Three hundred years ago, before the age of the Industrial Revolution, the world was a very different place in which families, nuclear, extended or communal, played a decisive role. Most people worked in the family business, more often a farm or small plot of land than anything else. Tradesmen taught their sons in the family workshop, and if they had no place of their own, they worked with their neighbours; mothers trained their daughters in the mysteries of running a home and keeping the family together. Generations existed side by side; youngsters did not disappear and desert their siblings and parents.
There was no Ministry of Education. Families took care of the rudimentary elements of teaching and learning. Few doctors worked in hospitals and there was no health system to speak of, no welfare system either. If people fell upon hard times, then the family stepped in; there were no insurance companies to soften the blow when tragedy struck. When people grew old and infirm, the family rallied around in many cases. Children and grandchildren were their pension funds.
There was a fine line between supportive roles and intrusion. When youngsters’ thoughts turned to romance and matrimony, the family had its say; if conflict with neighbours arose, then the community got involved. If a building was to be erected, then it was all shoulders to the wheel, and the reward at the end of the day was a meal, a few drinks and maybe even a dance or two. Barter was commerce in those days, not the laws of supply and demand of today’s free market place. You scratched my back and I returned the favour when you needed it. Of course, there were markets where you could buy spices, perhaps tools, and rare cloths; and of course there were lawyers and other parasites for hire as always.
The State as such seldom intervened in the lives of the people who occupied it. Even taxation was left, in many cases, to local institutions. In China, the Ming Empire that lasted from 1368 to 1644, organized its people using a system named Baojia; ten families made a jia and ten jia composed a bao. Collective responsibility formed the basis of the system. If one member of a bao committed a crime, then any other member of the same bao could be punished for it. The elders of each community determined how much each family could pay in taxes and dues. In reality, the system was a conglomeration of protection rackets.
Three hundred years ago, for those who fell ill, had no work or were destitute outside the family or community, there was no police force to protect them, no health system to take care of them, no welfare system to feed them, and no school to educate and train them. At best, they might find a position akin to that of a slave or servant in another family. For many, the best alternative was the army, the navy, or the brothel.
The coming of the Industrial Revolution provided fast and efficient means of communication. Isolation and insular existences became a thing of the past, at least to a great extent. The traditional bonds of family and community were not seen as strengths but as constraints. People wanted to break free.
The Industrial Revolution became the birthplace of the Individual Revolution. Individuality and selfishness flourished. It was every man for himself. In many countries, but not universally, women have become recognized as individuals with the same rights as any other person. They enjoy economic and legal rights independently of their family and community. They are sexually emancipated and can form and dissolve relationships with or from whomsoever they wish.
This liberation has come with a cost. Unfettered expansion has resulted in environmental problems. Many bemoan the loss of the family. As individuals we are exploited by the market place. The State not only protects us – in a fashion – it also imposes rules and regulations, fines, penalties and obligations upon us. Men still exploit women.
Global warming is not the only accelerated change to affect the world and its inhabitants since the Industrial Revolution. For eons, millions of years, humankind and its societies evolved into small units, call them families or communities if you like, and yet the 250 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution have seen the collapse of the very system that took so long to develop and evolve. The social mechanisms of the First World seldom function, or even exist in developing nations, yet these countries have adopted most if not all of the dubious benefits of industrialization. It’s like flying high on a trapeze without a safety net: beautiful and exciting when it works, but deadly to behold when it fails.
The developing nations call for climate justice while they enjoy the fruits of global industrial development without participating in, or sharing the costs of their production.