Riding the ‘sixth wave’

By Dr Stuart Godfrey

James Moody, a CSIRO guru on innovation, is lead author of a book, “The Sixth Wave – How to succeed in a resource-limited world”. It offers a bold vision for facing up to the massive difficulties posed by Peak Oil and Climate Change.

The book’s title refers to a Soviet economist who noticed that Western economic activity could be understood in terms of “waves” of forty to sixty years’ duration, each characterised by the rise and obsolescence of a particular technology.

Updating Kondriatev’s picture, the book identifies five waves that have already taken place:

    1) canal transport in the 1700’s
    2) the steam (railway and ship) revolution
    3) introduction of electricity
    4) petroleum-based innovations
    5) the computer revolution

Each new wave started with a period of economic uncertainty and depression as the long-term negative side-effects caused by the old technology came to the fore, accompanied by the birth-pangs of the new technology. The longest delays in this reorientation related to developing the legal basis for adjusting the world economy to fit the needs of the new technology.

The authors see us at the start of the ‘sixth wave’ – and this will be about following Nature to make our economy a closed loop operation in all raw materials. They describe an amazingly wide range of innovations that already exist, that collectively have huge potential for reducing the wastefulness of present-day society. The authors explain the pros and cons of different incentives for reducing waste.

The start of the Sixth Wave may be particularly painful, because our global love affair with the family car is so deep. Because of this, our politicians do not dare do what they should do. If Nature does their job for them, she will give us lessons so severe – in terms of crises in food, water, mobility and general societal disorganisation – that human society is unlikely ever again to forget them.

The task ahead for each of us is to prepare as fast and as well as we can for the consequences of Peak Oil described elsewhere on this website – but to remember, in the stress of this new, frightening activity, that humans have always been immensely inventive, and we are on a huge, historical peak of inventiveness right now.

On top of this, the old English saying: “There is nothing like the prospect of hanging to sharpen a man’s mind” gives hope that we will collaborate well enough and inventively enough so that that under stress, our transition to a more settled future – in line with the mature “Sixth Wave” – will be reasonably short.

(Dr Stuart Godfrey is a marine scientist, now retired and an active member of the Peak Oil Tasmania working group.)

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