Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.

Thank Goodness for the Industrial Revolution

The big picture conclusion seems inescapable: the Industrial Revolution lifted humanity, wholesale, out of misery and squalor.

Environmentalists have spent decades lamenting the Industrial Revolution. In their view, we all lived in Eden once. Then noisy, smelly machines came along and ruined paradise.

Canada’s David Suzuki, for example, says that because automobiles run on fossil fuels and emit carbon dioxide, they’re nothing to celebrate. In his view, everything industrial, large scale, or efficient generates pollution and is therefore a curse. The “path we embarked on after the Industrial Revolution,” he insisted in a 1997 book, “is leading us increasingly into conflict with the natural world.”

Research analyst Luke Muehlhauser presents another perspective. He’s the author of an essay titled How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution? The short answer is that it was the single most important thing ever to happen to humanity.

Muehlhauser has visually charted six lines across multiple centuries:

  1. life expectancy at birth
  2. GDP per capita
  3. percentage of people who’ve escaped extreme poverty
  4. access to energy (for cooking, lighting, heating, and for producing tools and clothing)
  5. technological developments
  6. political freedom (the percentage of people who live in democracies).

click to enlarge; source here

These lines speak volumes. For the vast majority of human beings who’ve inhabited this planet – generation after generation, century after century – life was precarious. Almost everyone was poor.

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, human lives improved dramatically. Muehlhauser says the history textbooks to which he was exposed in school discussed at great length

the transformative impact of the wheel or writing or money or cavalry, or the conquering of this society by that other society, or the rise of this or that religion…or the Scientific Revolution.

But they could have ended each of those chapters by saying “Despite these developments, global human well-being remained roughly the same as it had been for millennia, by every measure we have access to.” And then when you got to the chapter on the industrial revolution, these books could’ve said: “Finally, for the first time in recorded history, the trajectory of human well-being changed completely, and this change dwarfed the magnitude of all previous fluctuations in human well-being.” [bold added]

His one sentence summary of human history:

Everything was awful for a very long time, and then the industrial revolution happened.

David Suzuki is right, to some extent. Many industrial processes produce pollution. But then something else occurs. Human populations that emerge from desperate poverty soon acquire sufficient good health, education, and financial means to clean up that pollution. Once we humans have enough to eat, once half our children no longer die before age five, we start to care about the environment.

The crucial point is that, in order to get to stage B, you first need to pass through stage A.

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2018 by in historical perspective and tagged , .
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