The mainstream narrative of progress usually divides history in two. All that was ‘before’ the Industrial Revolution, and all that took place ‘after’. Before the revolution life was more or less nasty, brutish and short. With the revolution however, came the advent of technologies that developed nations into what they are today: clean, modern, advanced, and in which people are better, healthier and wealthier than every before.
These are the narratives that are easy to hear for people — the more difficult narratives are the ones that look at what happens when such a way of life is pursued, and at what cost. Because it often comes at the expense of the environment, at the expense of non-human beings and at the expense of care.
The Industrial Revolution was only possible due to access to huge quantities of free energy, locked up in fossil fuels accumulated over billions of years, and the power of colonialism which, in the case of the cotton industry for instance, secured a workforce of slaves in the USA, and export markets in India to whom the products of industrialisation were sold.
The logic of growth perpetually seeks new frontiers to colonise, new markets to open, new goods and products to create and sell. Thus capital spreads, in the past via colonisation, and in the present via continued destruction of the natural world — until capital doesn’t know where to go anymore. This is why we have created all these financial products, bonds, derivatives, sub-prime mortgages… an imaginary economy which doesn’t have a foothold in the ‘real’ economy but, when it fails, those at the bottom are asked to pay for.
Countless environmental movements in the Global South stand up to this vision of progress and are often vilified and even attacked by state forces for defending their lands from extractivist industries, mining, oil pipelines etc…
This vision of progress as the pursuit of economic growth was challenged in the 1970s, most notoriously by a group of researchers known as the Club of Rome. Their report, “Limits to Growth”, effectively foresaw the dangerous effects of global warming as a consequence of continued economic growth. What they advocated for was a reduction of production and consumption in rich countries and to shift the focus of policy towards bettering people’s wellbeing.
This proposal was rejected by many — and in the 1980s the notion of ‘sustainable development’ or ‘green growth’ was born.