Humanity can usher in a new green age
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel, The Go-Between. Hartley’s words perfectly encapsulate the western mindset that the challenges we face are unique to each generation and uninformed by history. They cast a light on why our society is prone to repeating mistakes, generation after generation.
It’s conventional wisdom that time’s arrow has now brought us to a period of unprecedented change and disruption. But in 2015, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), introduced a more circular idea that we’re entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as 4IR, which is currently being researched at the WEF hub in Silicon Valley.
While the Third Industrial Revolution was driven by our rapidly increasing computing power, the central concept of 4IR is that modern “smart” machines give us unprecedented connectivity that’s capable of helping us address the enormous challenges currently faced by humanity. According to WEF, 4IR represents “a fundamental change in the ways that we live and work” by merging our “physical, digital, and biological worlds”. While the convergence of modern technologies can create “both promise and peril”, it’ll certainly drive “a new chapter in human development”. Initially a concept that wasn’t well-known outside of elite business circles, 4IR has recently gained traction — propelled in part by accelerating challenges like climate change.
On the surface, the past 30 to 50 years of the Third Industrial Revolution have been relatively stable, delivering a statistically better world, where more women and young people have access to quality education; overall health has improved; and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. However, we’re now witnessing increasing inequity globally. The climate crisis and destruction of nature are threatening those gains and causing greater instability. The commitments to reach net zero by 2050, made at last year’s COP26, are our global confession to living beyond our planet’s boundaries.
What the Fourth Industrial Revolution will look like in practice remains unclear. But one of the benefits of thinking about the world through an industrial revolution lens is that it requires us to look at previous periods in history that underwent similar changes — and to learn lessons from them.
We need a goal around net zero waste that ensure planetary boundaries are not breached
For Gen Z, the world of their parents really is a “foreign country”. They have more in common with their great grandparents — those born in the late 1800s, who experienced the innovative, and at times, unbelievably destructive transition from the Second to the Third Industrial Revolution. This was a time when whale oil and horse-and-carts were replaced by coal-fired electricity and oil and gas — and when radio and telephone replaced telegrams, connecting people at a scale not previously imaginable.
The wealth generated by those new technologies created a period of great prosperity, but also massive inequality. It laid the foundations for both global multinationals and modern philanthropic organisations. At its heart was the potent mix of many different technologies coming together to cause massive shifts in capital and power. This phenomenon is what characterises our own age.
Each industrial revolution has also been very different. There are two key differences that stand out for me. The first is that we have more information than ever before on the problems and consequences humanity is facing — whether that’s climate change, loss of nature, nuclear weapons, cybersecurity threats or social injustice. The second difference is that we already have many of the scientific and technological solutions at hand that are needed to solve them.
This means that the information and technology we need are at our fingertips. The challenge is putting those solutions into action at scale, and in a way that will allow us to mitigate any unforeseen consequences and unintended impacts. There are risks around technologies — both costs and unintended consequences. Shifting customer demand and investor appetite needs to be managed to ensure the transformation doesn’t take a negative toll on society, through political polarisation and geopolitical instability. The promise of a better world was central to the previous three industrial revolutions. But I would argue that a specifically regenerative purpose must be at heart of this emerging revolution, not just in terms of its rhetoric, but in its global targets and impact.
The WEF has called for a reassessment of how countries and organisations develop and create value that benefits people from all walks of life. But what does this reimagination entail? A good place to start would be with the social and economic construct of the concept of an industrial revolution itself. Such an expression is imbued with the ideology of past transitions, which were based often on cheap natural resources and the exploitation of labour.
I’ve previously written about why the Fourth Industrial Revolution needs to be reconfigured as the First Regenerative Revolution. If people and the planet are to have a prosperous future, this revolution can’t be based on the exploitation of the natural world or human communities. It’s out with the industrial mindset, in with the regenerative mindset. The overall vision must be to feed, clothe, house and provide energy to people equitably, while maintaining a healthy planet. History shows that thinking with an industrial mindset leads us down a path that does not do justice to our human potential. It’s hard to see how we can achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with an industrial revolution mindset.
However this direction and the ambition of our current goals — net zero emissions by 2050, nature positive by 2030, as well as greater equity, diversity and inclusion — are sound. But we need a change in mindset about the role of government, the purpose of business and academia, and what exactly constitutes civil society. We need global ambitions that can move the dial at speed and on a scale that goes beyond our efforts so far. We need to think bigger, and aim higher.
The net zero by 2050 climate goal, for example, is a great start, but it’s only one element of the solution. If we build a zero-carbon world with a business-as-usual (BAU) mindset, there will be unintended consequences. We can’t simply shift manufacturing capabilities and supply changes towards renewable energy infrastructure without factoring in the simultaneous need for a circular economy.
We need a goal around net zero waste that ensure planetary boundaries are not breached, as we find the resources needed for driving this massive period of innovation. And we need to ensure the new infrastructure is built so that its components are 100 per cent reusable and recyclable.