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Societal transformations in history

The comprehensive report “World in Transition” documents several historical examples of transformations, which we list here with reference to the original text.

Societal transformations

The following five examples from history illustrate how transformations lead to new states of society – including new core technologies, new ways of living together, and new spaces for thinking.

see “World in Transition” (English Version), p. 82

“The Neolithic Revolution describes the emergence and expansion of sedentary societies during the New Stone Age. Between 10,000 and 5,000 BC, after previously living exclusively in nomadic hunter-gatherer communities, humankind developed agriculture, animal husbandry and how to store food in different regions around the globe at the same time, thus creating the preconditions for sedentariness (Sieferle, 2010; Figures 3.2-1, 3.2-2). (WGBU 2001: 82)”

Sedentariness was accompanied by higher material wealth, economic growth, the emergence of increasingly complex, differentiated societies, as well as an increase in energy demand and greater disruption of the natural environment.

see “World in Transition” (English version), p. 87

“The Industrial Revolution is a complex process of economic and social remodelling of pre­industrial societies […]. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and industrialisation, energy system and source were chosen according to the resources available in each respective country. […] In all of the newly industrialising countries, biomass, man­ power and animal power were gradually replaced by fossil energy carriers in combination with new technologies (steam engine, railway, car, tractor). […] Necessary preconditions were a functioning system of law and order, land reforms, investment in human resources, skilled labour, access to natural resources, sufficient capital and a willingness to embrace progress, as reflected by the new intellectual elite’s common world vision and the emerging spirit of enterprise (Osterhammel, 2009; Sieferle, 2010). For the first time ever, humankind succeeded in maintaining the momentum of a sudden wave of innovation.” (WGBU 2011: 87)

see “World in Transition” (English version), p. 97

“Typical for the new production methods of the Green Revolution were the complementary and precisely timed use of newly developed high yielding cereal grain varieties (HYV), improved irrigation methods, synthetic nitrogen fertilisers, and pesticides and herbicides (complementary input). This was accompanied by agricultural mechanisation (tractors, combined harvesters and threshing machines, irrigation with diesel engine powered pumps). The diffusion of these new production techniques was intensively supported by advisory services (Agricultural Extension Services), production material subsidies and the granting of loans, or the establishment of agricultural banks with numerous branches. In many countries, the Green Revolution’s ‘recipe’ for increasing agricultural yields became a core element of national rural development programmes (diffusion). Within just a few years, agriculture in these countries was extensively revolutionised (from niche regime to established regime). (WGBU 2011: 97-98).”

see “World in Transition” (English version), p. 103

The development of the internet is a fundamental information and telecommunications technology (IT) transformation, sometimes also referred to as the Digital Revolution. In its wake, the previously dominant communications regime, which was based on analogue technologies, has largely been replaced by digital technologies within just a few decades, and by the communication and action options these allow. The internet is viewed as a key technology, having changed so many different areas of everyday life (a general purpose technology) i.e. a technology that is used across a wide range of economic sectors, in this way contributing to economic growth by productivity increases. (WGBU 2011: 103) »

see “World in Transition” (English version), p. 104

“The European Union is the concrete manifestation of the success of European integration. The driving force behind it was and is mainly the vision of a more peaceful, economically and politically stable Europe. […] In the not even fifty years that have passed since then, a political, economic and legal project has gained ground on the European continent. It now extends to 27 nation states. (WGBU 2011 104-105)”.

Societal transformations towards sustainability

The following two examples illustrate societal transformations that have set in motion concrete transformations in the direction of social and ecological sustainability.

see “World in Transition” (English version), p. 95

“Abolitionism evolved over more than a century from its initial social organisation at the end of the 18th century into worldwide condemnation and abolition of slavery in the 20th century. […] The primary drivers of this public attitude shift towards the rejection of slavery were ethical considerations […]. At first, abolitionism purely organised by a civil society organisation operated as the practical realisation of Christian-humanitarian morals which ‘very successfully utilised extensive extra-parliamentary campaigns as political means’ (Wende, 2001). […] In traditional slaveholding societies, social status and the generation of wealth depended almost entirely on the possession of slaves and slave labour. Abolitionist efforts were met with correspondingly fierce opposition. […] Finally, by the 1850s, its effect on the shaping of political will and processes, and also on the relatively recently established American party democracy could no longer be ignored: the fact that Abraham Lincoln was elected US president by Republicans was not least a consequence of the polarisation of slavery in the presidential election campaign, leading to a schism within the up to this point dominating Democratic Party (Adams, 2009). (WGBU 2011: 95-97).”

see “World in Transition” (English version), p. 101
“As a comprehensive reaction to a global environmental problem, the international regime for the protection of the ozone layer is the biggest success story in international environmental policy-making to date. […] The initiators and driving force behind the international policy for the protection of the ozone layer were scientists and knowledge communicators like UNEP. [UNEP adopted a ‘World Action Plan for the Ozone Layer’ at a conference with scientists and state representatives.] […] However, it was only the discovery of the so-called ‘ozone hole’ during the course of the British Antarctic Survey in 1985 that led to a widespread public discussion on the risks of increased UV insolation. […] The Montreal Protocol, developed under the aegis of UNEP, was signed on 16 September 1987, and has been effective as of 1 January 1989. Initially, it was only ratified by 11 nations, these, however, represented two-thirds of the estimated global consumption of the substances concerned in 1986. Today, the Protocol is legally binding for 196 parties, including the European Union. (WGBU 2011: 101-102).”