What ifs are particularly tricky. The world is so intensely complicated, and each moment built on the one before so emphatically, that even tiny changes have huge impacts. So to ask what life would be now without possibly the biggest thing to have happened in the last few hundred/thousand years is kind of troublesome.
But it is pretty intriguing.
It’s hard to imagine a world that hadn’t urbanised and industrialised. As city dwellers, our lives are utterly shaped by the assumptions of industrialisation. If you are not a city-dweller, on the broadest metaphorical level, please tell me what it’s like.
Without the industrial revolution, without the spread of mechanisation across the world, we would probably have less people, more natural resources (though many of the more important ones would be unusable) and have created much less environmental havoc. We would probably be less likely to feel like we were staring down the barrel of a gun, from a planetary perspective.
But then, we would also be in a world that wasn’t aware of each other. Life and communication would be slowed down to a point where if we were dumped there now, we probably wouldn’t recognise it.
Things would be simpler, but we wouldn’t be able to reach out to as many people. Each individual world would be smaller. Power structures would be utterly different. Our lives would be much shorter, and much slower, and much less full of other people and ridiculous things. This computer wouldn’t be here. If I look around my room, pretty much everything I see would be fairly impossible. Some things could have been made differently, but none of it would look like this. Even the walls would be different. The room probably wouldn’t be here. This city wouldn’t be here (it only became big enough by dint of rail expansion).
I have a propensity toward primitivism. I am convinced that the destruction of the environment is an immense crime for which society cannot atone for. Simultaneously, I have a techno-utopian outlook, I see the only solutions to our problems being ones of creative technology. We need to learn from what we have, and work out how to use it differently. It would be no use turning everything back, but we have to reinvent the forward. Create technology that runs as sustainably as pre-industrial technology.
It’s wishful thinking, but honestly, that’s all I have to hold on to. That’s my idealism, right there. We’ve fucked everything up, but we have to use our present moment to build forward. That’s all we have you. You build a pile of shit, you’d better use that shit to sort it all out, and stop making more shit, as quickly as possible.
That is not my dainiest metaphor.
The industrial revolution has destroyed huge swathes of the world, but it has also, finally, got us to a position where we can all recognise that we are the same. We are connected.
And we have a future to build.
Illustration by Victoria