Imagining Post-Industrial Society

virtuous natural cycle

I have spent much of the past two weeks in community with others, immersed in discovering how, when and why community works, and how it might be encouraged to work better. I was exposed to a diversity of alternative cultures, all of them progressive, but some spiritual and others not, some healthy and others not, some informed and others not, some joyful and others not. In addition to learning some important things about myself, I also have achieved, I think, a better understanding of human nature, and why community is so hard to achieve in our modern, anti-communitarian, disconnected (from all-life-on-Earth and from the needs, knowledge and desires of humans) society.

These communities each have their own unique micro-economy, more or less generous, more or less integrated with the modern industrial economy, more or less functional. This has got me thinking again about the Gift Economy and other alternatives to industrial economy.

The much-envisioned successor to our dysfunctional, teetering industrial economy has been given many names: the steady-state economy, the sustainable economy, the information economy, the attention economy, the relationship economy, the gift economy, the abundance economy, the generosity economy. Perhaps the challenge with envisioning and naming this economy stems from the fact one cannot sustainably separate economic systems from all the other systems that make up a society: social, educational, technological, media, political, health etc. These systems need to be aligned, and in the industrial society that is nearing its end, they are:

  • Industrial economy – focused on uninterrupted growth of material production, acquisition, ‘ownership’ and consumption by humans, totally ignoring all ‘external’ costs, and based on large-scale centralization and concentration of wealth (“globalization”), on principles of scarcity and on a pseudo-“market” that steals from the poor and middle class and rewards the rich
  • Industrial society – conversation and social activity centre around what is being consumed (media, brand names, political propaganda, advertising)
  • Industrial education – teaching students to be obedient to hierarchy and industrial authority, fearful, dependent, ignorant of history and what is really happening in the world, unthinking, uncritical, and unimaginative
  • Industrial technology – designed to con ‘consumers’ into believing they can consume more, and grow endlessly, provided it is done ‘smartly’, and deployed to control, to stifle innovation, and, of course, to wage war on invented enemies as a means of preoccupying and distracting these consumers from realizing how the world really works
  • Industrial media – contrived to dumb down the citizenry, oversimplify issues into emotional dichotomies, and entertain in lieu of informing, to reduce expectations and reinforce the dogma of the corporatist elite
  • Industrial politics – two Tweedledum and Tweedledee interchangeable political parties in each jurisdiction are carefully designed to provide the illusion of choice and democracy, while massive centralization (which the corporatists call “globalization”) is employed to provide the small elite corpocracy with exclusive and discreet access to political ‘leaders’, thus ensuring extension of their wealth and power, while protecting those ‘leaders’ and the corporatists who control them from the wrath of ‘ordinary’ citizens
  • Industrial health – designed to ensure the rich are coddled and the rest are kept in fear and self-blame for the illnesses caused by the industrial food system and the wastes and excesses of the rest of the industrial economy, so that the masses are neither willing nor able to challenge the hierarchy or the principles of the industrial systems

An economy and society that would live up to any of the alternative post-industrial names above is so utterly different from the industrial model that it is almost impossible to imagine getting there from here. Which is exactly what the proponents of the industrial systems want – a sense of the hopelessness of reform, a sense that the industrial way is the only way to live. Here’s how I imagine these same seven systems in a post-industrial world:

  • Post-industrial economy – focused on the well-being of all (rich and poor, human and non-human), egalitarian, non-materialistic, sustainable without growth, community-based, hugely diverse, and self-sufficient within each community; achieved through the generosity and reciprocity of loving, caring, attentive citizens living in relationship with community and with all-life-on-Earth, through stewardship of the land for all future generations
  • Post-industrial society – conversation and social life revolve around care, love, respect, curiosity, diversity, discovery, creation, re-creation and learning, and the focus is almost entirely local, without losing sight of the fact that each creature and community is an essential part of all-life-on-Earth
  • Post-industrial education – revolves around self-discovery, self-exploration, self-learning, creativity, imagination, self-sufficiency and self-empowerment within and as part of interdependent community, life-long, undirected, and achieved through observation, practice and experimentation
  • Post-industrial technology – designed to make life simpler, healthier and more leisurely, and to enhance learning
  • Post-industrial media – designed to inform, enable, enrich, make interesting and facilitate learning, conversation, imagination and understanding of how things really are and, when necessary, what might and must be done or done differently
  • Post-industrial politics – largely dormant, since in an egalitarian, abundant, uncrowded, peaceful world there is little need for political decisions or action; activated at the community level to seek consensus and resolve dissention, inequality, unfairness or conflict when necessary
  • Post-industrial health – focused on the prevention, self-diagnosis and self-treatment of illness and injury (physical and emotional), and on the reduction of pain and suffering rather than the longevity of life; community-based and accepting of and adaptive to natural catastrophes and illnesses

Not surprisingly, these qualities are those of natural systems – those that existed in the millennia before modern civilization, and those that still prevail in uncivilized and non-human societies. For that reason I choose to call these systems “natural” rather than “post-industrial” systems, since while I think they will emerge from the ruins of industrial society once civilization collapses, I am not sure that what remains of human society will have the context or culture to realize them as such. They are as much pre-industrial (or at least pre-civilization) as post-industrial. Yet they are not nostalgic, and do not presume we could ever return to the culture from which civilization evolved.

Here is the contrast between Industrial and Natural Systems again, boiled down to a few essential descriptors and differentiators:

System Industrial System Natural System
Economy Based on growth, material consumption, acquisition, centralization, scarcity and inequality Based on well-being, sufficiency, love, community, abundance, generosity and egalitarianism
Society Based on consumption activities Based on love/caring, conversation/sharing, community and creative activities
Education Creates dependence, fear, obedience and passivity Creates self-sufficiency, respect, curiosity and critical thinking
Technological Vehicle for control, stifling innovation, and war Vehicle for discovery, learning and joy
Media Designed to disinform, propagandize, and distract Designed to inform, stimulate imagination and creativity, and draw attention to needed action
Politics Means to concentrate and protect wealth and power, and to wage war Means to achieve consensus and resolve conflict peacefully
Health Designed to treat and increase the longevity of the rich and further disempower the rest of society Designed to prevent, self-diagnose and self-treat illness and injury simply and hence improve quality of life and reduce suffering for all

Read this table and it’s hard not to conclude “you can’t get there from here”. That may be true, but there are many things we can do to ‘model’ the Natural Systems on the right side of this chart in our own communities, especially if these communities are relatively small and progressive in their thinking. I’ve seen lots of examples in the last two weeks of communities that behave very much as if they were Natural Systems, despite the impracticability and near-impossibility of completely extracting one’s community from the global industrial society:

  • I’ve seen communities where there are no ‘price tags’ on the goods and services exchanged, where because the community is small and intimate, no one can ‘cheat’ the system by taking more than s/he gives, at least not for long. There is no money in these communities, no ‘currency’, no accounting for what’s given and taken. They trust each other to be fair. It doesn’t always work, but usually it does.
  • I’ve seen communities where what is valued is not possessions and income but collective well-being. Some members of these communities have reached ‘zero footprint’ and have also made a pledge to leave nothing behind — to give away everything they come into possession of before they die. Some of them live quite comfortably (if insecurely) on incomes that to most of us would be seen to be sub-poverty-level.
  • There is an interesting and ingenious new business model that Jerry Michalski has developed that provides three ways for people who are creative, or have other talents that are not ‘commercial’ in the industrial economy model, to ‘make a living’ comfortably without having to worry about selling anything. I’ll be writing more about this soon.
  • I’ve seen communities where time spent learning (about oneself, and about the world, developing capacities and competencies), and time spent caring for others, is valued much more highly than time selling products into a commercial market. In fact, in these communities, participating in the industrial economy is viewed with some pity: “Why are you wasting your time and talent earning money when it could be put to much better use?”
  • I’ve seen communities where unschooling is the norm and learning is lifelong and continuous. The children in these communities are more curious, more mature, more informed, more creative, more articulate, and more connected to everything than their counterparts in the institutional industrial education system. I worry for them: If they eventually try to enroll in the industrial education system, how long will they last, and what will they think of a world where most of their peers accept this as something of value?
  • I’ve seen local community-based media that contain real, actionable news, and interesting, novel ideas, knowledge, insights and perspectives that are used in the community for lively and generous debate and conversation.
  • I’ve seen local community-based ‘political’ organizations focused on specific, real local problems, organizations that encourage dialogue and innovation and which produce a broad local consensus on how to live better in community.
  • I’ve seen local ‘wellness’ organizations, some of them Gift Economy based (pay what you can afford and think appropriate) that appear far more effective at improving the physical and mental health of members of their communities than institutional industrial health clinics and facilities. A key part of their success is that they work with the patient to co-develop and co-operate a personal wellness program, instead of doing their health work to and on the patient, as if the patient were a dumb machine.

Lots more on this topic to follow in the coming weeks. If you have examples of models of Natural Systems behaviours and successes, please tell us about them.

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8 Responses to Imagining Post-Industrial Society

  1. Pingback: Spiritual Challenge in Today's World

  2. I’ve come to the conclusion (caution!) that no “economy” is permissible or desirable in a sustainable world. Economy means commerce, which means consumption, which means exploitation, which ALL means non-sustainable. Other meanings are depredation, degradation, pollution, decline, all negatives of course. We willingly exchange all of this today (by simply ignoring it) because we lack the proper world-view of what this means to us now and in the future, and especially for the next generations to come (including our own kids of course).

    As I’ve grappled with the terms of economics and the demands this places upon everything else (human, resources, planet, capital) the obvious reveals itself: no civilization or society can ever achieve true sustainability where there is any “economy” that overtaxes the local resources.

    It is also becomes apparent that no human groups larger then tribal structures can achieve sustainability either. Groups larger then this very quickly overdeplete their local resources, and once that happens, sustainability is “forever” out the window (and so is population) on a near-logarithmic scale.

    I like your chart, but do not see any “transition” possible. I suspect that we will simply cover up (similarly like we do now) the real effects of what happens when we make the effort to transition to a “sustainable society”. In other words, we’ll convince ourselves on how great it’s working and not admit to its obvious faults.

    If you really do accept natural systems and a natural economy as the truly sustainable methodology for human existence, then you have to start considering the size, scale, scope and population that any such “commerce” (economy) actually signifies. All of your Natural System characteristics could only apply to very small groups.

    This then, is the pathway for future human habitation, a complete and total restructuring of society and civilization into very small sustainable habitations. Tribes in other words. Obviously, tried before and it worked pretty well too.

    It is the the “here to there” issues that entertain us, but I don’t see a clear path ahead at all. Like you, I see civilizations collapse, occurring now, everywhere. But we have a very long ways to go yet before we can even dream of the realization of “sustainable” with a (re)newed human structure. Neither you nor I will live to see it.

  3. Janene says:

    Hey —

    I have to agree with survival acres… when we talk about “economy” we are talking about the science of economics… and economics is *about* scarcity. In natural systems scarcity is an entirely different thing than what economics refers to. This may be seen as semantics, but I honestly believe semantics matter — after all, our language informs us of what we believe, even when we know it not!


  4. Another piece of sublime thought, and a startlingly concise diagram to boot. Will absorb in my own sluggish time – thank you for being you, Dave.

  5. Pingback: Why Wealth is Loving, Caring, and Sharing

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Wow! How I want to live in the “Natural System”. I have had some of these ideas in the back of my head…but you’ve pulled them together and have a plan. I love it.

  8. Herve says:

    In my conception, and to answer Survival Acres, there is only one key to the transition, key which is also the keystone of the “natural” economy. This key, Dave mentioned it as part of the natural system, is unfortunately in quite short supply nowadays compared to the demand for it.

    This key is Love.

    Unconditional, self-sacrificial, humble, not-commanded, generous, ready-to-forgive, caring, willing love.
    The kind that was called caritas in latin or ἀγάπη in greek…

    Any system which does not put this at the core of its principles is doomed to become an horrible tyranny and to eventually fail, as did communism, as is now doing modern capitalism.

    The pitfall: this kind of love cannot be commended by outside sources. Each individual has his own bit of the key deep in his heart, which he control, but he cannot control other’s people heart. If he were to try, the system that he will create will be the worst of all tyranny.

    The solution: in my experience, this type of love is contagious. We need to be the first proponent of this love, even if all around us lie hate and deception.
    In this lies the power to save the world

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