The Next Industrial Revolution

By Anderson, Ray C. | Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Next Industrial Revolution


Anderson, Ray C., Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy


We're all passengers on Spaceship Earth, but a few centuries of destructive manufacturing practices have placed our vehicle at risk.

Deep into his novel Ishmael, author Daniel Quinn uses a metaphor to describe our civilization as it has arisen out of the first industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution before that. He likens our civilization to one of those early attempts to build an airplane--the one with the flapping wings and the guy pedaling madly to make the wings go. You've seen the image in old film clips. In Quinn's metaphor, the man and the plane go off a very high cliff and the guy is pedaling away and the wings are flapping, the wind is in his face, and the poor fool thinks he's flying. But the fact is, he's in free fall and just doesn't realize it because the ground is so far away. He's not flying because his plane is not built according to the laws of aerodynamics.

Quinn says that our civilization is in free fall, too, for the same reason: it wasn't built according to the "laws of aerodynamics" that allow civilizations to fly. We think we can just pedal harder and everything will be okay; pedal harder still and we can fly to the stars. But we will surely crash unless we redesign our craft--our civilization--according to laws of flight that will permit us to wing into what author Paul Hawken calls the next industrial revolution.

The next industrial revolution? Is that realistic? Clearly, the first one is just not working out very well, as Quinn's metaphor so aptly demonstrates. In fact, according to economist Lester Thurow, we've already passed through the second industrial revolution and are into the third. In his 1999 book Building Wealth: The New Rules for Individuals, Companies and Nations, Thurow holds that the first industrial revolution was steam-powered. The second, which was electricity-powered, made possible the third, which is the information revolution, ushering in the information age. Clearly, all three stages have emerged with vastly different characteristics, and all three are revolutionary in scope.

Yet they all share some fundamental characteristics that lump them together with an overarching, common theme; they were and remain an unsustainable phase in civilization's development. For example, someone still has to manufacture your 10-pound laptop computer, that icon of the information age. If you count everything processed and distilled into the manufacture of those 10 pounds, going all the way back to the mines for materials and wellheads for energy, the weight will be as much as 40,000 pounds.

Not much has changed over the years since the beginning of the industrial revolution except the sophistication of the finished product. So I refer to all three of Thurow's stages collectively as the first industrial revolution, and I believe the next truly revolutionary industrial revolution will be predicated on sustainability.

Fossil Fuelishness

I run Interface Inc., a manufacturing company that annually produces and sells over a billion dollars worth of carpets, textiles, chemicals, and architectural flooring for commercial and institutional interiors. Our factories process raw materials into finished, manufactured products. Our raw materials come from suppliers who operate their own factories.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted Interface to become the first fully sustainable industrial enterprise--a company that could fly on its own into the next industrial revolution. In 1995, the year we set our sights on the stars, our sales were slightly more than $800 million. Our first task was to examine Interface's entire supply chain, to find out where the materials came from that produce so great an amount of carpets, textiles, and other items. What we discovered horrified me. We found that to manufacture $800 million worth of products, our factories and suppliers, together, extracted from the Earth and processed mote than 1. …

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