Post Industrial Society: The Future Has Arrived

In 1973 the Maine Times ran an essay in which the editor argued resource shortages had already pushed the United States into becoming, unwillingly, a post industrial society.
By John N. Cole
November/December 1973
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Post industrial society is here, and the food, water, and fuel that powered industrial society is going, going, gone.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/MONAMAKELA


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Events during the past several years ought to have sustained our confidence in our convictions. Our long opposition to the war in Vietnam was a minority view when it was first expressed in print; but, after almost a decade, the same view was fiercely defended by a majority. This publication's effort of five years ago to bring reforms to the juvenile corrections system was labeled "yellow journalism" at first; yet the same sentiments are now safe enough to be shared by almost every politician. Likewise, our efforts to preserve Maine's environmental integrity were often called "radical" five years ago; however, just last week the governor of Maine said, "Those who would turn back the clock and repeal environmental laws . . . have lost the spirit that built this country and made it great . . . "

But in spite of these affirmations—and more—we were always a bit dubious of the timeliness of our ruminations about post-industrialism. Even we wondered if we might not be pushing too far into the future when we talked about revising an entire cultural value system. We advocated an end to the production-consumption-waste cycle, a stabilized, non-growth economic system, and a way of life that requires living in harmony with nature. Instead of plundering the earth's non-renewable resources, we argued that our fundamental life-support systems should be based on renewable resources, less consumption, and an end to waste. There could be, we insisted, no continued depletion of a finite system like the earth's without eventual chaos. The Industrial Age, we claimed, had reached a point of excess—a point at which its costs to the family of man were greater than its benefits.

When we talked about Maine as a prototype post-industrial community—a largely independent, self-sustaining, low-consumption community which would utilize the best of technology to harvest energy from renewable resources—we got a great many raised eyebrows and suggestions from friends that perhaps we shouldn't spend so much time on the topic. We also got some tough questions about what such a system might do to the present economic design. Would it mean an end to capitalism, an end to profits, an end to the exploitation pattern that has been unfolding ever since Eli Whitney invented interchangeable parts? Yes it would, we replied, because capitalism as we know it is based on growth; and we argue for an equilibrium state.

But we could not answer the questions about how the economic systems would change. For us, in transition, the answers were too far in the future.

Now, quite suddenly, the forces of change have accelerated with incredible speed. Within the past several months, post-industrialism has become a fact of the present, rather than a thought for the future. The coming winter may well see the chaotic collapse of most Industrial Age systems.

Consider the following indicators—benchmarks of breakdowns among the most fundamental human needs: food, water, shelter, warmth, and transportation.

Item—Crop failures and price controls have resulted in widespread shortages of staple foods. Inflation and greed in the beef business will bring more meat famines. Fish stocks, which could have eased the protein crisis, have vanished from the coastal seas as a result of industrial pollution and/or overfishing by Industrial Age techniques. People in the so-called richest nation in the world are—for the first time—uncertain of their food supplies.

Item—As if some force beyond comprehension were in charge of the petroleum industry, Americans are being told their homes will be cold this winter. Already the community of Bend, Oregon has had a heatless week. Natural gas will not be available to farmers who have come to depend on it for crop processing. And automobile gasoline—the energy which powers the towering icon of industrialism—is in short supply.

Item—At least six major railroad systems (another industrial dinosaur) in the Northeast are bankrupt. To keep them running so they can transport what oil there is, the people of the nation, through their government, will have to spend billions in tax dollars.

Item—Mortgage money, building materials, and reasonably priced land are in such short supply that every day more and more Americans become unable to build their own homes. Shelter is a luxury, available to the rich alone; and, even for them, a luxury that is vanishing from the realm of reality.

Item—Even though the winter tourist season is not yet at its peak, officials in Miami Beach are anxious about the city's water supply. Because of overbuilding, pollution, and a complete disregard for ecological reality, Florida's largest resort and a national symbol of affluence may not be able to supply its citizens with the basic life-support element—potable water.

Heat, shelter, food, water, and transportation—these are the basics of life. Yet the world's most advanced society, a nation blessed with incomparable natural resources, the United States of America, is on the brink of a winter in which each of these staples will be in critically short supply—with no hope that those shortages will ever be eased.

If President Nixon thought he was in trouble with Watergate, wait until he hears from 50 million people who can't heat their homes, traveling salesmen who can't buy gas to travel, and housewives who can no longer feed their families.

Through this sort of convulsion, the doors to post-industrialism will be wrenched open by an angry people. The government that does not respond will be driven from office. But the government that does respond will have to initiate the beginning of the end of traditional capitalism. The government will take over the railroads, will control the housing industry, will be unable to sustain a defense mechanism which uses enough oil to heat every home, will turn toward the use of many energy sources now going to waste, and will—in effect—begin groping toward the start of a post-industrial economy and a social system based on post-industrial principles. Either that, or collapse.

The community of Maine, because such a significant part of it never became industrialized, will survive in better shape than most. With a determined effort at consumption reforms, the return of the self-sustaining farm, the use of methane and wood wastes for fuel, and the development of a non-auto-based public transportation system, Maine could make the transition with a minimum of discomfort. Unfortunately, it is not likely that those efforts will be made, here or anywhere else. On the fortunate side, however, are the surprisingly sudden events which now make talk of post-industrialism essential, rather than visionary.

We should never have doubted our own convictions, because we weren't that far ahead of time after all. (JNC)


This editorial was written by John N. Cole (Editor, Maine Times) and was reprinted with permission. Maine Times, a weekly newspaper, contains succinct, hard-hitting TRUE articles and exposes on the relevant problems of our time: unemployment, inflation, the squeeze on little folks, and the rape of the environment. 
 

 


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