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A History Of Wealth

Industrial Revolution

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Some say it all started with the industrial revolution.

Others lay blame directly at the feet of a certain forefather of modern economics, the Scottish moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith.

With the publication in 1776 of his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, it’s quite possible that Smith set in motion the modern way of thinking about wealth.

At the time Smith’s seminal economic philosophy was published, the world (in particular, Britain and Europe) was in a state of turmoil. Change was everywhere.

Once the denizens of absolute power, the Church and aristocracy were on the receiving end of intense pressure: Voltaire espoused a new humanism; Francis Bacon foreshadowed an inevitable subjugation of the natural world; world-views were being challenged by Newton and Descartes (the latter, in particular, making a profound philosophical contribution to the subsequent domination of the nonhuman world); the French Revolution was in the making; and a powerful new force was taking hold in Britain – “the power of productive capital that turned the fledgling wheels of the new industry” (Paul Ekins, Wealth Beyond Measure, 1992, p.12).

A new breed of “rich” began to emerge. Seeking the freedom to generate profit on their own terms, these men were fuelled by Smith’s argument that such freedom was not only a right, but also the saving grace of society. These “wealth creators” and their pursuit of self-interest held the key to the greater good. And so with fire in their bellies and modern economic thinking on their side, the new industrialists were born.

At a growing pace, over the next two hundred years, much of the planet’s resources were marshalled for production within Europe and later North America. In more recent years, we’ve witnessed a similar phenomenon emerge through the growing economies of Asia.

Unlike anything in the history of the world, the industrial economy has now taken hold in profound and pervasive ways.

Today, the legacy of resource distribution through the rise of industrialism sees a quarter of the world’s population living a material-rich lifestyle that could scarcely have been imagined by our ancestors. In recent decades, coupled with the technological revolution, the global market now reaches into every aspect of human life. And it does so in practically every society on Earth (Ekins, 1992).

Whilst people near and far celebrate our industrial achievements and relish the sweet allure of material possessions, growth of this scale has come at a terrible cost. As Paul Ekins asserts in Wealth Beyond Measure: “It [the industrial economy] has become an infernal machine that eats away at the foundations of human society and life on Earth, bringing the economic system it has constructed to the brink of collapse (1992, p.12).

From climate change to deforestation, from species extinction to desertification, from water depletion to the rise of toxic chemicals. Whilst people may nit-pick the details, there is general agreement that a vast array of environmental issues are facilitated by the economic development that feeds the consumerist lifestyles so many of us take for granted.

But we have allowed the industrial economy to do more than rape and pillage the natural world. We have also stood by while it has facilitated the exploitation of women, the destruction of local communities, the creation of “disposable” people (think of the impacts on Indigenous peoples worldwide), and the creation of an economic system destined to collapse through inequity and debt.

Does humankind have what it takes to make a great leap into the infernal unknown?

From the industrial economy, we must now move toward a vision of alternatives that offer hope for a better way of life for people and planet alike.

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