Foot on the (Literal) Gas Pedal: the Great Acceleration

14 minute read

With a rusty hiss and sputter, the nozzle clears its scratchy throat and coughs out a thin dribble of fluid. No, that won’t do… you release the pressurized trigger, reposition the thick rubber hose, and give a few hopeful squeezes. Ah, that’s better… a certain distinctly faint-sweet smell wafts up as pale liquid pulses from metal tank to metal tank. GLUG, GLUG, glug, glug… the growling subsides. Finally, you give a turn to the ignition, shift into drive, and ease onto the pedal, accelerating easily off on your way.

It’s an innocuous scene, is it not? Common perhaps as carts brimming with film-wrapped food, or televisions perched on living room stands; megacities beaming light to the darkness, or transport lines criss-crossing the globe in fragile lattice. But what if we acknowledge that all of this modernization, all of this development, all of this acceleration is not a simple, innate reality of the universe? That many among the past few generations of humanity have very knowingly willed along the rapidity of these planetary changes, like a foot pressing steadily on the gas? 

We hit the brakes on our story at a highly significant place—the late nineteenth century. The Industrial Revolution—for all its ills, developments, and unique characteristics—has run its initial course through human society. Unlike before, we now find ourselves in less of a specific time or location; changes have been wrought in just about every corner of the world by the growth of coal-driven industrialization and its subsequent social, economic, and environmental impacts. The stage has been set for a dangerous, generation-spanning drama playing out from the late 1800s to the late 1900s. This is what we’ll cover today. This is the “Great Acceleration.”

The Post-War Revival

So let’s pick up right where we left off: in the aftermath of the American Civil War. This domestic conflictitself much a product of sparring industrial practices and ideologies—would spill over its borders, rippling far across the international community both during and after the war. Chiefly, this was felt through a great shortage in the cotton supply. With the recent astronomical increase in the production capacity of industrialized nation-states came an astronomical hunger for raw materials, and cotton at this time was king. But with America coasting along as the leading producer, the disruption of war—and subsequent abolition of slavery—ripped a gaping hole in this supply chain, as not nearly enough exploitable labor remained to preserve its stability. The U.S. would eventually regain its former cotton title following the turbulent Reconstruction era, but the global shockwave was long-since sent. In essence, the pre-war global-industrial order—built (among others) on U.S. slave labor, British hegemony, and textile industry domination—had been forever altered.

Western powers launched into a scramble for new markets, supply chains, and innovations to keep their industrial engines stoked. And they were nothing if not motivated; the very maintenance of economic and social stability was at stake. In the midst of such upheaval this meant finding new ways forward, and finding them fast. Thus, by many accounts the post-war period of 1870 leading up to World War I marked the greatest increase of technological innovation, economic growth, and resource extraction ever seen—coming to be known as the “Second Industrial Revolution.”

Fortunately for industrialists’ sake, they had a new ace up their sleeves (or more accurately, in the ground): oil. Titusville, Pennsylvania saw what is believed to be the first-ever planned oil drilling operation in 1859, a single well-prick near a sleepy town that would soon gush open the floodgates to global, commercial oil extraction. And commercialize, they did: the world’s first truly ultra-rich industrialists nabbed their wealth either directly or indirectly through exploiting cheap energy and cheaper labor. Because lest we forget, the mechanization of work remained well underway, displacing real labor with mechanical labor, and the new double whammy of coal and oil only furthered the obsolescence of traditional workers. New inventions seemed to appear out of thin air: from steel to synthetic fertilizer, the steam turbine to mass-produced pharmaceuticals, the late-19th century restructuring of capitalist-industrial society allowed for unprecedented investment into such productive “development.” Pair this with the ever-increasing expansion of telegraph and rail networks, gas, water, and electric supply, as well as municipal services like sewage systems, and so-called modernization ran rampant.

Towards the “New Imperialism”

As a natural result, consumptive trends began to skyrocket right alongside these productive ones. We’ve discussed the “hockey stick effect” at some length in other articles. In short, “hockey stick” graphs like those below accurately depict not only the dominant biophysical trends underpinning exponential societal acceleration, but the dominant ideological practices behind it as well.

Now That’s What I Call a Rapid Increase!

But what does this matter, you may ask, in this context? Well, to understand that the “Great Acceleration” was not a random occurrence, but rather a long time coming.

A number of rapid take-offs had already begun over a century earlier—the Industrial Revolution marking the first major uptick in human impact on the living world. But it wasn’t until our current post-war revival age that geopolitical might shifted to become much more widely dispersed—and solidified. Rather than numerous fledgling industrial states playing catch-up to a small handful of hegemons, the gluts of fossil energy and new technology flooding the markets leveled the playing field somewhat between Western powers, allowing for greater cooperation, wealth creation, and growth across the board. 

The “Great Acceleration” was not a random occurrence, but rather a long time coming.

However, the paradox of this is that while more and more nations tightened their stranglehold over resources, people, and planet, the actual means of profit were becoming more and more consolidated in the hands of few. Eerily reflecting the laissez-faire political times of early industrialization, corporate powerhouses used legal loopholes (particularly in trust laws) to effectively wrangle entire industries under corporate leadership. Trusts such as Standard Oil and U.S. Steel dominated, and their heads raked in unprecedented riches. This was the equation of mass corporatization: concretize strict internal hierarchies through bureaucratic management; displace human labor with cheaper machinery; and throw workers’ rights for those who remained out the window (not to mention respect for other peoples and cultures outside this rigid mold).

“Robber Barons” Overseeing the Halls of Congress: Much of an Exaggeration?

And so with the Rockefellers and Carnegies of the “modernized” world running the show—steering entire industries towards a new flavor of methodical capitalism—it perhaps becomes more obvious how imperialism came to dominate Western ideology and practice.

Imperialism Reigns

It’s 1875: casually toss a reference to the words imperialism or colonialism and it’s likely no one bats an eye (or drops their top hat). European expansion had been occurring in fits and spurts since about the late-15th century, so royally planting flags in the lands of unsuspecting peoples was… yawn… old news. What makes this coming period of conquering and exploiting utterly unique, then, is two-fold:

  1. The speed and breadth of imperial and colonial acquisition
  2. The unreal abilities of coal- and oil-powered technologies

It’s clear that a whole lot has changed since the dawn of Western expansionism, but at least one fundamental characteristic has stayed steady across the centuries: the lust for resources. 

A growth-centric economy, we know, is really not much more than a giant heat engine: it converts primary energy and resources into thermal / mechanical energy through varied methods, which is thereby usable for “productive” work. To increase output—or to follow our metaphor, for continuous socio-economic acceleration—means to consistently shovel more and more inputs into the “engine’s” toothy maw. Western powers (European, in particular) had been feeding this beast for a long time now; colonies and territories were scattered around the globe from previous expansions. But any prior grabs for peoples and lands would be dwarfed by the aggressiveness of imperial imposition leading up to World War I.

For industrial purposes, Europe itself is relatively resource-poor, and especially so at this later industrial stage. These smaller nations naturally don’t have vast land areas to expand, grow food, and extract from. What resources they were endowed with had been largely over-depleted throughout the previous centuries, and post-Civil War upheaval further scrambled formerly reliable supply chains. Yet—in order to exist—Europe’s hugely expanded production capacity demanded constant flows of abundant and rich raw materials.

Hmm… and therein lies the essence of their outward-facing lust. The technology itself was there; innovations in transport and communications, in particular, had progressed rapidly within Western nations via the fossil carbon boom of extraction and utilization. As a result, to them the world was suddenly a lot smaller—and untold cornucopias of resources were no longer so remote. The question was, where to turn?

But wait! Luckily for the imperial-colonialists, the world’s last virtually-untapped resource store sat before their eyes like a piping-hot pie to be sliced. This, of course, being the African continent. Beginning at the Berlin Conference of 1884, rules were established to govern Europe’s claiming of African land. The speed at which this would take place, as we’ve established, is shocking: by 1900, the only entirely sovereign African nation would be Ethiopia (with a full 90% of the continent’s area under European occupation). All other peoples and lands were divvied up between seven European powers: Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. They would pillage untold fortunes from their colonies, coercing or violently forcing profitable relationships over native communities in the name of their continued growth.

The African “Pie” All Sliced Up

But this myriad of Indigenous and so-called “undeveloped” cultures weren’t just places to take from; they were places to sell. One of the cornerstones of imperial and colonial domination is the ability to squash the sovereignty of the subjugated. During this period—by stamping out almost all capability to produce their own goods, control their own markets, and make their own socio-political decisions—this is exactly what the imperialists would impose. Monopolizing over the subjugated ensures dependency, all for the self-serving, economic and consumptive purposes of the subjugator. Or as colonial administrator Henry Morton Stanley once famously put it:

“There are 40,000,000 naked people beyond that gateway, and the cotton spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them.”

Let entirely self-sufficient populations make their own economic decisions? Leave oil in the ground and wood in the forests? Maintain cultures of reciprocity, respect for the living world, and intentionality in consumption? Allow innocent beings—human and non-human—to live rather than perish under a merciless wave of pillaging and burning?

No! There was immense opportunity in direct exploitation, and the degradation of both people and planet would occur on a previously-impossible scale throughout this phase of the “Great Acceleration.” To name but a few widespread ecological effects: plantation agriculture and mining ruined ancestral homelands; cash crops replaced usable food crops for local communities; and desertification, biodiversity loss, and nutrient leaching all followed suit. Such domination by and for imperial-colonial culture happened concurrently not just in Africa but across what would come to be known as the “Global South:” from the Caribbean to South America, the Middle East to Eastern Asia.

Much, it’s evidenced, can be traced back to exceptionalism; the belief (oft-rooted in racism) that one people or system is inherently superior over another. All across the Global North—eminently including the U.S. and Empire of Japan—exceptionalist policy and practice were just as vital of tools in their imperial arsenal as any other. These nations’ socio-technological “advancements” were conflated with their clear and obvious superiority, diversity and richness of all others be damned.

One Representation of the Global North-South Divide

While it’s somewhat mind-boggling to reconcile the expansive diversity of these nations of the Global South, it is perhaps even more so to consider the truly systematic dismantling of their pre-colonial ways of being. This was an age of intense expedition, in more than one sense of the word. Not only did the tendrils of dominant industrial-capitalism make their way across the planet via literal conquests by states from the Global North, but the speed at which it all occurred was greatly expedited. Globalization is in many ways the process of disseminating industrial-capitalist ideals and systems the world over, and we’re now in the period when much of this can be seen to take root—ensnaring itself deep into modern society.

Though we often view imperialism as an antiquated thing of the past, its effects have leached steadily for over a hundred years, and the system itself has morphed into different forms. It’s a bit like a time-release capsule: by the early-20th century, this destructive pill was shoved down the throats of entire cultures, entire regions, and even the biosphere itself. We still, however, very much feel its presence today.

Into the World Wars

Which runs us headlong into the middle of a new decade: the 1910’s. We could spend a textbook’s worth of articles diving into the nitty-gritty of the tumultuous thirty or so years ahead of us—but for the purposes of this article (and perhaps your sanity), we won’t do that. Instead, let’s get into a few of the key takeaways from yet another utterly unique moment of human-Earth history.

As we know, this was a time of conflict, and conflict on a scale never before seen. A good way to characterize it—in a succinct manner—is with the term “hegemonic sparring.” Hegemony, remember, had by now changed, from concentrated British power over early industrial states to much of the Global North grabbing pieces of the imperial pie. But amongst many unforeseen consequences, World War I caused a major snag in the path of Western imperial domination. European empires would forcibly mobilise hundreds of thousands of Africans to the front lines, driving in part an upsurge in anti-colonial movements spurring the reform, and ultimately, abolition of direct colonization. It really wasn’t a “world” war; it was a Global North one—sparring over wealth and power—and this did not go unrecognized amongst populations enlisted to protect the very order that subjugated them. 

This is the first of several major systemic shocks of the war era, which in sum render it so distinct in comparison to other eras. But how to track these historical developments? Global CO2 emissions offer a quantifiable means to follow the planetary-level changes of the World War age—and there are four primary dips in them from 1910 to 1950. Knowing that emissions correlate almost exactly with economic growth—and therefore industrial-capitalist activity—these CO2 downturns effectively weave the narrative of this time. 

Each of these herky-jerky bumps is visible (to differing degrees) on the graph below: WWI itself; the 1918 Flu; the U.S. Great Depression; and finally, the several years post-WWII. It was as if every decade ushered in a fresh impediment to the status quo, stalling the gears of the Global North’s accelerative growth.

Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A. doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

No brake-pumping could be effective enough, though. Taking the long view, the inter-war period would have little lasting effect on the hockey stick-like upswing of what we term “the human superorganism.” Furthermore, it’s even possible that the various shocks—from the virus to global market crashes to warmongering—served to tee up the mammoth growth to come. 

Pedal to the Metal

You may have known that the post-WWII years are often considered the “golden age” of capitalism, productivity, and development. This is true: the acceleration of the three decades to follow would be faster and steadier than ever before in human history. With the turmoil seemingly over and industry freed up from wartime production, wealthy states boosted living standards, mushroomed GDP levels, and facilitated the modernizing of developing nations. Finally, finally, the pedal could go to the metal.

Or at least, that’s how the rosy version goes. Our next few articles will dive much more extensively into the controversial political economics of the late-20th century up to the present day—as “neo-” models of liberalism and colonialism sweep across human society. The truth is that not all beings, human nor non-human, benefit from this latest iteration of the “Great Acceleration” experiment. Not. At. All. Inequalities and injustices of many types—social, ecological, economic—will pervade and worsen as globalization and dominant growth culture further snuff out alternative ways of being. 

For now, though, we’ve covered enough ground. And wait… what are you doing reading this, anyways?! I thought you were driving! Go, shoo! That tank you filled back at the beginning still brims with fossil energy. So let the engine rev, I suppose; but remember, no acceleration comes without cost nor consequence, and you won’t be able to keep your foot on the gas forever.

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