Part 29 – What the Industrial Revolution has taught us


Throughout the ages, the universal need for energy and the development of various energy supply sources has had a considerable impact on the shaping of the destiny of humankind. Different methods of energy production create a demand for different raw materials and technologies with varying consequences for humanity and the environment alike. For millennia wood was the world’s primary fuel source, the result of which was widespread deforestation.

DSC_0099This reliance on wood-burning as an energy source virtually exhausted wood as a fuel supply in many parts of the world and during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th Centuries steam became the principal producer of power; a development made possible by the spirit of scientific inquiry and experimentation that arose during the Renaissance, as well as seemingly inexhaustible supplies of coal.

Many momentous changes, some positive and others negative, marked the steam-driven Industrial Revolution. Steam power revolutionised methods of production, initiating changes from manual to machinery-based manufacturing processes, which stimulated productivity enormously. As people moved out of country districts to settle in manufacturing centres, concentrated areas of population and production were created, which were the beginnings of modern urbanisation.

DSC_0906The Industrial Revolution was the catalyst behind the creation of complex systems of transportation and communication; giving rise to roads, canals, and railways. It spurred the evolution of the corporate form of business enterprise, but it also gave rise to deep economic depressions of long duration. It stimulated further scientific research, inventiveness and technological progress. And in the case of England, the Industrial Revolution was the catalyst behind its rise to becoming a world economic, colonial, naval and political power: a progression, which would not have been possible without the impetus of steam-driven energy.

Apart from these important economic and political changes, the Industrial Revolution also drastically changed the face of humanity in the parts of the world where its precepts proliferated. Previously people had worked independently to their own rhythm, in their own cottages, in small agricultural communities. However, with the advent of steam-driven machinery, men, women and children moved en masse into ill-lit, overcrowded, badly ventilated factories. Most of these were situated in teeming urban centres where the factory workers worked long hours under difficult conditions. This was the beginning of factory civilisation as we know it and it marked the destruction of craftsmanship and craftsmen as a class.

Because children as workers were a source of extra income for impoverished families, the Industrial Revolution saw a steep rise in population figures, with the development of a large unskilled working class that was systematically dispossessed and disenfranchised. Greed was the negative human impulse behind profiteering and many of the factory owners ruthlessly exploited factory workers.

Working and living in appalling conditions, with little or no recourse to fair wages or indeed fairness of any kind, the working class suffered both despair and desperation until common grievances eventually united the workers against the factory owners. This created a new revolutionary spirit that was fanned by the significant gains achieved by working classes in other parts of the world with the French Revolution and the American Constitution.

The Industrial Revolution effectively marked the beginning of democratisation. It also marked the beginning of trade unionism, the one weapon the industrial workers had against their exploiters. As such its most positive aspect was the beginning of widespread factory and social reform. And although industrialisation was initially a bitter pill to swallow for people used to the slow pace of country living and an independent lifestyle made possible by the work system of “putting out” whereby people took their work home, selling the product of their labour instead of selling merely their working-power; over the long-term it afforded many benefits that eventually came to represent significant social progress.

DSC_1046With the coming of machinery and the hard grind imposed by harsh factory life, industrial workers learnt the discipline necessary to become the forerunners of modern industrial society.

This was the most important long-term human consequence of the change from wood burning as an energy source, to steam power: a technological revolution that forever changed human affairs. From an environmental perspective, it swapped one set of problems for another, replacing widespread deforestation with the problems attendant to coal mining and burning.

The Arrival of Electricity

Although steam power as an energy source marked a significant step forward, along with horse-drawn carriages and gas lamps, it eventually became obsolete at the turn of the century and was usurped by electricity as the world’s primary power-producer. With the advent of electricity a whole way of life ended and another began.

DSC_1085Clean to use, reliable, smoke-free and fume-free, electricity was a marvel of modern ingenuity. It opened up a multitude of possibilities to improve daily life and it spurred many new inventions; enabling people at the flick of a switch to light and warm their homes and offices, to generate power in their factories or to turn on a kettle for a cup of tea.

Humanity’s standard of living rose correspondingly as an increasing number and diversity of electrical appliances became available. With electricity as a relatively inexpensive source of energy with which to power progress, the Economic Era was able to become a reality, pushing human aspiration and productivity to new heights and driving a booming world economy. However, with time it has become evident that the widespread use of fossil fuel generated electricity, as a power source, has become a double-edged sword.

Although electricity has undoubtedly been a boon to the modern lifestyle, underpinning significant social and economic development; huge centralised power stations have been required to generate enough electricity to satisfy increasing demands for power and these coal-fired power plants have literally gobbled up coal.

Worldwide the amount of coal burnt annually has equalled the amount formed geologically over a million years during the Carboniferous period of the Palaeozoic era. As a consequence of coal burning, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide have been formed in significant enough quantities to adversely affect the biosphere and atmosphere.

Through the development of acid rain and global warming they have proved to be expensive by-products of an affluent lifestyle in terms of harm caused to the environment. An ever-upwardly spiralling dependence on energy consumption in both the developed and developing world has also meant that coal, like oil another important non-renewable global resource, has been stripped away on a scale never before attempted or achieved, leaving a deep scarring of the Earth in places…

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