Four phases of human history
Image Courtesy Rob Cross – June 2019
This article is one of a series addressing globalization. Human history is discussed as four phases of progressively increasing social organisation (Natura, Agraria, Industria, Informatia) based on the form of energy used to drive social activity. Later articles give a brief account of the major world civilizations arising out of highly developed social organisation.
Among the most notable areas of growth have been: human population and its consumption of energy and other resources, collective learning, technological innovation, urbanization, and economic activity.
Economically this period is sometimes referred to as the post-industrial information society or knowledge economy in which the service sector generates more wealth than the manufacturing sector.
Environmentally this time has been dubbed a new post-Holocene geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The most obvious social change has been a Communication Revolution at first centred on personal computers, but now smartphones and the internet, in a major transition from hand-written and printed communication to the use of electronic media.
Most people in the world are now urbanites, living in cities that are attempting to transition from fossil fuel energy sources to renewables.
Informatia is best understood in the context of the three preceding phases of human history.
Four phases of human history
Human history may be divided into four phases based on their degree of social organization as constrained by their method of energy capture and use. New forms of social complexity arose as existing energy sources were used more efficiently and new, more concentrated forms of energy were discovered.
The simple societies of Natura were powered by human muscle fed a diet of wild plants and hunted animals. The settled communities of Agraria that followed were powered by the muscles of both humans and domesticated animals with a diet consisting mostly of cereal grains and the meat of domesticated animals. During Industria more people lived in towns and cities their muscle energy based on a similar diet to before but with social energy supplemented by that of the fossil fuels coal, oil and gas which, when combined with new technology like heavy machinery, greatly increased the efficiency of construction, transport, communication, manufacturing and therefore trade. During Industria there was a massive increase in the quantity and rate of social activity.
Each phase has requiring the governance of larger and more interconnected social groups with more complex and new (often competing) social, economic and environmental demands.
Our present phase, Informatia, has full global interconnection and is now resolving issues of global governance, one of these being the gradual replacement of fossil fuel energy with energy from renewable sources. Other concerns include the economic demand on natural resources by the growing human population, global pandemics, the problems surrounding human migration and the consequences of rapid advances in electronic technology.
This four-phase account of human history is an adaptation of the work of historian Ian Morris (see History in 10,000 words).
CITY POPULATIONS (millions)
2000 - New Yk/16.7 Tokyo/26.7
1900 - London/6.6 Tokyo/1.75
1800 - London/0.9 Beijing/1.1
1700 - London/0.6 Beijing/0.65
1600 - Const'ople/0.4 Beijing/0.7
1500 - Const'ople/0.1 Beijing/0.6
1400 - Cairo/0.125 Nanjing/0.5
1200 - Baghdad/0.25 Hangzhou/0.8
+ Cairo, + Const'ople
1000 - Cordoba/0.2 Kaifeng/1
800 - Dam'cus/0.175 Chang'an/1
600 - Const'ople/0.125 Chang-an/0.25
400 - Rome/0.5 Luoyang/0.15
200 - Rome/0.8 Luoyang/0.12
1 - Rome/1 Chang-an/0.5
200 - Alex'ia/0.3 Linzi/0.125
500 - Babylon/0.15 Luoyang/0.08
1000 - Susa/0.025 Qi/0.035
1200 - Bab'n/0.08 Anyang/0.05
1500 - Uruk/0.075 Zhengzhou/0.035
+ Thebes + Yanshi
<2000 - Memphis/0.06 Erlitou/0.015
3000 - Uruk/0.045 Dadiwan/0.002
4000 - Uruk/0.005 ?Xipo/<0.001
+Tell Brak +?Dadiwan/
Energy is the ultimate source of all work and activity in the universe. For humans it is also the single major factor limiting the possible modes of social organization.
For our purposes we can distinguish two kinds of energy, biological energy and social energy:
Biological energy is the energy that drives our biological metabolism, most notably the muscles that allow us to do social work. This energy is derived from the Sun, but only after it has been stored in plant chemicals during photosynthesis and then eaten as food. Although meat is often a large part of the human diet this meat comes ultimately from plants and the global trend is towards plant-based diets (vegan, vegetarian).
The biological energy present in all organisms is derived ultimately from plants.
Increasing the supply of social energy facilitates social growth. This takes many forms. Usually described in simple terms as ‘economic growth’ it includes construction, trade, communication and transport systems (infrastructure), improved technology and so on. Historically the collective long-term consequences (though not necessary consequences) have included escalating population numbers with greater social complexity, interconnection, interdependence, and knowledge accumulation.
The rate of social metabolism has depended historically on the supply of biological and social energy provided by plants.
Social activity gathers momentum by supplementing what can be achieved with our bare hands and our bare brains by using tools (technology). Physical tools can be as simple as fashioned stones, or as complicated as computers. Mental tools can be as simple as an idea, or as complicated as language or mathematics.
The history of technology is therefore closely linked to our ability to not only use the available energy more efficiently, but to access energy in new and more concentrated forms. When there is efficient communication, technology can be progressive and cumulative, achieving the same ends in more efficient ways as it builds on the technology of the past.
In Natura it was mostly human muscle that was needed to build houses, hunt and search for food. But in the course of history better ways of ‘getting things done’ were discovered or, in other words, more efficient ways of using energy for social ends.
In Agraria, as social groups became larger, it became possible for one group to persuade others to do the hard physical toil needed to obtain food and construct buildings so that they could devote their time to other activities. Slavery was one such division of labour. But it was also found possible to use the muscle-power of domesticated animals: oxen to pull ploughs and carts, and horses for transport.
A major change in social organisation occurred in Industria when it was found that concentrated plant energy in the form of fossil fuels could be used to drive heavy machinery. This use of plant energy totally transformed transport and communication systems and trade as factories and mills provided more household goods. As populations and cities grew, sailing ships became steamships and roads and railways expanded across the world.
In Informatia, our current era, the facility to now access materials and expertise from around the world facilitated the production of complex equipment like computers, while the climate change resulting from the atmospheric carbon dioxide produced by the use of fossil fuels, has resulted in the increased use of renewable and other energies needed to maintain vast and complex internationally-connected cities.
Energy & Informatia
The most obvious and far-reaching change in human plant use today is the modification of our energy dependencies as the world economy sets out on a transition from plant-based fossil fuels to renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass, nuclear and hydro and as, maybe for the first time in tens of thousands of years, average individual human energy use begins to plateau.
It was claimed earlier that energy was the single major factor limiting social activity, while what is actually achieved depends on the coordination or structuring of this energy-generated social activity into social organization.
What is socially possible, and what actually occurs, are two very different things. So what other critical factors should we consider in relation to historical social governance?
This is a complicated question with many answers, but one way of addressing it is to frame the question loosely as follows:
– What should be done – values
– What can be done – scale
– The rate at which it is done – technology
– How it is to be done – social organization (governance)
These factors will be discussed in the articles on the other three phases of human history.
Informatia is a electronic information society characterized by computers and smartphones. Social activity is increasingly powered by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Most people in the world now live in cities and humanity moves towards peak population of about 11 billion inhabitants between 2050 and 2100. This period is a post-industrial knowledge economy, with the service sector generating more wealth relative to the manufacturing sector in complex societies.Though there is a trend towards egalitarian and liberal-democratic institutions, traditional societies remain, and globalizing forces are countered by forces defending national sovereignty and regional self-sufficiency. There is resistance to gender differentiation and violence but acceptance of substantial wealth differences.
It had taken about 200,000 years for the human population to reach 1 billion around the year 1800 and then, fired by fossil fuel social energy, only 200 years more to reach 7 billion.
More people meant more urbanisation, upwards with the advent of skyscrapers and outwards as the expansion of houses and gardens into a sprawling suburbia. In 1800 about 3% of the world population lived in cities but by 2017 this had increased to 55% (Index Mundi World Demographic Profile 2018).
The post-1950s Great Acceleration is expected to reach peak population of about 11 billion people between 2050 and 2100 people, followed by a likely decline in numbers – which places an upper limit on humanities likely resource demands.
The expansion of Western cities during the Great Acceleration resulted in a new era of suburban living as commuter housing spread outwards from the commercial hubs. Horticulture was catering as never before with the new sprawling suburban blocks.
In 1900 London’s total population of 6.5 million exceeded the second-largest city, New York, by about 2.2 million. By 1950 New York’s population of 12.5 exceeded that of London (now the world’s second largest city) by 3.6 million. Today (2019) about 55% of people live in cities, a figure that is expected to reach 68% by 2050 (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs). In 2015 the world’s largest cities were: Tokyo 37 million, Delhi 26 million and Shanghai 24 million reflecting the passage of economic activity to Asia reflecting the advent of the megalopolis as cities merge into continuous urban regions.
The currency of this web site – its medium of exchange – is factual information. Factual knowledge is cumulative. Not only is there much more factual knowledge in the world today than yesterday – it better organized and can be accessed more rapidly by a wider range of the people, that is, its rate of accumulation is increasing. You have the potential to find out much more about the world than your parents could find out at the same age – because much more is now known, and it is more readily available.
The proliferation of academic disciplines that occurred in the 19th century now became a flood. Whole new areas of study were awakened by flagship publications: the environmental movement and environmental studies, especially ecology, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962); media studies with Marshall ‘The Medium is the Message’ McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964); a plethora of new subjects in the field of microbiology were heralded by James Watson’s The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968); linguistics and cognitive science were opened up by the publications of Noam Chomsky in the 1960s and ‘70s. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970) outlined the characteristics of accelerated social change as characterized by transience and the commodification of many aspects of life: the disposability of mass-produced goods; increased renting rather than ownership; pervasiveness of advertising; more frequent changing jobs into new trades, professions, and places of work; relationships becoming more local, brief, and superficial. Garden history, which entered academia in the 1980s, had a line drawn under it with publications like The Oxford Companion to Gardens (1986) locally expanded with The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens (2002) and then, several decades later, the six-volume A Cultural History of Gardens (2013).
World history arose as a response to narrow and inward-looking history of the West, and histories traditional time-frame, beginning with the written word, was extended to the history of the universe by Big History in the 1980s.
Socially perhaps the most obvious transition is from printed to digital communication. With the advent of computers and the internet the many forms of knowledge, once only available to the privileged few and therefore a form of social distinction, are now available to all who have access to computers or smartphones. The advent of the internet, smartphones, and social media has transformed communication and academic research as ever more information becomes available globally and instantaneously and collective learning expands at an unprecedented rate.
Computer-based electronic messaging is now global and instantaneous. A vast electronic economic and financial sector is replacing coins and notes. At the heart of the Information Revolution is wireless communications technology that links the world by internet, computers and smartphones. The first generation, or 1 G, was mobile voice calls. 2G brought text messaging. 3G addressed data and smartphones. 4G was optimised for accessing video. 5G adds super-fast speed and connectivity with data speeds 10 times that of 4G. It also gives access to millimetre wave spectrum which is a much higher frequency with data speeds more than 100 times faster than 4G.
Politically we can associate Informatia with decolonization, the geopolitical dominance of America, and the formation of the United Nation, and latterly the rise of Asia, particularly China.
Popular writer Jamie Cawley, in The Birth of Now (2016) examines the historical path to today, noting that for 4000 years the Great Pyramid of Giza was the largest building in the world but that, between 1870 and 2010, more than 10,000 taller buildings were constructed. Up until 1889 the 100 tallest buildings (except the pyramid) were churches in Europe. From 1930 to 1998 the tallest buildings were in the USA and all were commercial. Today the tallest building, and about 60 0f the tallest 100, are in Asia. Tall buildings themselves are of little interest but these figures indicate major global transitions in the distribution of technology, power, and authority over the last 150 years.
Science & technology
The onset of Informatia was pre-dated but heralded by the publication of the General Theory of Relativity in 1915, and the emergence of Quantum Mechanics, which coalesced into a coherent theory around 1930.
Post 1950s scientific research has, on the one hand, extended the scale of investigation into the atomic and molecular and, on the other, into the global . . . and beyond into distant space. The explosion of atomic bombs in 1945 and the cracking of the genetic code in 1952 marked the start of new eras of particle physics, molecular biology, and biotechnology. The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. On the other hand the environmental movement of the 1960s launched studies into the global environment and ecology, all firmly grounded in evolutionary biology. Gaps in the evolutionary record continued to be filled relating to birds, dinosaurs, the transition from water to land, and the significance of extremophiles. This spawned many new subject areas including conservation biology, environmental history and other disciplines. Space travel crossed the boundary of the solar system.
Accelerated by materials research for WWII, by the 1960s various forms of plastic were now being used in the home, while the quantities, kinds and global distribution of synthetic chemicals has escalated along with the influence of agricultural chemicals including herbicides and fertilizers, the latter to a degree that affects the biogeochemical cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus.
The rapid advance of biotechnology and genetic engineering put humanity in a totally new relationship with nature, and its human manipulation. A Chronometric Revolution over the last few decades has brought science within the traditional domain of history, allowing us to date the age of the universe, individual rocks and fossils, archaeological remains, and the divergence of lineages in biological evolution.
Among the landmark discoveries and innovations were C14 dating (1946), TV (1950), the birth control pill (1950), optical fibre (1956), satellites (1957), silicon chip and laser (1958), colour TV (1960), space travel to the moon (1969). genetic engineering (1973), personal computers (1980), World Wide Web (1990), Wikipedia (2001), completion of the Human Genome Project (2003), social media (2004), smart phones (2007).
Science is now penetrating the last major scientific frontier – the human mind, consciousness, mental computation, and artificial intelligence. Humans are now custodians of both planet Earth and their own evolution.
Technological innovation in Informatia is sometimes referred to as the Third and Fourth Industrial Revolutions (IRs).
The Third IR is the post-1950s introduction of semi-conductors, PCs, and the internet.
The Fourth IR is distinguished by technology that combines physical and digital technologies with biological systems. This includes genomics and gene editing, robotics, self-drive vehicles, voice- and face-recognition, artificial intelligence (AI) and rapid advances in neuroscience with other disciplines related to the brain, and 3-D printers for bionic limbs.
The period is also characterized by the acceleration in rate of technology uptake at the global scale.
Concerns relate to issues of inequality and privacy.
With the environmental movement of the 1960s came a new realization of human environmental impact at the global scale. There is now a broad scientific consensus that the impact of human activity on planet Earth warrants recognition through the naming of a post-Holocene epoch called the Anthropocene.
However, there is no universal agreement on the cut-off time for this new epoch. On this web site 1950 has been chosen for the many additional social and economic changes that occurred at around this time, the whole falling under the general rubric ‘Informatia’.
The following is a list of interrelated factors that have contributed to the Anthropocene:
Global biogeochemical cycles
The most striking demonstration of the global impact of human activity on the earth system is through its impact on the global cycling of chemicals chemicals crucial to life: water, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus. The water cycle has been altered by human impact on vegetation, especially forests, and by the secondary effects of climate change resulting from the accumulation of anthropogenic carbon dioxide produced from fossil fuels. Global cycling of nitrogen and phosphorus has been altered by the widespread use of these chemicals for industrial agriculture, as fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
Global landscape change
More than 75% of Earth’s ice-free land area has now been significantly altered by human activity. Biogeography has traditionally referred to wild as biomes but human activity can no longer be ignored as biomes become anthromes. Swathes of once relatively pristine natural landscapes have been converted into cultural landscapes populated mostly by anthropogenic or ‘man-made’ plants (cultigens).
World War II and the subsequent bout of nuclear testing has left a permanent planetary stratigraphic signature.
With the population explosion more land was taken by the industrialized agriculture needed to provide food.
Human appropriation of plant net primary productivity (HANPP) is a metric that tracks the percentage of global net primary production that has been harnessed by humans for food and livestock production, and fuel: it includes the loss of potential NPP due to human land use and it is a benchmark indicator of human impact on the biosphere.
From 1910 to 2005 HANPP almost doubled from 13% to 25% while population grew 2.7 times and GDP grew about 17 times (Krausmann et al., 2013; Haberl et al., 2014). The increasing harvest from forests and the additional land occupied by infrastructure has added little to HANPP. It is agriculture that dominates HANPP globally, representing 84–86% of total appropriation of plant growth over the entire period, with 42–46% on cropland and 29–33% on grazing land.
We must also consider the global impact of plant-energy-dependent domesticated animals. The ‘MacCready explosion’ points out that 10,000 years ago humans, their pets and livestock, comprised around 0.1% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass. Today this total has rocketed to 98% (MacCready 2004). Though a statistic that is difficult to substantiate, this is a stark reminder that beyond human demands for plant food and other resources are the demands on planetary ecosystems resulting from animal domestication.
Sixth mass extinction event
The Holocene’s Anthropocene epoch is the world’s sixth mass extinction event; its causes are anthropogenic. Evolutionary theory implied the natural extinction of poorly adapted species as environments changed over millennia influenced by natural events and processes like volcanoes, erosion, and sedimentation. Today we know that there is both gradual (background) extinction and sudden mass extinction as when the asteroid ending the Cretaceous period (fifth mass extinction) that wiped out 75% of all species. The disappearance of amphibians began in the 1980s but there was also reef-building corals, sharks, rays, fresh-water mollusks, reptiles, mammals, and birds. Anthropogenic global warming has changed the composition of the atmosphere by adding vast amounts of carbon dioxide which, since the Industrial Revolution, has risen by 40%, heating the planet, melting ice, and acidifying the oceans with carbonic acid, making them ~ 30% more acidic than they were in 1800. The pH is on track to fall to 7.8 (from today’s average of 8.1) by the end of this century, making the oceans 150 percent more acidic than before the industrial revolution. More than half the planet’s land surface consists of anthromes. Species spread by humans are no longer limited by geographic barriers and invasive species wreak economic and ecological damage.
Economically we have entered what is sometimes referred to as the post-industrial information society, or knowledge economy, in which the service sector generates more wealth than the manufacturing sector.
This is a period of rapid post-World War II growth as economic activity gathers momentum into the Great Acceleration. Between 1950 and 2000 the global economy grew by a factor of 10, energy use increased 13-14 times, and use of freshwater increased nine times.
The role of plants in recent technological development has become more subtle as each new technology modifies and supplements what went before. The Industrial Revolution (c. 1760 to c. 1840) is a phase characterized by the use of coal-fired steam engines, most notably in the textile industry. Between c. 1870 and c. 1914 major changes occurred with the investigation of oil products including kerosene and gas but quickly outdated by the introduction of the use of electricity and electrical lighting, steel production, and accelerated industrialisation. After 1914 petroleum became important with the introduction of cars, the manufacture of steel, and mass-production followed by the introduction of electricity that would, in the 21st century superimpose information technology on existing systems until today we are entering a new period of intelligent software.
Disenchantment with traditional politics expressed through protest votes for Briain to leave the European Union (Brexit) and for a reality TV American President (Donald Trump) have suggested new consensus values that are not based on ideology, either the old ideologies of capitalism vs communism, or new ideologies of government-controlled health and education vs Neoliberal private enterprise and the freedom of the individual and markets – but on a worldview whose primary emphasis is not on growth but the collective attempt to meet everyone’s basic needs by maximizing wellbeing, and living within planetary means.
The period referred to here as Informatia has been given many names depending on perspective – and including ‘The Great Acceleration’, ‘The Post-industrial Society’, ‘The Communications Revolution’, ‘The Information Society’, and ‘The Anthropocene’.
During Informatia there is a marked sense of global progress, manifest as undisputed advances in science, medicine, technology, literacy, and collective learning. The synergistic effect of this has accelerated the global pace of life. In general, global poverty is being reduced, life expectancy is increasing, more people are being better educated, and societies are becoming more equitable and democratic. A key characteristic of this activity is growth . . . in human population, consumption, and economic activity. Rapid improvement in communication and transport has resulted in an increase in global homogenization, of biota, people, culture, and institutions, one obvious example being the popularity of international cuisine.
The following are the major defining features:
EEA: mostly urban
Communication: verbal+written+printed+global, instantaneous, and electronic
Energy source & use: animal and plant food (increasingly synthetic) with complex social activity maintained by renewable energy and consumption remaining >200,000 kcal/capita/day
Group size: Global
World population: peaking at c. 11 billion around 2050-2100
Diet: mixed diet of animals, plants and processed foods but returning to plant-based foods
Values: trend towards egalitarian and democratic institutions as a tension between authoritarian (traditional) and emancipative values. Today, with most of the world’s people living in cities, we are suspicious of political and gender hierarchies and resist violence, but accept some wealth differentiation
Ecological impact: High rate of species extinction: humans impacting noticeably on global biogeochemical cycles from around the 1950s at onset of the Great Acceleration (Anthropocene) Great Acceleration; high rate of species extinction: humans impacting noticeably on global biogeochemical cycles (Anthropocene); nuclear footprint
1945 – atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
1946 – C14 dating
1950 – TV
1950 – Korean War
1950 – birth control pill
1950-51 – commencement of the Golden Age of Capitalism (Long Boom)
1952 – elucidation of the DNA double helix by Watson, Crick, & Franklin
1954 – invention of solar cells
1956 – optical fibre
1957 – sputnik; satellites
1957-1962 – Great Leap Forward aims to modernize China; famine kills millions
1958 – silicon chip & laser
1960 – colour TV
1960s-1990s – rapid industrialization and growth of Asian tiger economies of Hong Kong, Singapore. S Korea, Taiwan
1965-1970 – Green Revolution – adoption of new technologies, high-yielding varieties of cereals (esp. dwarf wheat and rice), chemical fertilizers, agrochemicals, controlled irrigation, modernized techniques
1966-1976 – Cultural Revolution in China
1969 – man lands on moon
1971 – collapse of Bretton-Woods monetary system
1972 – Blue Marble image of Earth taken on 7 Dec. about 29,000 km (18,000 miles) away in space by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the Moon
1973 – oil crisis
1973-75 – stock market crash and recession
1973 – genetic engineering
1978 – Deng Xiaoping outlines Chinese economic reforms as the four modernizations
1980 – personal computers
1980s – special economic zones set up in five areas of China where private firms allowed
1980s – Earth System Science Committee formed at NASA and publication Earth System Science: A Closer View (1988) is a major landmark in the formal development of Earth system science.
1984 – 14 Chinese coastal cities opened up to foreign investment
1987 – UN sustainability programs initiated by Brundtland Commission Report on Sustainable Development
1988 – establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
1989 – Shanghai stock market reopens for first time in 40 years
1990 – internet
1997 – Asian Financial Crisis
2000 – Millennium Declaration and Development Goals for 2015 endorsed by 189 countries
2001 – Wikipedia
2001 – China joins World Trade Organization
2003 – completion of the Human Genome Project
2004 – social media
2005 – private firms contribute more to Chinese economy than state-run sector
2007 – smartphones
2007-08 – global financial crisis (GFC)
2011 – China becomes world’s second largest economy with GDP at $7.2tn
2012 – confirmation of the Higgs boson
2019 – coronavirus (Covid 19) pandemic
10,000 – 0.002
8000 - 0.005
6000 – 0.011
4000 – 0.028
2000 – 0.072
1000 – 0.115
1 – 0.30
500 – 0.20
1000 – 0.31
1100 – 0.33
1200 – 0.38
1300 – 0.35
1400 - 0.35.0.40
1500 - 0.43–0.50
1600 - 0.50–0.58
1700 - 0.60–0.68
1800 - 0.89–0.98
1900 - 1.56–1.71
2000 - 6.06–6.15
2100 - c. 10–13
short term -> long term
individual -> global
GLOBAL HUMAN HISTORY
accelerating synergistic growth in collective learning, technology, material complexity, globalization
values & norms
food & agriculture
transport & communic'n
manufacture & trade
raw materials, mining, engineering
: ENVIRONMENT :
impact of population (urbanization) technology
The Great Acceleration
TEDx – 2018 – 18:04
What Is Artificial Intelligence?
CrashCourse – 2019 – 11:45
What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
World Economic Forum – 2016 – 11:30
What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution? | CNBC Explains
CNBC International – 2019 – 4:17
First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
— substantial revision 20 September 2020