revolution was thus a revolution of energy. Its deep meaning is that there is no limit to the amount of energy at our disposal. The only limit is set by our ignorance. Every few decades we discover a new energy source as our knowledge becomes better and better. The total of energy at the disposal of human kind keeps growing. Hence the common fears that we are running out of energy are probably exaggerated. The world does not lack energy, what it really lacks is the knowledge necessary to harness and to convert the existing energy to our needs. The amount of energy which is stored within all the fossil fuel on earth, petroleum and coal and so forth, is negligible compared to the amount of energy that the sun releases every day free of charge. Only a tiny portion of the energy released by the sun reaches planet Earth. Even this small bit amounts to 3,766,000 exajoules of energy each year. An exajoule is a very, very large quantity of energy. Now all the plants in the world capture in the process of photosynthesis only about 3,000 of those millions of exajoules that reach Earth from the sun. All human activities in the industries today on Earth if you combine them together consume in a year just 500 exajoule. This is equivalent to the amount of energy this planet Earth receives from the sun free of charge in just 90 minutes.
In addition we are surrounded by enormous sources of other kinds of energy, such as nuclear energy in atoms in the gravitational energy for example gravitational forces of the ocean tides.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution humans got almost all their energy from plants. We ate plants to fuel our muscles and fed working animals, like horses or donkeys, and burnt plants, such as wood, in order to heat houses and cook. This meant that throughout most of history, everything humans they did was based just on exploiting these 3,000 exajoules of energy that plants capture every year from solar energy in the process of photosynthesis. During the Industrial Revolution humans came to realize that there is actually much more energy out there. There are millions and millions of exajoules of potential energy which we can use if we can only invent better machines to harness all that energy.
We have a lot of energy around us, but aren’t raw materials such as iron and copper scarce? Won’t they eventually just be completely used up, and we’ll have nothing more to use? Well, the answer is that once you know how to harness large quantities of cheap energy, once you solve the problem of energy, you can also solve the problem of raw materials. For example, if you have a lot of cheap energy, you can exploit previously inaccessible deposits of raw materials. If you don’t have any more iron in easily accessible mines, say in Sweden, you can start mining iron in the North Pole. It’s not easy, but if you have all the energy in the world you want, so it’s not impossible either. Another thing that you can do if you have a lot of energy is to transport raw materials to more and more distant locations. In the 19th century British textile manufacturers needed more and more wool. They began importing it from Australia and New Zealand. Previously it would have been impossible to import wool all the way from Australia because of the cost of transportation, but with the invention of steam engines and steam ships it became cheaper and more economical.
Today when people are looking for new sources of raw materials they say, why not take iron and copper and aluminium and so forth from the moon, or from the stars or from asteroids. If we have a lot of cheap energy the cost of transporting it to Earth would not impede even such grandiose plans.
Scientific breakthroughs enabled human kind to invent completely new types of raw materials that didn’t exist before, such as plastic. Or to discover natural materials that always existed but people knew nothing about, such as silicon and aluminium. Chemists discovered the metal aluminium only in the 1820s, previously they didn’t know about it. Separating aluminium from its ore was extremely difficult and costly, therefore, for many decades, aluminium was more expensive than gold. In the 1860s, the emperor of France, Napoleon the Third, nephew of the famous Napoleon, commissioned aluminium cutlery and plates to use when very distinguish guests were coming for a visit. They would take the gold plates, knives and forks, put them aside and lay the table with aluminium cutlery. At the end of the 19th century a chemist discovered ways to extract immense amounts of aluminium very, very cheaply, and today the world produces 30 million tons of aluminium each year. Napoleon the Third would be very surprised to hear that today we think that aluminium is something very cheap and use aluminium paper to wrap our sandwiches in and then throw it away.
Another interesting case of discovering a new and cheap way of extracting raw materials involved what happened in Germany, in the First World War. Germany was placed under blockade and suffered from severe shortages of raw materials. Particularly severe was the shortage in saltpetre. Saltpetre is a kind of chemical that is essential for producing gun powder and other explosives. The most important natural deposits of saltpetre in the world were in Chile and India. There are none in Germany. By the early 20th century, chemists knew that you could replace saltpetre in the production of explosives by synthetic ammonia. But ammonia was extremely expensive to produce so it was not really a solution. This was a very big problem, because during a war you need to produce a lot of explosives. Luckily for the Germans there was a Jewish-German chemist, called Fritz Haber. In 1908 just before the war, Fritz Haber discovered a process for producing ammonia from thin air. You take normal air and you can in some kind of chemical process bind the nitrogen atoms from the air and produce ammonia and then use it for explosives and other things. When the war erupted and the Germans faced a shortage of saltpetre to produce explosives and gun powder, they pooled resources and money to develop Haber’s new discovery. They built huge factories which produced explosive ammonia from air. Many historians and scholars believe that if it wasn’t for Fritz Haber’s discovery, Germany would have been forced to surrender long before November 1918 because it would have run out of explosives. This discovery, by the way, won Fritz Haber the Nobel prize in the year 1918, not for peace of course, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
The second agricultural revolution
The control and combination of cheap and abundant energy and raw materials resulted in an explosion in human productivity. The explosion was felt first and foremost in agriculture. Usually when we think about the industrial revolution, we think about cities. We think about an open landscape of smoking chimneys and terrible working conditions of workers in factories like in the novels of Charles Dickens and Emile Zola. However, the Industrial Revolution was, firstly, a second agricultural revolution. It primarily affected agriculture and what was happening in the production of food. During the last 200 years, industrial production methods became the mainstay of agriculture Machines, such as tractors began to do work that previously was performed by the muscle power of humans and animals or not performed at all. Fields and animals became much more productive thanks to the usage of industrial products, like artificial fertilizers, artificial insecticides, and an entire arsenal of industrially produced hormones and medications. Refrigerators, aeroplanes, ships, and trucks have made it possible to store agricultural produce like grain, fruits and meat, for months, and even years. We can transport it quickly and cheaply to the other side of the world, so Europeans today can eat fresh beef from Argentina or fresh sushi from Japan.
Even the plants and animals were mechanized, were turned into machines. In the period when Homo sapiens was elevated to divine status by the humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be viewed and treated simply as machines for producing food. Today, farmyard animals are often mass-produced in factory like facilities. Their bodies are shaped by scientists in accordance with industrial needs and chickens and cows and pigs and so forth pass their entire lives as parts of some giant production line. The length and quality and conditions of their existence are determined by the profits and losses of business corporations that own them. Even when the industry takes care to keep these animals alive and reasonably healthy and well-fed, the industry has no intrinsic interest in the social and psychological needs of the animals except when these have a direct impact on production. For example, egg laying hens have a very complex world of behavioural needs, drives and desires. Hens feel strong urges to scout, walk around and scout their environment, to forage, to peck around, to determine social hierarchies among themselves, to build nests and to groom themselves, the chicks and other chickens. However the egg industry takes these hens and locks them in tiny cages. It is not uncommon in the industry for example to
squeeze four hens to a single small cage, each hen being given floor space of just 22 by 25 centimetres. This is common in the industry. The hens receive enough food, but they are unable to claim a territory, to build a nest, to engage in other natural activities, or indeed, the cage in which they live is so small that usually the hens are unable, even to flap the wings, or to stand fully erect. They are just squeezed for their entire lives producing egg after egg.
The same things are happening in the meat industry. Pigs are among the most intelligent and inquisitive of mammals, second only to the great apes, yet in industrialized pig farms pigs and sows are routinely confined in very small cages. In industrialized farms sows are confined into such small crates, cages, that they literally are unable to turn around, not to mention to walk or to forage. The sows, female pigs, are kept in these crates day and night for four weeks after they give birth. They are kept in the crates with their offspring and they can’t even move. They just stand there, letting the offspring suck from them. They receive food from the managers, and they feed the young. After four weeks the young, the small piglets, are taken away to be fattened up and then butchered.
The sows are impregnated again with the next bunch of piglets, and once the piglets are born again, they are stuffed into this tiny crate. The reason they are stuffed into crates without being able to move around is because as managers are afraid, for all kinds of reasons, one of them is that their sows will accidentally crush one of the piglets so they just stuck them in the crate and so they are not able to move, they spend a month inside such crates.
In the dairy industry there are similar practices. Many dairy cows that produce milk live almost all their allotted years inside a small enclosure. They stand and sit and sleep in their own urine and excrement. They receive whatever food and hormones and medications are needed from one set of machines which brings them food and then another set of machines milks the cows every few hours and the cow in between is treated by the industry as little more than another machine, a machine that takes in raw materials and gives out the product milk.
Treating living creatures which have complex and sensory worlds as if they were only machines is likely to cause them not only a lot of physical discomfort, but also much social stress, and psychological frustration. You can see here before you a picture of one such industrial farm that produces chickens. It’s a picture of young chicks on a conveyor belt in an industrial hatchery. Male chicks and imperfect females are sorted out on the conveyor belt by the workers and are thrown away to be crushed in the garbage or sometimes they are dropped into automatic shredders that shred the chicks which are useless. This is an industrial farm that produces hens for laying eggs. Male chickens and imperfect female chickens are useless so they are thrown away or shredded. The shredded stuff is used to feed other animals. Hundreds of millions of chicks die each year in such hatcheries.
This treatment of animals is not caused by hatred of animals, just as the Atlantic slave trade did not result from hatred towards Africans. The modern animal industry is not motivated by animosity; it is fuelled mainly by greed coupled with indifference. Not caring about the fate of, of these creatures. Most people who produce and consume eggs and milk and meat today in the world rarely stop to think about where this is coming from, about the fate of the chickens and the cows and the pigs, whose flesh and emissions they are eating. Those who do think about such things often argue that such animals are simply machines. That they have no world of sensations and emotions, and they’re not capable of suffering. What is really ironic is that the same scientific disciplines that are used in order to shape our milk machines and egg machines, have over the last few decades demonstrated, beyond reasonable doubt, that mammals and birds do have a complex sensory and emotional system. They are able not only to feel physical pain, but are also capable of suffering from emotional distress. We know among other things, from studies in evolutionary psychology, evolution of psychology maintains that the emotional and social needs of animals, including farm animals, evolved in the wild over millions of years, when these needs and desires and emotions were essential for the survival and reproduction of the species.
For example, in the wild, cows had to know how to form close relations with other cows and bulls or else, they could not survive and reproduce. In all, in order to learn the necessary social skills, evolution over millions of years implanted calves like the young of all other social mammals with a very strong urge desire to play. Playing is the way that young mammals learn social behaviour. Evolution implanted the young of cattle with an even stronger desire to bond with the mothers, to stay close to the mothers, because the milk and the care of the mother cow was obviously essential for the survival of the calf. In modern industry if farmers now take a young calf, separate her from her mother, put her in a closed cage, give her food and water and injections against all kinds of diseases and when she’s old enough inseminate her with sperm from a bull. From an objective perspective, this calf no longer needs either maternal bonding or playing with other calves in order to survive and reproduce, because people take care of all that. However, from the subjective perspective, from the perspective of the cow itself, the cow still feels a very strong urge to bond with her mother, and to play with other cows. If these urges, which are implanted in the cows by millions of years of evolution are not fulfilled the calf suffers. This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology. A need or a desire which was shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction. The great tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes care of the objective needs of animals, but completely neglects their subjective needs.
This theory is not something new we just discovered in the last five or ten years, but was known at least from the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the 1950’s, a very famous American psychologist, Harry Harlow studied the development of young mammals by using young monkeys for the experiment. He separated infant monkeys from their mothers several hours after birth. The monkeys were isolated, alone in a cage without any other monkey and were raised by dummy mothers. In each cage, Harlow placed two dummy mothers. One dummy mother was made of metal wires and was fitted with a milk bottle, so that the infant monkey could suck and eat. The other dummy mum was made from wood covered with cloth, which made her resemble a real monkey mum. This soft, cloth mother, it did not provide the infant monkey with any food, it was just a statue. Harlow, and many, many other theoreticians assumed that the infants would cling to the nourishing metal mother and wouldn’t care much about the barren cloth mother. To the great surprise of the scientists, the infant monkeys showed a very clear preference for the cloth mother, spending most of the time with her. As you can see in this picture, when the two mothers were placed in close proximity, when the two dummies were placed side by side, the infant monkeys continued to hold the cloth mother, even when they reached over to suck milk from the metal mother. Harlow at first suspected that perhaps the infants did so because they were cold. They tried to warm themselves in the arms of the cloth mother. So he fitted an electric bulb inside the wire mother, which then radiated more heat than the cloth mother. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the baby monkeys continued to prefer the cloth mother. This was the conclusion that they reached, that monkeys and other mammals look for something more in parents than just material needs. They also have very deep important psychological and emotional needs. The infant monkeys thought that the mother that looks like a real monkey may provide them with their emotional needs more than this metal installation.
Follow-up research showed that Harlow’s orphaned monkeys, which did not receive any of their emotional and psychological needs, even though they received all the food, and medications, and water, and everything else, grew up to be emotional wrecks. They never managed to fit into monkey society, they had difficulty communicating with other monkeys and they suffered constantly from very high levels of anxiety and aggression. The conclusion from this and many other experiments was that monkeys and other mammals have psychological and emotional needs and desires that go far beyond the material requirements of food and water and health. If these emotional needs and not fulfilled, they will suffer greatly. In the following decades, similar experiments and studies showed that this is true not only for monkeys but for other mammals even for birds and for humans.
Harlow’s experiment on the infant monkeys actually produced a revolution in the practices of raising human children. In the 1940’s and 50’s, psychologists were specializing in children. They thought that what children really need is just material care. For instance, in the orphanages after the Second World War in Europe there were hundreds of thousands of orphaned children. So it was a huge age for orphanages. In the orphanages, according to the wisdom of those days, they took strong measures to separate the children one from the other and from any contact with adults because they feared disease. The main idea was what children need is food, and water, and medication, and the biggest threat was the spread of epidemics in these orphanages, so they maintain a very strict regime of allowing children as little contact as possible with other people, including other children, to prevent disease. The result was a huge rate of death, and even those orphans who survived suffered from psychological traumas and problems. In the 1950, 50s and 60s, because of the experiment on monkeys, they realized that mammals, including humans, have emotional needs, that can be provided only by close contact, with other members of your species. Today the entire logic of how to raise children, including orphans, is just the opposite. They need as much contact as possible with other people not to be separated and isolated. This is now the accepted wisdom and both about raising children, human children, and about other animals, at least about mammals. However, industrial agriculture ignores these findings completely, when it comes to raising animals like cows and pigs and, and so forth.
Feeding the population
Industrial agriculture raises a lot of ethical, moral dilemmas. What cannot be ignored is the immense contribution it made to human productivity. Altogether billions of farm-yard animals today live as part of some kind of mechanized assembly line and about 10 billion animals are slaughtered each year by industrial agriculture in order to support our economy and our affluent lifestyle. These industrial methods of agriculture, of raising animals, are one of the things that led to a very sharp increase in the productivity of agriculture and in human food reserves together with the mechanization of plant cultivation, of the cultivation of wheat and potatoes and rice and corn and so forth. Industrial animal husbandry has been the basis for the entire modern social economic order. Before the industrialization of agriculture most of the food that was produced by farmers was used feeding the farmers and farmyard animals. Only a small percentage of the food was available to feed teachers and priests and bureaucrats and workers in the cities. Consequently, in almost all previous societies peasants comprised more than 90% of the population, and this was true until the early 20th century. Only following the industrialization of agriculture was possible for a smaller and smaller number of farmers to produce more and more food to feed people in the cities.
Today in the United States for example only 2% of the population make their living from agriculture. These 2% produce enough food with all the industrial methods of agriculture to feed not only the other 98% of the population, but also to export surplus food to the rest of the world. The United States is one of the world’s biggest exporters of food. Without the industrialization of agriculture, the urban Industrial Revolution in the cities and factories could never have taken place. There would not have been enough hands and brains to staff all the factories and offices in the cities. Agriculture enabled more and more people to stop working in the fields and villages and to move to the cities. Factories and offices were able to absorb billions of new workers and they began producing more and more products as a result. People moved from villages to the city, from working in the field, to working in the factory, and the factories began to produce an avalanche of new products. Humans today produce in consequence far more steel, more clothing, more structures like houses and hotels than ever before. They also produce a really mind-boggling collection of goods which previously nobody even imagined like phones and cameras and dishwashers. The flood of new products realized in a moment, the accumulated dreams of thousands of years was suddenly realized within a few decades. Consequently for the first time in human history the supply of goods and products began to outstrip demand. This created an entirely new economic problem, the problem of consumption. When there are so many products, who is going to buy all this new stuff?
The problem of consumption
The modern capitalist economy must all, must constantly grow, must increase production more and more in order to survive. If it doesn’t grow it collapses, it doesn’t stay in place. However, it’s not enough just to produce more and more. There are all these people coming from the villages to the cities, and producing more and more produce. It’s not enough just to produce them somebody must also buy them, if not the industrialists and the investors will, will go out of business. To prevent this catastrophe, and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared. It was an ethical revolution, the ethic of consumerism.
What is consumerism?
Most people throughout history lived under conditions of scarcity. There was not enough of anything. Frugality was the main part of ethics. People believed that being satisfied with the little that you have is good and indulging yourself in luxuries was bad, only evil people and corrupt people indulged themselves in luxuries. A good person should avoid luxuries, should never throw away food, you always finish whatever your mother puts on your plate. If your trousers get torn you don’t throw them away and buy a new pair you mend them. This was a very important part of human morality. Only kings and aristocrats allowed themselves to publicly renounce such values of frugality and to conspicuously flaunt their riches by building palaces and wearing gold and silver and silk clothing and so forth. When the Industrial Revolution solved the problem of scarcity it instead created the problem of consumption.
A new revolutionary ethic evolved, the ethic we call consumerism. Consumerism sees the consumption of more and more products and services as a good thing as a positive thing. Consumerism encourages people to spoil themselves, treat themselves, and even kill themselves by slowly by eating too much. Consumerism sees frugality as a problem as some kind of psychological disorder, some kind of disease that should be cured. Consumerism has worked very hard, with the help of popular psychology, and advertisements, and TV, and so forth, to convince people that indulging themselves is good for you, whereas frugality, being satisfied with little is self-oppression. If you want to buy new clothes, go ahead, if you want a new car, take a loan from the bank and buy it. If you want to eat that cake, go ahead. You should treat yourself, listen to yourself, if you really want something, then just go ahead and do it. This is consumerism.
Consumerism has succeeded in turning more and more segments of the human population in the world into very good consumers. We buy countless products that we don’t really need, and we can’t even afford and that, until yesterday, we didn’t even know existed. Manufacturers actually deliberately design short-term goods and invent all kinds of new and unnecessary models of perfectly satisfactory products in order that we can purchase more and more products every year. Shopping, over the last century or so, has become a favourite pastime of more and more people. Consumer goods have become essential mediators in relationships between family members, spouses, friends, parents and children. If you want to express your feelings, you buy something for your friend, or for your child, or for your parent. Even religious festivals, religious holidays, like Christmas, became shopping festivals. In the United States, even Memorial Day.
Memorial Day was originally a solemn day for remembering fallen soldiers that fell in defence of the United States in the World Wars and other wars. Today, Memorial Day is spent by many Americans by going shopping. There are special Memorial Day sales the shops have, because they know that people have free time during this day, so they attract them to the shops with these Memorial Day, day sales. Perhaps they think that the defenders of the United States really wanted us to commemorate their sacrifice by going shopping to prove that they did not die in vain.
This rise of that new ethic of consumerism is manifested perhaps most clearly in the food market. Traditional agricultural societies lived in constant fear of hunger and starvation. Today in the affluent world, one of the leading health problems is not starvation, it’s obesity. At least in the United States, the poor are more in danger of obesity than the rich because they stuff themselves with hamburgers and pizzas, whereas the rich eat organic salads and fruit shakes. Each year the population of the United States spends more money on diets than the money which is needed to feed all the hungry people who remain in the world. This phenomenon of eating far too much and then doing diets and exercises is actually a double victory for consumerism. Instead of eating little, which will lead to economic stagnation, because you don’t need all the food that the companies are producing, people eat far too much, and then they buy diet products and go to the gym, thereby they contribute double to the economic growth.
Capitalism and consumerism
How can we square this consumerist ethic with the capitalist ethic, according to which profits should not be wasted but should instead be reinvested in production? As in previous eras there is a kind of division of labour, division of efforts between the elite and the masses. In medieval Europe, aristocrats spent their money carelessly on luxuries, whereas peasants lived frugally not wasting money on unnecessary stuff. Today we’ve simply switched roles. The rich now take great care managing their assets and their investments, whereas the majority of the public, the less affluent people, go into debt buying things they don’t necessarily need and they can’t even afford. The capitalist and the consumerist ethical principle are therefore two sides of exactly the same coin. They are complimentary, not contradictory. The rich are busy investing to produce more and more, and the poor are busy buying all that all that new stuff. The new ethic is therefore a double ethic, with two complimentary commandments. The supreme commandment of the rich is, invest! You must invest your money, don’t waste it! The supreme commandment for all the rest of the people is, buy! You must buy more! Even if you don’t have enough money to buy that car, go to the bank, take a loan, and buy that car. This is your commandment. This is your role in the economy.
This new capitalist consumerist double ethic is revolutionary in many respects. Most previous ethical systems in history presented people with a very tough deal, Christianity or Buddhism or Confucianism. They promised people paradise, but only if they could cultivate compassion and tolerance, only if they could overcome their cravings, their anger, only if they restrained their selfish interest. This was too difficult for most people. The history of ethics for hundreds of years is a history of wonderful ideals that nobody could actually realize. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, they behaved very. Most Buddhists failed to follow the recommendations of Buddha. Most Confucius would have caused Confucius a temper tantrum if he could see how they behaved.
What is revolutionary about the new capitalist consumerist ethic is that, for the first time in history, most people actually do what they’re asked to do. The new ethic promises paradise here on Earth on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend all of their time making more and more money, and that the mass of people give freedom to their cravings and passions, and buy more and more stuff.
This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. The rich are busy making more money, and the rest of the population is busy buying more and more stuff. How can we be sure that we really get paradise in return from all our effort? In our personal lives, we may not be so sure. Television promises and shows us that if you buy all that stuff you will live in paradise. If you’re not in paradise yet it is because you are still missing the latest model of this or that product or service. So the industrial revolution changed not only the economy, but also ethics and morality.
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- What is the Industrial Revolution ? Why a steam engine ? (horsesrevolution.wordpress.com)
- Industrial Revolution (8b3classblog.wordpress.com)
- The capitalist Creed – Lecture 13 (louisecharente.wordpress.com)