Esko Kilpi photo. Detail of a work of art by Nasan Tur

From the fossil, industrial era to a post-fossil, post-industrial era

Every time we replace interdependent, complex systems with extractive monocultures, meaning cultures either dominated by a single element, or cultures marked by homogeneity, we gain in short-term productivity, but at the cost of long-term resilience and viability. The less diverse a system is, the more vulnerable it is, and the more unsustainable it becomes.

In responding to the challenge of climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using; it is what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we have been doing with fossil fuels during the industrial era? The fossil era was about mechanical application of generic and fixed (management) rules creating monocultures based on principles of extraction. The era of mass-production was about non-regenerative systems that ignored all contextual particularities.

It was an invitation to failure.

The principles of extraction and simplification still apply to the social systems of work: most of our firms can still be described as monocultures. We also do our best to productize humans to fit the job markets, not the other way round. One-dimensional social designs have the same inbuilt risks as simplified natural designs. Extractive social systems can cause the same kind of damage to the human ecology as mining and other extractive systems have caused to the natural ecosystem. People are treated as “resources” and as such become dependent on artificial motivation systems, the human equivalents of fertilizers.

We call them incentives.

The model we subscribe to creates organizations that are productive in the short term, but fragile in the long term. As long as the environment remains the same, simplified systems are efficient, but they immediately become counterproductive when the environment changes even slightly, which often happens as a result of their own activities.

A job market, as a concept, is a radical simplification of human work based on the same extractive logic as mining. Every time we replace practical, local knowledge with general, standardized knowledge we gain in productivity, but at the cost of more environmental adaptation in the future. Learning debt is created and the whole system is less resilient and may even become dysfunctional. Short-term gains turn out to be extremely expensive in the long run, as is now happening with our ecosystem!

Mass-industrial systems were built on categorized knowledge and generic competences. Post-mass industrial systems are going to be built on situated knowledge and contextual agency.

Just as all sustainable farming is seen as taking place in a unique context, all human work takes place in a unique space and at a unique time. Post-industrial human work is situated and context-dependent. It just hasn’t been understood that way for over 100 years.

The post-industrial, post-fossil era is too complicated to boil down into a single slogan describing work. It is a more profound change in work patterns than what the present visions offer. It is not only about AI or platforms, augmented humans or about employees becoming contractors. It is more about generic, mass solutions becoming contextual and about labor, interchangeable workers, being seen perhaps for the first time, as unique.

The technological case for networked small units, such as connected human beings working together in responsive interaction, is stronger than ever. Local, contextual knowledge is needed not only for sustainability in the post-fossil society but also in digitally augmented work.

What is most desperately needed is a deeper understanding of the complexity of life — and not being afraid.