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May/June 2005 · Historically Speaking 31 tion. It was, however, not an ecological regime transformation. To be sure, the rapidly growing capitalist trade stepped up pressure on the existing ecological regimes, which, in turn, contributed to the search for new ways of producing things. And these efforts increased sharply when the Old and New Worlds became interlinked. As a result, over the course of time the mercantile social regime transformation—globalization— would help trigger the third great ecological regime transformation, industrialization. Industrialization was based on fundamentally new ways of tapping energy sources for productive uses. Until that time, all machines had been driven by either human and animal muscle power or by wind and water energy. In the modern sense, they were all renewable energy sources. The first stage of the Industrial Revolution was driven by coal. This commodity formed part of the huge piggy bank of stored solar energy on Earth in the form of fossil fuels. For centuries, coal had been mined in many places, mostly for heating and smelting. In 18th-century Western Europe early steam engines were invented. In the 1770s the Scottish engineer James Watt patented a more efficient steam engine capable of powering other machines. Watt subsequently joined forces with the entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, who put Watt's steam engines onto the market with the slogan: "I sell sir, what all the world desires: power." The harnessing of fossil fuels led to fundamentally new ways of handling matter and energy flows. Industrialization was, therefore , a major ecological regime transformation . As a result ofthe new matter and energy flows, regional and global cultural complexity rose once again. Since initial access to these new matter and energy flows was very unequally divided, huge worldwide power differences evolved. The industrializing nations began colonizing large parts of the world. After almost all the conquerable world had been subjugated, the newly industrialized nations began battling it out among themselves. This led to two world wars. The spread of modern industry all around the world—facilitated, in part, by World Wars I and II—has led to unprecedented levels of the division of labor and thus to growing global complexity. While the first industrialized nations have succeeded in remaining rather powerful, newcomers are increasingly challenging their positions. Since the 1960s, many energy and labor-intensive industries have begun to move to areas where the production costs are lower. Industrialization has made societies more powerful yet also more vulnerable. Right now, all industrial societies are very dependent on the dwindling stocks of fossil energy. In 2003 this led to a war between the U.S. and Iraq, in which a major issue at stake was the control over oil in the Middle East and the question of how, and by whom, this energy could be utilized in both constructive and destructive ways. Seen from a long-term perspective , the exploitation of the limited supply of fossil fuels can only be temporary. * * * In my view, there can be no doubt as to the overriding importance ofharnessing flows of matter and energy for the course of human history. Those who were better able to do so than their neighbors invariably gained the upper hand. This stimulated others to try and do the same, or better. Some may protest: "What about cultural skills? Aren't they far more important than just harnessing flows of matter and energy?" My answer is that exactly the skills that allowed people to harvest ever more matter and energy were the ones that helped them prevail. To be sure, skills that allowed people to make use of matter and energy flows in more efficient ways were very helpful. Japanese society comes to mind or traditional Scottish ways of life (and perhaps also oldfashioned Dutch culture). But this only reinforces the argument presented here. How long will the current processes last? We don't know. It will depend directly on the ways humans will handle the available matter and energy flows, both in a biological and cultural sense, while preserving complexity on the Earth to the extent that it will provide sufficient room to survive and, if possible, reproduce. Fred Spier is senior lecturer in big history at the University...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-6438
Print ISSN
1941-4188
Pages
pp. 31-34
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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