Earth Matters: Industrial Age Must End

Earth Matters: Industrial Age Must End

Proclaiming that the Industrial Age must end is a surefire way to invoke a relentless pounding of rhetoric from pro-growth conservatives like the unforgiving waves of a tsunami. However, before some of you sound the alarm and declare an impending disaster, allow me to elaborate. What I am proposing is not to end industrial and commercial development, rather a transition to an age of sustainability by redefining humanity’s definition of success.


For approximately the last 263 years, “success” during the industrial age has been defined as the accommodation of economic growth while disregarding externalities in order to maximize profit. Externalities are commonly defined as a side effect or consequence of an industrial or commercial activity that affects other parties without accountability.

The disregard of externalities produced during the industrial age is clearly illuminated by the large-scale industrial agriculture activities in Hawai’i. Prior to Hawai’i’s gaining statehood in 1959, large-scale industrial agricultural developers were attracted to the island because of  low land costs, cheap labor, and a lack of human-health and environmental regulations that would hold them responsible for negative externalities, which they perceived to inhibit production and reduce profit margins. On the surface, the first industrial exportation of sugar cane and molasses in 1836, the introduction of large-scale rice production in 1858, and the establishment of the first pineapple plantation by the Dole Corporation in 1901, appeared to benefit the people of Hawai’i because these initiatives created jobs, spurred growth, and enabled the pursuit of materialism, considered an indicator of a successful “civilized” culture by the majority of the world’s industrialized nations. 

However, the underlying dark truth of the industrial age reveals an intentional disregard for activities that produced long-term negative externalities such as harmful human-health impacts due to crops being sprayed with toxic chemicals and environmental degradation to the land, surface waters, and ocean. Regrettably, 80 years after the peak of the sugar cane plantations in 1933, some of the most fertile agricultural land in Hawai’i still contains high concentrations of arsenical herbicides that were used extensively for emergent weed control from 1913 to about 1950.

Sugar cutters circa 1910, Hawai'i

Sugar cutters circa 1910, Hawai’i

In the last 20 years, the development of genetically modified organisms (GMO) for the agriculture industry has resulted in a slew of externalities that have negatively impacted human health, small-scale local farmers, and the environment. The pursuit of industrial intellectual property rights of GMO technologies and seeds has inhibited economic opportunities for small-scale farmers. Compounding the problem, the intensive use of toxic chemicals has further damaged the environment and threatens to limit the diversity of traditional food sources for many cultures.

On a global scale, the fossil fuel-based energy systems that powered the rise of the industrial age have produced significant negative externalities such as the emission of high concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. When these greenhouse gases are emitted anywhere they spread everywhere and disrupt the Earth’s natural energy balance, which in turn impacts all life. As highlighted in an article I wrote for the Huffington Post, “Climate Change Reality 1896– 2013: Mauka to Makai,” human-induced externalities produced by the combustion of fossil fuels has with a 95% certainty caused climate change, which prompts extreme weather events, has caused the death of millions of people, and costs the world economy trillions of dollars every year.

Simply put, unless we transition from the practices of the “business-as-usual” growth-driven industrial age to an age of sustainability where humanity strives to live in harmony with the Earth’s natural energy balance and carrying capacity, future generations will experience a slow death of declining “success” that could lead to the end of life on Earth as we know it. As Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Everything connects to everything else.” 

However, before you succumb to a glass half empty view of the world’s future, celebrate the New Year by taking solace in recognizing that the problem is solvable and the transition towards redefining humanity’s definition of “success” in order to cultivate a sustainable future for all life on Earth is well under way. Worldwide, developing and developed nations are investing in renewable energy systems and closed-loop waste management systems. As of today, 26 nations have banned GMO crops, $244 billion dollars has been invested in the development of renewable energy sources in 2012, and 192 out of 196 nations worldwide have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to address anthropogenic climate change.

Moving forward to build upon the global efforts currently underway, we can contribute to redefining the meaning of “success” by participating in the development of our local community, contributing to advocacy organizations focused on social, economic, and environmental sustainability, and sharing information on social networking sites, which kindles a shift towards sustainable behavior and practices worldwide.


Billy Mason

Billy Mason


Editor’s Note: Earth Matters is largely penned by Billy Mason, an environmental studies instructor at Prescott College who focuses on environmental policy and climate change planning. He is also an environmental science writer, a Climate Reality Project leader, and a sustainability coordinator. Billy is an alumnus of the University of Hawai’i at Hilo, Prescott College, and the Clinton Global Initiative University, He serves as a researcher for the Aspen Global Change Institute and as a science instructor at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hawai’i. An accomplished mountaineer, aviator, and surfer who has worked around the world from Telluride to Sri Lanka, Billy has manifested a personal connection with nature’s elements and a diversity of cultures.

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