ConsumerismEconomicsPeople SystemsSociety

Industrial Era Assumptions

by Richard Burton

I no longer work with corporations much because the heart of the conversation and action in my own life has to do with considering the implications of the industrial era and the anthropocenic era and working to dissolve and disentangle many of my associations and way of participating in that regard. I have found that this is increasingly difficult to consider these questions in organizations that are themselves self-identifying with the institutions of the industrial era or where people directly associate their well-being and ‘way of life’ with those institutions. I feel that the industrial era is over and that the institutions and epistemologies of this era are collapsing rapidly. My understanding of the anthropocenic is that humanity as a whole is acting (unconsciously) at the same scale as the systems of the biosphere and indeed, at the same scale as the biosphere itself. This brings up the question of systemic resilience. I have been talking with major corporations about this in one way or another for about ten years and the conversation has gotten very explicit in the past several years. Recently I have been discussing several things with organizations and individuals willing to talk together:

What does it mean that the industrial era is over? The industrial era can be understood as:

A particular distortion of the ‘western canon’ enacted and amplified over the past several centuries. This can be understood as a subject-object world view or paradigm and all the implications of that. This human enactment assumes the primacy of the parts over some primacy of the whole. Epistemology is then more or less reductionist, with the dominant and primary way of ‘knowing’ expressed as scientific materialism. This world view is then expressed as institutions, built artifacts (such as cities), processes and apparent outcomes consistent with that world view.

As a paradigm it can be considered to have several basic qualities:

  • A fundamental separative activity and enactment of objectification;
    – Objectification of the planet
    – Objectification of one another
    – Objectification of the self
  • Extraction of the then apparent resources and value
    – This involves a variety of processes required to take some apparent ‘resource’ and manipulate it until it is perceived and related to as useful or necessary
    – The primary or root process is one of burning, in which basic natural bonds are broken in order to release energy. This can be understood as a confusion between ‘life force’ and fire.
    – This confusion is amplified by a further confusion between ‘natural’ processes as linear, rather than cyclic.
  • For the sake of consumption where consumption has become conflated with the notion of happiness or reduction of suffering (consumer-ego)
    – Involving an ongoing confusion between the literal survival of the biological entity and the metaphorical survival associated with economies, organizations, nation states, etc.
  • In order to maximize and consolidate profit in a reinforcing dynamic with the above

There are some other components and historical considerations, but this is the heart of it. It is a linear process, abstracted from any sense of interconnectedness with systems of which these are a part. It is important to note that such an enacted model in turn relies on some key assumptions and ideologies, such as individualism, ownership, etc. The possibility for these, which interact dynamically, arises with and even as, the act of objectification.

All of this would be consistent and make sense in a scarcity based world of competition. The increased ability to manipulate objects, and indeed one another as objects, makes perfect sense as a useful survival advantage in that sort of world. Our modern economics are based on these assumptions of scarcity and competition (as well as being abstracted from a conscious relationship to the biosphere). This fundamental assumption and enactment is one in which the world itself is seen as a hostile environment bent on killing us. This can even include an assumption of ‘human nature’ as ‘evil’. This world view and enactment can be seen to have been developing among a minority of the planet’s population for around 10,000 years, or since the last major incursion of ice in the northern hemisphere. The peoples effected by this still act as if this direct, immediate, literal threat to their survival were still occurring and have socialized and institutionalized this paradigm globally, even where the world was not initially experienced or conceived of in this way. The process of enforcing social contracts commensurate with this model of a ‘hostile world’ has been extremely violent to the planet itself, all its life systems, and human beings, particularly where they were not initially enacting such assumptions themselves.

I suggest that institutions of the industrial era have several choices in this moment of increasing volatility and collapse. They can:

  1. Go out of existence (probably in relation to events related to escalating crises and volatility, whether environmental, social, or economic)
  2. They can monetize their assets
  3. They can continue in and even amplify the dynamics of the industrial era described above (maximization and consolidation of profit, etc.)
  4. They can consciously and actively participate in a conscious and benevolent transition that is already manifestly necessary, though specifics of form and expression are sometimes unclear.

Much of what currently occurs as the institutional debate regarding issues such as ‘climate change’, social equity, economic volatility, and global energy systems are actually negotiations between the major institutions of the industrial era in order to determine who will profit and who will bear the costs of addressing these issues. Many of the largest economies on the planet are now corporations and clearly they are involved in this debate, though many lack the necessary ‘feedback loops’ and acuity, as organizations, to sense and respond appropriately to the effects of the industrial era. At the beginning of the last decade the World Bank defined the role of the nation-state as providing the basis for a free market economy. As such the nation-states, or social contracts, of the so called ‘developed’ (and emerging) economies are also simply involved in this negotiation. It is important to really consider that, at the level of decision-making in such institutions, there is not a debate about whether these changes are happening or not; there is only this negotiation. Many corporations already have contingency plans in place for how to profitably relate to increased volatility and environmental crisis. We can see and hear something about the nature of the negotiation by attending to the distinctive voice of island nations, such as the Maldives, who are now moving into a future where the actual place of their nation is going out of existence due to climatic changes.

We, all of us, in so far as we are in any way associated or self-identifying with and participating in this system of objectification and separative activity, have some form of these same choices available to us, personally and collectively. If you are living in a developed economy, the infrastructure of your ‘way of life’ is an active form of such participation, though it may seem passive, or even be ‘unconscious‘ for any individual or group. The last case of ‘benevolent transition’ referred to above, is difficult. Because there is increased volatility in the global economy it is likely to look like ‘economic stimulus’ is working, when in fact it is only contributing to the volatility and creating ‘recovery bubbles.’ ‘Recovery’ in this sense means the artificial maintenance of an unsustainable and idealized ‘way of life’ for a tiny minority of the planetary population and even a smaller minority of participants in any particular social contract. If one is looking at the world condition from within those bubbles, there is no reason to change anything. In fact it will seem like it is necessary to do more of what we are already doing since it will appear to be working. Hence, you get the sort of insane thinking that has us attempt to stimulate consumption in order to address the current condition, when the consumer model itself is one of the root causes contributing to the volatility and negative consequences of the anthropocenic era. Of course, these “bubbles” also provide a very real opportunity if we can remain awake.

The case of transition is also difficult because these institutions, which represent not only a ‘moral’ obligation to maximize and consolidate profit, but power as well, are deeply identified with the historic paradigm of the industrial era, its precedent and underlying structure. In so far as we ourselves are identified with such institutions, change then looks and feels like a threat to our survival. We can tell if we are self-identified in this way to the extent that we experience something at stake, something to be defended or even aggressively protected, particularly with regard to the direct evidence showing this ‘way of life’ is not sustainable. This is a confusion between literal and metaphorical survival. Our enactment of and investment in these industrial era institutions now represents a literal threat to our human survival as a whole, both in what we are doing and not doing to keep the institutions in existence. Our collective enactment of this self identification also creates a condition where it is apparently necessary for the majority of human beings on the planet to live in a condition of direct and immediate survival so that a minority can live in a condition of concern with metaphorical survival To the extent that we are self-identified with such institutions, change represents a metaphorical threat to our survival as ‘consumer egos.’ Finally the case for transition is difficult because in so far as we are self identified with the ‘way of life’ produced by the industrial era, all of our change models and ways of considering transition are embedded within the historic paradigm and so likely to amplify the conditions we currently experience as problems. This is true not only for the entire system, but for its components and the individuals and communities enacting it on a moment to moment basis. This means at least two things:

  • The dynamics, ‘theories,’ and habits of change are themselves a product of the same system that generated and is expressed by the industrial era. Of course this means that efforts to change from within that systemic dynamic are likely to reinforce the enactment of that system. This is the kind of thing that leads people considering climate change to consider carpeting the poles with insulation or surrounding the earth with reflective mirrors, but has many much more immediate expressions in the moment as well.
  • To the extent we ourselves are identified with this system we are identified with a system of objectification. The product of objectification is violent enslavement — of the planet, each other and ourselves. The result of that is increased levels of suffering. Indeed much of the public dialogue regarding climate change bears a striking resemblance to that of the slave owners in the US before and during the US Civil War in terms of an expressed necessity about the survival of existing institutions.

One of the ways of considering this is to understand it as a kind of identity crisis or even death and dying process. Of course such a consideration is itself metaphorical, but can be useful nonetheless. If we imagine for a moment that we could apply Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s work we would have the following:

  • Shock/Denial
    Shock occurs when the events, such as various crises, do not fit the mental and ‘predictive’ models we may have with respect to our reality. Denial is the continued insistence on an interpretation of events that is more concerned with keeping one’s own model intact than with accurately sensing one’s environment. Most denial with respect to climate change is media fed and itself part of the model of profit maximization and consolidation. The scientific debate is of a different sort, and does not include denial about what is occurring, but rather questions the causal assumptions involved.
  • Anger
    Once you feel something about it, it then becomes a question of whose fault it is. Who is the “other” in this particular case, the objectification of who, as “other,” gives a readily available and plausible explanation for what is happening. Blame, in other words. This case is pretty clear. In the US, for example, there are many people who believe that climate change is a media hoax based on some less than clear political or financial agenda. In China, for example, many people believe that climate change is a product of the west, meant to slow or contain Chinese growth. (It is important to understand that climate and ‘economy’ are only the surface of what is currently occurring. They are fragile systems with relatively short delay loops, so we can sense them. It is more difficult to sense and create feedback loops for issues such as the mass extinction of life that is currently taking place.)
  • Bargaining
    This currently seems to take several forms. One form is the apparent public and policy debate. This is no longer really a debate about whether something is happening or not. It is more of a negotiation about the implications: who will bear the cost; who will reap the benefits of the solutions, etc. Another form is the belief that there will be a free market solution or technological miracle that allow the small minority of people currently benefiting from the implied global social contract to maintain their ‘way of life.’ Either or both of these may be necessary in different ways, but they are not sufficient to this moment. The underlying construction is a ‘solution’ in the face of problematized phenomena that is consistent with the system of objectification itself, such that ‘I’ get to maintain my ‘way of life.’ “Way of life” is the current propaganda rhetoric in the US, and developed economies, to justify the objectification of others and participation in the enslavement of the planet. All the institutions of the industrial era have some form of this.
  • Despair/Depression
    This is clear as well. It might take the form of not feeling as if any personal, individual or collective efforts could make any sort of difference in any way. It might take the form of anger without any immediately identifiable object. It can even express itself as ‘fiddling while Rome burns’; ‘I may as well fully indulge myself while I can’; belief in Armageddon, etc.
  • Acceptance
    Of course acceptance means many things. At the same time that such acceptance is self-evident and simple, it is also opaque and difficult. Moreover, though we are talking about a profound state of individual acceptance, we are also talking about a planetary state of acceptance at the scale of a conscious anthroposphere. Many people who talk about acceptance talk about accepting the ‘in-sustainability’ of our ‘way of life’ or accepting an ‘energy descent’ future, etc. Both of these seem true to me, but seem to fall short of a state of acceptance that fully understands the nature of our participation or the underlying structural elements of our current condition.


  1. I think what you call “Objectification” is the same as “The mechanistic idea of order”:

    “Everybody cannot agree about becoming doves, if it not simultaneously becomes prohibited to be a hawk. It must become the same thing for all at once.” – Terje Bongard:

    The point of Bongard is that if most people agree on becoming doves, the hawks will just benefit from it, eating themselves fat from all the doves. This is why it doesn’t help to change you, we must change the whole system and kill and prohibit ALL hawks BEFORE we become doves!!!

  2. Yes, the Cartesian view is a quintessential example of objectification in a variety of ways. Also see Heidegger’s ‘Question Concerning Technology’ and Habermas ‘Theory and Praxis.’. Habermas distinguishes a scientific understanding which requires the maintenance of a third frame of reference as if separate and self occurring (though it is neither), for the sake of the manipulation of objects. He distinguishes this from the phenomenological undertaking, the use orientation of which is the derivation of meaning. Or look at Plotinus’ account of the human soul. Aristotle’s causes can also be understood as making a similar distinction where ‘efficient’ cause describes such a mechanistic world view. ‘Formal’ and ‘final’ cause suggest a very different world view. An integration of causality as an integrated system is something else again. The basic question is whether one realizes one’s reality as a manifestation of prior unity or interconnectedness on the one hand, or believes that one’s reality is not only manifold, but also that the manifold parts or points of view can be combined or assembled to reveal an epistemology of the whole, on the other hand. For an understanding of how this plays out as a practice it can be useful to consider the differences between grid based navigation, based on Descarte, or situational navigation as practiced by most of the traditional peoples of the world.

    The hawk and dove distinction is an artificial one I feel. This is true from several perspectives. For one thing killing hawks is what hawks do. That very notion conflates the distinction you are trying to make, for one thing, in this regard is not so useful. It is not that i do not understand the sentiment of the dilemma. It is ancient, but it cannot be solved from within the context of the artificial distinction.

    Let me offer an analogy from a Venezuelan social cooperative. They arrived at the realization that the distinction between ‘teaching a person to fish’ and ‘giving a person a fish’ was an artificial, culturally constructed duality. The shifted there entire model to a reflective model based on ‘fishing together.’ It happens that occasionally a ‘hawk’ comes into this activity of ‘fishing together,’ which is to say someone wants to take advantage of the collaborative social fabric for the sake of ‘self gratification.’ They have had great success by applying a reflective capacity to this occurrence. Of course this has its own challenges and difficulties.

    One of the points I am trying to emphasize is that the efforts to ‘solve’ some set of phenomena that have been problematized, from within the same set of assumptions leading to the problematization, tends to perpetuate and amplify that same phenomena, though ‘forms’ may be seen to change. This is in part because the structural conditions have not been addressed. Your ‘hawk/dove’ paradox, if enacted, is likely to be a version of this basic systems difficulty, though I understand the sentiment. Really none of this perhaps gets to the basic dilemma which is ‘ego’ as an *enactment* of self gratification, instead of a precondition of human being. That is about objectification itself as an enactment with which we can work, rather than a pre-given (and objective) condition exhaustive of reality. From this point of view the enacted separate self is a sort of illusion. Of course really exploring all of that (consequences for design, process and action) is a much longer conversation.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    – roger

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