Fourth Industrial Revolution

This is part II of an essay in two parts on modern technology and its demise. Part I deals with the history of modern technology starting from the Industrial Revolution (1760-1830) and ending in 2008 with the financial meltdown and the birth of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In Part II we will show how this latest industrial revolution is bound to fail.

Read Part I

Part II: End of Modern technology and Alternatives

The current ‘project of global capital’ (for details, see earlier article by this writer), the so-called The Fourth Industrial Revolution, is doomed because of several reasons. They can be clubbed together as an ongoing ‘Global Emergency’; which has several aspects to it – Resource Depletion, Global Warming, Ecological Degradation, Growing Inequality and Social Unrest. We will discuss them one by one below, along with their relation to each other.

Resource Depletion

Human society uses natural resources for its survival and reproduction. Other living beings depend directly or indirectly on plant resources which are renewable. In addition to these, human beings also use non-renewable resources including minerals such as coal and petroleum and metals such as gold, silver, copper and iron, coal. They are considered non-renewable because their quantity is fixed and the more we use them the less of them there is left to use. For industrial societies, petroleum and coal are the basic sources of energy and their depletion can spell the end of industrial society.

Now, there is a law of extraction of these non-renewable resources. It was first discovered in the case of oil by M. King Hubbert and is called, ‘Peak Oil’. It says that when half the resources are extracted (taken out), then the production will start falling. That is, the peak of production occurs when half the oil is taken out. It applies to a particular well, to a region, to a country, and to the whole world. Today, it has been found that it applies to all such mineral resources and scientists have calculated the peak year for almost all the important minerals. And, hold your breath, the overwhelming majority of them will peak before 2030, starting with oil!7 The data is almost accurate and might differ only by a few percentage points, but the fact remains that the years of industrial society as it exists is numbered and the end will come in a decade or so. The collapse of industrial society will be a ‘never before’ event because that will be the end of the historical process of ever-increasing wealth that human society has seen in the last few thousand years. 8

The champions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution such as the World Economic Forum say that the sun is a never exhausting resource and that solar energy and wind can easily replace fossil fuels. The record so far is dismal because the dependence on fossil fuels has not decreased. This year USA, UK, and Germany are bringing back coal plants due to a sharp reduction in energy supplies, particularly natural gas, following the Ukraine war. Both solar and hydro need a lot of metals as well. Solar needs copper and some rare earths all of which are in short supply and will be increasingly so.

In addition, solar power requires a lot of land area to capture sunlight. Already humans are using more than 90% of earth’s resources, stealing them from other species. This will further erode the share of other species. Similarly, wind energy takes up a lot of air space, endangering birds. And this is leaving aside the massive waste disposal problem posed by renewable energy, which has already begun to show.

In the short term, even renewable resources cannot help us because human society has used them at a rate higher than the rate of their natural reproduction. That is, we have cut more trees than the number of new ones that are growing; we have used more water than is being replenished naturally, and so on. Water tables all over the world are falling. It will take decades to get back the status of ‘renewable’ for these resources. In fact, we have been mining them in the same way that we have mined the non-renewable resources.

While there is a window of a few years before resource depletion triggers a collapse, global warming, as we will see below, does not give us any window!

Global Warming

This has received maximum attention in the media due to the recent IPCC report which has drawn everyone’s attention to the gravity of the situation. “If we are to stay below 1.5 °C global warming, emissions have to peak no later than 2020. Emissions must also be cut by half by 2030, and to net zero by 2040. We need an immediate emergency response by policymakers, businesses, and civil society, aimed at an unprecedented transformation of all sectors of society. It’s time to act!” Well, we have passed that deadline of 2020.

The levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are the main drivers of climate change. They are measured in ‘parts per million (ppm)’ and the safe levels are considered to be a maximum of 350, ideally less (Hansen). They have hit a new record high, the UN said, warning that the time to act was running out.  “Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth.” The report, for 2017, puts the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere at 405.5 parts per million (ppm). That is up from 403.3 ppm in 2016 and 400.1 ppm in 2015.

“The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

And yet, the emissions have been still rising in the last two years! Today it is 419 ppm! It is probably more correct to say that the window of opportunity for action is closed. That is to say that there are no more options left within capitalism to stay below 1.5 degrees. No governments are actually prepared to reduce emissions. In fact, this year they have been busy with wars and increasing emissions. This year a group of scientists have claimed that we are moving towards a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees centigrade and have asked the community of scientists globally to go on civil disobedience!9

This year, 2022, has already seen some of the worst effects of ecological degradation due to climate change. Europe has seen the worst drought in 500 years. Both the USA and China too are facing drought in large areas. Now these are huge areas and include most of the ‘developed countries’ as well as constituting some of the ‘food baskets’ of the world. We are looking forward to with apprehension what will happen in Australia this summer (our winter is their summer). Pakistan is facing huge floods involving 30 million people. In India too, large parts of the country have faced floods.

There are protest movements all over the world mobilising against the livelihoods crisis and the steep rise in the price of essentials brought on initially by the Covid-19 pandemic and the crippling lockdowns that followed, and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Global warming, coupled with resource depletion, ecological disaster, growing people’s movement, and wars among capitalist nations can together trigger a collapse of the system.

Today Sri Lanka and 27 other small countries are going through a process of collapse. In a few years, many other middle countries will follow suit, and then the bigger countries too may fall down like Humpty Dumpty. We are therefore forced to conclude that capitalism can neither solve these problems nor can it outlive it. So we have to look for alternatives immediately.

The Post Carbon Society

Today, it is clear that the present system cannot go on. As Einstein said ‘We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.’

If the capitalist era ends, then what will replace the present system? To begin with we can start with what cannot go on.

  1. No alternative energy source can replace the petrol and gas which run our trucks and cars. That’s because all alternatives involve electricity (wind, solar, nuclear etc.). There is no viable design of large trucks that can run on electricity. Today, goods transportation is so basic to global capitalism that the breakdown of supply chains alone can cause the system to collapse.
  2. No alternative energy can generate the amount of energy we are using now.
  3. The implication of the above is that ‘globalisation’ is no longer possible.
  4. The present level of consumption is resulting in unacceptable levels of global warming and ecological degradation.
  5. The solutions attempted in the last 14 years (since the 2008 meltdown) have resulted in greater inequality which is increasingly opposed by the people of the world.

Based on the above, we can state a broad outline of what to expect. We can provisionally term it as a ‘Post Carbon Society’. This society will have the following main features:

  1. Equality
  2. Sustainability
  3. Scaling down of the use of resources – particularly energy
  4. Local and self-sufficient economy
  5. Ecological restoration of the presently degraded ecology
  6. A value system or ethical base which is more cooperative and less competitive than the present society
  7. There will of course be many other local features depending upon what political system will replace the present system and the specific country or ecological region.

Agro-Ecology: The Technology of the Future

The main problem with all the existing mainstream/capitalist technologies is that they are anthropocentric technologies. That is, they are based on the assumption that Nature and all its resources can be utilised freely for the benefit of Man without bothering about other species and the balance of Nature itself. They have a built-in assumption that Nature is an infinite source and an infinite sink, that is, a place where we can draw resources freely from, and dump our wastes indefinitely. This attitude seems to be also inherent in many religions for at least two thousand years. During the Industrial Revolution and more so in the last hundred years this tendency has reached catastrophic proportions and hence the present global emergency.

Agro-ecology means growing food without ecologically damaging the environment. Agro-ecology is an ecological approach to agriculture, often described as low-external-input farming. Other terms such as regenerative agriculture or eco-agriculture are also used. Agro-ecology is not just a set of agricultural practices – it focuses on changing social relations, empowering farmers, adding value locally and privileging short value chains. It allows farmers to adapt to climate change, sustainably use and conserve natural resources and biodiversity. It also means seeing ourselves as part of Nature rather than regarding the rest of Nature as merely a resource available for exploitation.

Developed Countries

A milestone for the movements demanding an alternative economy in developed countries happened in 1971 when the countries of West Asia got together and decided to reduce the production of oil and increase its price. This created a huge energy crisis and people began to look for low-energy technologies. ‘Small is beautiful’, appropriate technology, etc. became the catchwords in the social and cultural churning that followed. This coupled with protests against the Vietnam war in the USA drew a large number of youths to these ideas and movements.

Agro-ecological techniques were developed into ‘Permaculture’ by Bill Mollison (1928-2016) in the late 70s and soon it became popular worldwide. It came to India in 1990 via the Deccan Development Society near Zaheerabad, some 100 kms from Hyderabad.

Permaculture in turn helped spawn the Transition Town movement in 2005 in Kinsale, a small town in Ireland. This is a grassroots network of communities that are working to build resilience in response to Peak Oil, climate change, food insecurity and economic instability. ‘Transition Towns’ is a catchphrase for environmental and social movements founded upon the principles of Permaculture, which originally denoted ‘permanent agriculture’. Today, Permaculture has come to mean a whole life system encompassing various strategies for people to acquire all the necessary resources, including access to land needed to evolve self-financing and self-managed systems to provide for all their material and non-material needs, without depleting, polluting and destroying the natural resources of the biosphere. The Transition Towns movement is an example of socio-economic localisation. There are now over 1000 communities that identify themselves as Transition Towns in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Italy and Chile.

Central to the Transition Town movement is the idea that a life without oil could in fact be far more enjoyable and fulfilling than the present: “[B]y shifting our mindset we can actually recognise the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant — somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth.” (“LIFE BEYOND OIL – THREAT OR OPPORTUNITY?”. Archived from the original on 18 August 2013, quoted in Wikipedia article on Transition Network)

)In these countries there are also big groups around theory – Post Carbon Institute and Resilience.org (Richard Heinberg), Steady State Society (Herman Daly) in the U. S., and The Simpler Way (Ted Trainer) in Australia. In Russia, we have the ‘Ecological Villages’ movement.

Cuba

As a rule, socialist societies followed a path of development similar to capitalist societies. Cuba was no exception. But in 1991, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba faced problems similar to the problems we are facing due to Peak Oil. Cuba’s oil supply was cut. It had no buyers for its main export: sugar. So like Sri Lanka today, it faced a huge economic crisis. Cuba ushered in a ‘special period’ and in five years they successfully solved the problem. They converted completely to organic farming and became self-sufficient in food production. They imported a million bicycles from China. Education and health care was made completely free. Today Cuba has got some of the best health facilities in the world. However, those five years were tough and people did suffer a lot. While there is much to learn from Cuba, each society will change from where it is just now. Other socialist/command economies when faced with the crisis may follow a similar path as that of Cuba.10

India

As we noted in the first instalment of this essay, ‘in the colonies modernity came without abolishing feudalism’. Obviously, this has had huge negative effects on the progress of our country. The continued prevalence of the caste system and oppression of women can be cited as being two major effects. However, it also had its flip side. A lot of medieval technologies not using fossil fuels continue to be in use in India alongside capitalist technologies. Many of the appropriate technologies that we need today that consume less energy or don’t require large industrial systems to support them, are still available here. In fact, in the two-volume ‘Appropriate Technology Source Book’ more than half the entries are of Indian origin!

In the anti-colonial movement also, there was a lot of emphasis on self-reliance, as a part of which Khadi and Village Industries were nurtured. This continued even after independence at least till the 1970s, when the Green Revolution began to kill them. Then the LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation, and Globalisation) policies of the government in 1991 effectively sounded the death knell for them.

All the same, several non-government organizations continue to support them. Pottery, handloom, carpentry, local leather works, etc. are still surviving. Similarly, the organic farming movement has been rapidly gaining ground in India, even finding official support in many states. Along with it, local management of water systems has also been receiving big attention. Movements that have organised against big project such as dams and mines which deprive poor people of their land and livelihoods have helped start a debate on the very notion of ‘development’ and the policies related to it.

This background is proving handy in the present crisis. All over India hundreds of initiatives on local self-management are going on. Many of these have been documented by the Vikalp Sangam11 platform on their website.

On the other hand, there are no integrated initiatives like the ‘Transition Town’ movement which can lead to complete self-reliance at the local level; though lots of groups in India are trying.  The main problem seems to be that most of these groups still think that while they may be able to show the way, ultimately it falls on the government to do the job. It is called the ‘rights-based approach.’ In holding on to this view, they often forget that all governments are driven by the vested interests of the rich and their welfare image is mainly to get the consent of the people to rule.

However, these kinds of interventions can succeed only through complete reliance on local resources at small levels. As the crisis develops, these integrated initiatives can also be expected to come up stronger and in more numbers. Anarchist trends in the Left political movements can take initiatives as they did in Chhattisgarh under the leadership of the legendary trade unionist Shankar Guha Niyogi. Today, states like Kerala are well-positioned socially and politically to take lead with initiatives like ‘Transition Kerala’.

Transition India

Having researched these themes over the years, I have published two booklets and a book as a guide to start work on Transition in India. They are:

  1. Cuba: Road to Fossil Fuel Free Society
  2. Kabira Khada Hai Bazar Mein A Call for Local Action in the Wake of Global Emergency
  3. Vijutopias: Dreams of Local Futures (These are utopian stories about transition)

I can send pdf copies of all of them to anyone who asks for it.

My friend Usha Rao12 has written an important document on the role of schools in transition. Many of our young friends want to move to a village. A transition project is an excellent way to move to a village. One can become a school teacher and work on environmental issues with school children starting with a village nursery in the school garden. There is a government programme for starting school gardens. Nyla Coelho13 has written an excellent book on how to maintain a school garden. So, our future environmental school teacher could start with this book.

Another village level programme is the MNREGA. It is a government employment guarantee scheme for rural workers, but the projects are decided by the rural Panchayats. The given mandate for MNREAGA projects is by and large environment-friendly. All over India the MNREGA workers are trying to organise into unions to get fair wages and fight irregularities in the implementation of the programme. In Karnataka, there is a good union and in some places, the unions have won the Panchayat elections. Now they can decide the nature and implementation of the projects. So, this provides another window.

In Conclusion

The three-month lockdown in India has taught us that the collapse does not mean chaos or the end of the world. People managed with great difficulty. Nature sighed a big relief and showed signs of recovery at a remarkable speed. Today in India, hundreds of local actions are going on with self-management of resources.

On the whole, India has a lot of initiatives and has good potential to tide over the collapse of industrial society. The problem is we are still not prepared for it psychologically at a collective level. But then, I suppose one can never really be prepared for a something as tremendous as collapse. However, if we are not prepared for it, then it will bring a lot of death and misery in the immediate future for human society, as we are witnessing in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. To avoid it we have to start working on a transition programme straight away. We should build on the experience gained during the three month ‘Lock Down’. Then like Cuba, we may be able to get away with a relatively small amount of suffering.

Only time will tell how we will fare. But we should be optimistic for Indians, for mankind and for all other species. We should plan for the coming decade to usher in a post carbon society.

Death to Capitalism and Industrial Society! Victory to People and Nature!

 

References (Include both Part I and Part II)

  1. Jose, Sajai, 2021, Three-part series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Great Reset on Countercurrents.org  https://countercurrents.org/2021/06/when-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-comes-knocking/
  2. Meadows, Dennis et al., 1972, Club of Rome Limits to Growth.
  3. Gimpel, Jean, 1977, Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, Penguin.
  4. Carson, Rachel, 1961, Silent Spring,

5.      Yergin, Daniel, 2008, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power

  1. Jose, Sajai, 2021, Three-part series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Great Reset on Countercurrents.org  https://countercurrents.org/2021/06/when-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-comes-knocking/
  2. (https://www.ecologise.in/2017/05/28/bookshelf-scarcity-humanitys-last-chapter/ https://www.ecologise.in/2016/03/24/bookvideo-thanatia-the-destiny-of-the-earths-mineral-resources/)
  3. Vijayendra T. 2019, Kabira Khada Hai Bazar Mein A Call for Local Action in the

Wake of Global Emergency, Ecologise Hyderabad https://www.scribd.com/document/425214162/KABIRA-KHADA-BAZAAR-MEIN-A-Call-for-Local-Action-in-the-Wake-of-Global-Emergency

  1. Countercurrents, August 30, 2022 https://countercurrents.org/2022/08/climate-scientists-call-for-civil-disobedience/

10 .  Vijayendra T. 2019 (Third Reprint), Cuba: Road to Fossil Fuel Free Society, Ecologise Hyderabad

  1. Vikalp Sangam. https://vikalpsangam.org/
  2. Rao, Usha, School Education during Transition Times, https://countercurrents.org/2022/05/school-education-during-transition-times/
  3. Coelho, Nyla. Tending a School Garden, https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Nyla+Coelho%22&and[]=subject%3A%22TENDING+A+SCHOOLYARD+GARDEN%22

T. Vijayendra (1943- ) was born in Mysore, grew in Indore and went to IIT Kharagpur to get a B. Tech. in Electronics (1966). After a year’s stint at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, he got drawn into the whirlwind times of the late 60s. Since then, he has always been some kind of political-social activist. His brief for himself is the education of Left wing cadres and so he almost exclusively publishes in the Left wing journal Frontier, published from Kolkata. For the last nine years, he has been active in the field of ‘Peak Oil’ and is a founder member of Peak Oil India and Ecologise. Since 2015 he has been involved in Ecologise! Camps and in 2016 he initiated Ecologise Hyderabad. He divides his time between an organic farm at the foothills of Western Ghats, watching birds, writing fiction and Hyderabad. He has published a book dealing with resource depletions, three books of essays, two collections of short stories, a novella and an autobiography. Vijayendra has been a ‘dedicated’ cyclist all his life, meaning, he neither took a driving licence nor did he ever drive a fossil fuel based vehicle. Email: t.vijayendra@gmail.com


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