The Double Helix of Learning and Work

Editors’ Note
The Double Helix of Learning and Work by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza is a report to the Club of Rome first published by UNESCO in 2003. It advances fundamental paradigm-changing ideas in the field of education. Drawing inspiration from the double helix structure of DNA, the authors seek to strengthen the relationship between education and employment in order to bring ‘The Knowledge Society’ within reach. This article is an abridged version of the third chapter of the report. Successive chapters will be carried in subsequent issues of Cadmus.

Chapter 3

“I Work, therefore I Am”

3.1. The Millenial Equation of Work
Authors find it difficult to resist the temptation of an anthropological insight when it comes to a social issue. The image of Homo antecessor, the ancestor clad in an animal skin and carrying a club in his hand, is still haunting us. Films, literature, and research keep that image alive as a memento of the long road human civilization has trodden so far.

This suggested conceptual scheme attempts to consider what is known or suspected. At the beginning, it was the need to survive that pushed humans to work for their basic living. They worked for food, shelter, and instruments to protect themselves and their groups. From the very first moment, their work differed from that of animals.

Humans were at a disadvantage compared to animals. They could not completely rely on their instincts, and they were overwhelmed with fear because they were physically weak and non-competitive. In exchange, they developed vaguely natural qualities: symbols and language that shaped their culture, group solidarity conducive to social contract, and tools amplifying their strength and dexterity. Trial and error attempts succeeded after a number of failures and disasters.

What is striking in this picture is the artificial and original quality of the niche that humans built for themselves as their own environment. Their hesitating instincts guided them through a virtual world of symbolic links and signs, from where they returned with the schema of a hunt carved in stone. Fear induced humans to live in groups that gradually became structured and cemented owing to language. And so the bear, although stronger, fell prey to the ingenious tools and traps of humans.

In order to get their work done, humans needed to know, and in order to know, they needed to train. The labour of humans did not “get through” as raw labour but as labour backed by tools and training. Human observations leading to change came out of the laboratory of daily practice that enhanced the effectiveness of tools and the productivity of work.

There is something strange about human needs: once satisfied, humans change and develop new needs. Inadequate work in the process of meeting these needs activates the loop of innovative learning and technology and eventually provides satisfactory solutions. This entire picture teems with loops and feedbacks. Always researchers, humans started from technology, innovation, and education applied to the individual, to their fellow-beings, and to society to build specific theories regarding them. In the Learning and Work scheme, work holds a central place. Education appears as a particular form of work, temporarily directed towards knowledge and skill acquisition to come back to the same perennial goals of producing goods and services, and acquiring wealth in the adult phase. Although the education period takes ten to twenty years, humans will spend forty years in a life of work. School is the anteroom of factories, companies, and institutions.

How does the centrality of work in the lives of humans hold up to the continuing depreciation of the idea of work in the history of humankind? To receive an answer to this question, it suffices to refer to the opinions of the philosophers of antiquity. Workers ranked lowest in the social hierarchy. Next came the merchants and the soldiers. The aristocratic élite of the wise men of the city were at the top. The dark centuries of the Middle Ages registered an increase in the dignity of labour. The guilds of craftsmen and traders commanded almost as much respect as the artists and master builders.

Still, the biblical curse lived on: banished from the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were condemned to live lives of human toil and sweat. The free gifts of the Garden were no longer within reach. Everything would have to be earned through labour. It was imposed by circumstances, and therefore it became inescapable. The division of labour increased the efficiency of human effort, but it also propelled a privileged stratum to the top of the social pyramid. It also lowered the status of raw, manual labour, based on pure muscular strength, which was even more despised as it was at least partially performed by slaves.

The energy revolution came much later. For millennia, people and domesticated animals provided the energy that was necessary to produce goods. Another degrading association occurred: hard labour was used as punishment, for example on galleys or in mines. The social image of work was always negative: punishment for original sin, and alongside animals and slaves, raw and unrewarded effort.

Division into social classes followed the same pattern: the lowest stratum comprised manual workers, while the highest stratum was reserved for noble occupations such as decision-making, creative pursuits, command, and leisure.

Figure 1. How humankind compensated for physical frailty with intellectual development


The successive revolutions that modified the structure and social condition of work were triggered by technical factors (energy, mechanization, automation, computerization), scientific factors (knowledge), social and legal factors. Cultural elements also made essential contributions (e.g., religions). After the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the monasteries became centers of agricultural production, hard work, and order, to wit, genuine anti-entropic knots in an anarchical environment. At the time of the Reformation, Jean Calvin established the major role of work and effort in achieving spiritual salvation, with considerable economic effects. This relationship induced Max Weber to trace the origins of capitalism to the ascetic ethic of work introduced by Calvinism.

It was energy, however, that changed the nature of work, removing its association with rudimentary and tiresome human effort. A new name should be invented for the man endowed with energy: the enerman. The progress of civilization was marked by the steps forward in harnessing energy: agriculture and food owing to solar energy converted through photosynthesis, transport using draft animals and the wheel, and mills driven by wind or water. In modern times, society came to depend on steam, electricity, the internal combustion engine, and atomic power. It is inaccurate to say that people work alone. Humans are always assisted by powerful “slaves” that work for them.

Let us make a simple calculation starting from the equivalence suggested by Fourastié (1972) according to which a ton of coal is equivalent to the energy consumed by ten people working over a 300-day year. Before the industrial revolution, each person had only one energy servant, one enerman. During the past century, a person had 100 such slaves in the United States and thirty in France. Some 4.6 billion tons of coal were added to the power of every person in the world yielding fifteen auxiliaries in 1961 and twenty-two, in 1984. In 1990, total energy consumption provided each of the 5.3 billion people of the world with twenty-four invisible auxiliaries.

The human species owes its success to billions of enermen. These conventional creatures also have to be fed, alongside humankind, using the resources of the planet. Without them, humankind would never have reached a life expectancy about four times larger than in the early days of the species. One should add the amenities of the habitat, improved hygiene, more time for education and leisure, transport and communications, and many other benefits that are now taken for granted by a hedonistic and wasteful generation, which hates civilization and despises science and technology. The forecasts for 2020 predict a quasi-doubling of energy for a population of up to 8 billion. The most ambitious are the continents with smaller populations of enermen (Asia, Africa, Latin America), while higher consumption is envisaged in the developed countries. Nevertheless, even in the happiest of cases, energy use per capita will fall behind the leading platoon of North America and Europe by 1:3 or even 1:10.

The hunger for energy, as vital to civilization as food is to humanity, puts the learning society and the promoters of knowledge to a serious test. The reserves of fossil fuels are coming close to depletion. Non-conventional sources of energy, including the sun, the ocean tides, and the wind, are expected to take up the relay in this century. For now, the rises in the price for a barrel of crude oil are not particularly alarming.

In terms of power use, the human of modern civilization has finally taken his revenge on the human of the natural state, who used to be so severely disadvantaged when the species started to fight for its life.

Orio Giarini: Director, The Risk Institute; Member, Board of Trustees, World Academy of Art and Science
Mircea Malitza: Founding Member, Black Sea University Foundation, Romania; Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science
* All content being used from the book The Double Helix of Learning and Work – a Report to the Club of Rome – by Orio Giarini and Mircea Malitza, published in 2003, is copyrighted to UNESCO. The full book is available online for download at
† An eminent logician, who was also very fond of wine, once told his students, to justify his weakness, and also to teach them a lesson in recurrent reasoning: “Every man is entitled to a glass of wine, but after he has drunk it, he becomes a new man, and is, therefore, entitled to another glass of wine, and so on”.

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