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Will we celebrate the Industrial Revolution in the future?

Published: August 6, 2009 at 5:58 am

While the reputation of the Industrial Revolution has gone from triumph to tragedy and back again, the positive postwar assessment may be on the verge of crumbling in the face of current anxieties about climate change


The long-running ‘standard of living debate’ has centred on the experience of those who bore the brunt of mechanisation and urbanisation between 1760 and 1830. Scarcely anyone has doubted the long-term benefits for industrialised countries: life expectancy has doubled since the 18th century, thanks not least to massively reduced infant mortality; ordinary people enjoy material comforts previously available only to the very rich, as well as free education, extensive leisure, and a safety net of health services and social welfare benefits. Few have hitherto explored the costs to the environment.

The figure of 280ppm is regularly quoted as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere prior to the Industrial Revolution. That is, for every million molecules in the atmosphere before 1760 approximately 280 were carbon dioxide. With 2009’s figure peaking at 397ppm, as measured at the Zeppelin research station in the Norwegian Arctic (The Guardian, 28 April 2009), and now rising at an unprecedented 2–3ppm per year, we appear to have little time to prevent levels reaching the 450ppm maximum advised by climate scientists.It is time to reinterpret the Industrial Revolution in the light of this serious threat to our way of life, even to our survival as a species.

What marks industrialisation out from all previous periods of economic growth is that it has allowed two previously incompatible phenomena to co-exist: increasing population and continuous improvements in the standard of living. Without such sustained economic growth, human populations had grown at their peril – falling foul of the so-called ‘Malthusian trap’, in which numbers were cut back by famine, war or disease (induced by food shortages), because their land-based resources could not be expanded fast enough.

From the mid-18th century, Europeans escaped the ‘Malthusian trap’ by two principal routes. First, they mined fossil fuels in huge quantities. With timber stocks rapidly depleting, they turned to burning coal in industrial processes and in the steam engines that replaced water power and horse-driven transport. By 1890, the car’s introduction was stimulating the search for oil, and electricity generation was stoking the demand for coal.

Second, they crossed the oceans to settle on other, much less densely populated continents. Here they introduced new species, crops and techniques into farming, often employed slave labour, and tended to grow in numbers and wealth even faster than before. International trade flourished under the stimulus of specialisation: Europeans began importing vast quantities of food and industrial raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods.

By 1900, humanity’s impact on the atmosphere was still relatively slight: global population was only 1.6 billion, industrialisation was confined to western Europe, the United States and Japan, and even there, levels of consumption remained modest. It was the long, post-1950 economic boom that triggered a steep and accelerating rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Soon industrialisation and urbanisation became global phenomena, and growing wealth entailed much higher levels of personal consumption, mobility and international trade. This accelerated the demand for energy, and dietary changes that have led to more intensive rearing of (methane-emitting) livestock and extensive deforestation consequent on growing their feedstuffs.

A global population of over six billion multiplies humanity’s impact – and none are having a greater effect on the climate than the one billion of us who are the Industrial Revolution’s chief beneficiaries. 


Christine MacLeod is professor of history at the University of Bristol, and author of Heroes of Invention: Technololgy, Liberalism and British Identity, 1750-1914 (Cambridge Unversity Press, 2007)


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