Transitions in the Past, Present, and Future

Introducing the Bachelor Programme ‘Economy and Society’

In 2019 LUSEM’s newest Bachelor program, ‘Economy and Society’, welcomed its first cohort of students. The program offers courses highlighting technological, economic, and social transitions. It provides students with the skills and knowledge required for facing the challenges of the twenty-first century. The overall focus of the program is perhaps best captured by the term ‘structural change’: a dramatic shift in the way a country, industry, or market operates, with a major impact on everyday life. 

Many people hope that after the pandemic humanity will grasp the opportunity to achieve structural change, so that we will be able to combat global threats, such as climate change. The ‘hard reset’ of the past months has demonstrated that there are ways to reduce CO2 emissions, and perhaps this is the time for governments, businesses, and individuals to implement eco-friendly technologies. Growing global inequality and subsequent migration streams are an additional threat, and the same is true for ageing populations putting pressure on welfare states. Whatever solutions societies will come up with, we will likely have to abandon our current economic order.

Societies have done so before. When I began my studies, little over twenty years ago, all communications with students were printed on paper, send out, and after a couple of days home-delivered by the postal services. When I was about to graduate, my university had joined the ongoing IT-revolution, and started communicating with its students via e-mail. Believe it or not, but billions of today’s global population were already alive before the Internet existed – or at least when it was still a marginal means of communication. Twenty-five years ago, the Internet’s share of telecommunication was almost nothing, today the Net is good for almost all of it. The IT revolution changed our lives completely, and yet in a very gradual way – I at least would never consider myself a child of the IT-revolution. Perhaps the reason is that revolutions in technology are gradual processes, that take decades to materialize, and do so while economy and society also slowly adjust. 

This is why structural change can only be truly understood when we take a long-run perspective, as well as a broad view that acknowledges the roles played by technology, economy and society. With respect to the latter, we should ask about the winners and losers of processes of structural change. Some may see ways to profit from change, and will embrace it; others may not, for instance because they lack the wealth required to invest in, or the knowledge to adjust to new technologies. Current objections to the sustainability transition – think of the Yellow Vests movement – are mirrored in the past. In the nineteenth century many farmers objected to the building of railroads out of fear that disturbed chickens would lay fewer eggs and sheep’s fleeces would be affected by the smoke. They were yet to be convinced of the opportunities railroads would bring to them.

To understand how to achieve structural change, we may learn from earlier transitions. Apart from the IT-revolution, the implementation of electricity and cars around 1900, and the emergence of railroads and modern industry earlier in the nineteenth century hold valuable lessons, about how to get economy and society to embrace change, but also with respect to the dangers. Who were the winners of past transitions? Who were the losers? And how did one transition bring about the next one? To give one example of the latter: the birth of modern industry created large groups of urban factory workers whose resistance against appalling working conditions gave rise to labour movements, which did not only press for better working conditions but was also very influential in the development of democracy. This social change was largely the result of previous economic and technological change.

Nineteenth-century factory workers did not object to steam engines bursting out polluting smoke. The environmental effects of industrialization were only put on the agenda more recently, and now seem to become a guiding principle for policy makers looking for a transition to a sustainable economy and society. This requires looking ahead to carefully weigh whether humanity might be better off in the long run by implementing changes that are less profitable – or even expensive – in the short run. Sacrificing immediate gain is difficult for countries, businesses, and individuals. Minor steps were recently taken when the G7 agreed to a minimum tax rate for multinational corporations, to stop the ongoing race to the bottom where countries try to lure big businesses by offering lower tax rates. And in one tax haven, The Netherlands, the oil company Shell suffered defeat in an important lawsuit. Environmental organizations, as well as thousands of citizens who acted as co-plaintiffs, demanded Shell should be forced to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 by switching to new technologies, and won. Whether these developments will yield much result remains to be seen, but they do at least illustrate how citizens might take control of the next transition. This interplay between society, economy, and technology dictates processes of structural change – past, present, and future – and is at the heart of the Bachelor programme Economy and Society.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed