The curse on the ground was thus a judgment on Adam, and men in general, for the ground became hostile to agriculture as a result, and so making a living became difficult. And traditionally the burden of providing for the material needs of the family falls on men. In premodern times there was no such thing as “economic growth.” It was either “famine” or “no famine.” The famines that we still see today in underdeveloped countries could happen anywhere in the world. For most people, food supply could not be taken for granted.
But the Industrial Revolution changed all that. Industrialization seems to be able to reverse the effects of God’s curse on the ground in terms of agricultural productivity. Before industrialization, a high percentage of the population had to be in farming. Today only a fraction is needed, freeing the rest to produce economic goods and services that are mostly not essential to human survival. Is this reversal a blessing or another curse? In purely material terms it would be an unqualified blessing, if not for the ecological crisis that industrialization has caused. But in non-material terms it is a curse in disguise.
For to increase agricultural productivity farmers have to rely on more than heavy machinery. Instead of subduing the earth as originally intended, the “thorns and thistles” (which include pests and diseases) are being subdued through the use of chemicals that directly pollute and harm the earth. As we shall see, this widespread and generous use of toxic chemicals is not the only thing in industrial societies that harms the earth. One can easily think of the pollutions from factories and cars. But even this is not all.
God’s curse on the ground had a redemptive purpose. Food is essential to human survival. So with a ground that is hostile to food production, fallen human beings would be compelled to turn to God and seek His help in this matter for survival. This leads to the fear of God. We have already referred to the fear of God several times before and to the teaching of Ecclesiastes that God uses uncertainties and adversities to cause people to acknowledge Him and thus fear Him and keep His commandments. When we consider the Wisdom Books as a whole we shall take a closer look at the meaning of the fear of God. For now, a working description will suffice.
When the speaker in Ecclesiastes directly exhorts his audience to “fear God” for the first time, it is in the context of warning against not fulfilling vows made to God (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7). Now vows made to God are voluntary and are usually costly. And it is entirely between the worshipper and God; no one, except God, knows about it, and even if he tells others about it, no one, except God, will hold him accountable to fulfill it. So only people who truly “fear God” would fulfill costly vows made to God. This means, to fear God is to do His will when no one, except God, is watching or holding us accountable. It means being conscientious in doing God’s will, which includes doing to others what we want them do to us, and not doing to others what we do not want them do to us.
From observation as well as experience we can see that when people are economically prosperous they do not see the need for God and hence feel no compulsion to fear Him and keep His commandments. In fact a Hebrew sage once prayed to God: “Two things I ask of You, do not refuse me before I die: remove far from me deception and lies, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need, lest I have too much and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be in need and steal and dishonor the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-9).
Adversity may have the opposite effect of causing a few to turn away from God, but prosperity causes most people to do so. God called ancient Israel to be a model nation. From His warning to Israel just before the nation possessed the Promised Land we can better appreciate His true intention in cursing the ground to limit economic prosperity:
Therefore you shall keep the commandments of the LORD your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, ... in which you shall lack nothing .... So when you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall praise the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Be careful lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments ..., which I am giving you today, lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart becomes lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God ... [and] you say in your heart, “My power and the strength of my hand have made me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:6-17).
This warning shows that God desires human beings to enjoy economic prosperity, but not at the expense of spiritual apostasy. This can already be inferred from the fact that the ground was cursed in response to Adam’s sin. Before Sin came into the world, the earth could be subdued so that food could be as abundant everywhere as in Eden. After Sin came into the world, God had to limit economic prosperity in order to limit the tendency of sinful human beings to turn away from Him and spiritual things. For when people turn away from God and spiritual things there will be deadly consequences. We will here focus on the material consequences brought by industrialization itself. We are referring to the global ecological crisis caused by human beings in industrial societies. This crisis threatens to destroy the earth, the very home of human beings.
Without the agricultural productivity made possible by industrialization, which by itself already comes with the price of polluting and harming the earth, there would not be the ecological crisis that we experience today. Initially, when more and more people were freed from agriculture to produce industrial goods, the goal of the economy was to meet the needs and wants of consumers. It was then a “production economy,” where the focus was on adequate production. But in the early twentieth century it became a “consumer economy” when there was an over-production of consumer goods. The focus has then been on adequate consumption. In an article in the Pacific Ecologist social science professor Sharon Beder (2004) explains what happened. The editors provided this helpful summary:
Sharon Beder explores the history of consumer societies from the 1920s when over-production of goods exceeded demand. Instead of stabilising the economy, reducing working hours, and sharing work around, which would have brought more leisure time for all, industrialists decided to expand markets by promoting consumerism to the working classes. The social decision to produce unlimited quantities of goods rather than leisure, nurtured wastefulness, obsolescence, and inefficiency and created the foundation for our modern consumer culture.
People were trained to be both workers and consumers in a culture of work and spend. Consumption was promoted through advertising as a “democracy of goods” and used to pacify political unrest among workers. With the help of marketers and advertisers exploiting the idea of consumer goods as status symbols, workers were manipulated into being avaricious consumers who could be trusted “to spend more rather than work less.” But if we admired wisdom above wealth, and compassion and cooperation above competition, we could undermine the motivation to consume.
The consumer economy, fueled by economic greed (lack of the fear of God) on the part of producers as well as consumers, is the basic cause of the current ecological crisis. Instead of the economy meeting the needs and wants of people, it is now the consumer who must keep on consuming beyond their needs and even wants to meet the “needs” and “wants” of the economy. This not only over drains the earth’s resources but also overwhelms the earth’s capacity to cleanse itself of the various forms of pollution caused. And the ecological consequences are threatening the very survival of the human race. The economic greed that fuels the whole thing can itself be attributed to the economic prosperity brought by industrialization. Hence we are trapped in a vicious cycle.
Though machines have relieved human beings in industrial societies of much physical labor, and computers have even relieved them of much mental labor, work has never been this stressful, and was never this detrimental to the institution of the family. God knew what He was doing when He cursed the ground. It was a blessing in disguise. This will become clearer when we consider further other consequences of industrialization. But we can already conclude here that industrialization has replaced God’s redemptive curse on the ground with a man-made curse on the earth that backfires on humanity.
We are not discounting the genuine benefits of industrialization, such as the elimination of poverty (though very unevenly because of economic greed) and the advancement of medical science (though it adds to the ecological crisis because medical research is not exempted from economic greed and its consequences). However, fallen humanity as a whole cannot handle the material prosperity that industrialization brings, resulting in industrialization doing more harm than good.
Since God so works that human beings should fear Him, as we continue to consider the havoc wreaked by industrialization, we should all the more take to heart the message of Ecclesiastes, that to venture out to try our “luck” in this world without God is disastrous for human beings as individuals as well as a race. As we shall see, industrialization need not be this destructive if it is shaped by a commitment to God and His purpose for humanity.