The Industrial Revolution As A Precedent For Change: The Possibility Of A Clean, Green World

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The Industrial Revolution was one of the biggest turning points in human history. Virtually every material good anyone possesses resulted from, or was affected by, this manufacturing watershed. We now face a turning point in history similar in scale to the one that was set in motion in the 18th century.

Our planet is undoubtedly facing a climate shift, one that has the possibility of ending in either disaster or salvation. There have been countless studies, innumerable speeches, imploring action against this global threat, but there is one angle that remains unexplored. Can the success or failure of humanity’s struggle to slow climate change be predicted by historical precedent? If there is something to learn about this current situation from a past one, humanity may be spared some suffering, or, at the very least, be able to prevent ourselves from having to rediscover something we’ve known for three hundred years.

To know whether a Green Revolution would be feasible by comparing it to the Industrial Revolution, a system of comparison is made necessary. This can be accomplished simply by isolating the three main drivers of these Revolutions’ outcomes: business, government, and citizens, and comparing their effects on the two movements to come to a single conclusion.

While The Industrial Revolution was hugely profitable, setting capitalism and profit-driven business into motion, these same values, in the present day, tend to inhibit attempts to regulate businesses in order to protect the planet. The Industrial Revolution was driven and funded by individuals who had enough fiscal heft to kickstart factories. For a new business venture to be viable in those times, there was an entire factory building to construct, machines to be purchased and installed, and waterwheels to harness the water flow, which powered the whole factory, to be made. In order for any money to be made, an exorbitant amount needed to be spent, a bill that could only be footed by the investors and businessmen who saw the fortune to be made in the various growing factory industries of the time, from textile weaving to pig iron foundries. Only these businessmen had the capital needed in order to shift the way production worked, moving it from a cottage industry to simply manning the machines.

One notable such entrepreneur was Richard Arkwright. He, along with John Kay, a clockmaker, developed a machine that could spin raw cotton into thread. Although he wasn’t the first to attempt this, he was the first to conceive of applying this concept on a mass production scale. He, along with other business partners, built a huge factory in Cromford, Derbyshire, alongside a river, and used the force of the current to drive an entire building’s worth of machinery through a system of gears (“Richard Arkwright: Father of the Factory System”). This allowed for the machines to operate constantly, forcing human laborers to work at the pace of the machines, and was the beginning of a new profit-driven system which is a driving force of the American economy today. Because the capitalist world’s primary focus has become that monthly paycheck, other issues have been sidelined, most notably economic factors. While many corporations push deregulation in hopes of maximizing fiscal gain, “emissions from industrial activities and the burning of fossil fuels will pump an estimated 36.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere” in 2019 (Harvey). The flip side of the mindset that was generated in the Industrial Revolution is revealing itself in the age of consumerism, fossil fuel consumption, and climate change.

The government’s involvement in the Industrial Revolution and Green Revolution differs greatly. While the Industrial Revolution was solely an economically driven transformation, with the government abiding by a laissez faire mentality, the Green Revolution has become an increasingly politicized movement. Although governments did little to drive economic momentum in the Industrial Revolution, they did benefit from the revenue and innovation generated during this time. Not only could they profit off the taxation of these goods being produced, but new methods and inventions were immensely stimulating to the economy, and, by extension, the government and state itself. Britain’s iron production, for example, went from only being able to produce cheap, low-quality items like nails, as its iron reserves were impure and produced a brittle product, in the 18th century to becoming Europe’s largest producer of iron, supplying 250,000 metric tons of it by 1805, rising ten times the level from fifty years prior. This leap was made through multiple new processes and inventions, including coal coking and the steam engine (Clark, 34).

This increased efficiency and output of iron, in turn, lent itself to even further advances, like the railway system of the 1830s. The government, although affected by and prospering as a result of the Industrial Revolution, did not politicize the massive growth and innovation of the time. On the other hand, the Green Revolution has become inseparably intertwined with politics, and has become an increasingly partisan, colored, and polarized topic that seems to be very much a global concern. The current administration in Washington, on one side, is skeptical of the human influence on climate change and wishes to redirect concerns to natural effects in order to increase extraction of fossil fuels, which would generate revenue as they are used for a variety of necessary endeavors (Redwood).

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On the other hand, the majority of world powers oppose that stance and have begun to strive towards a sustainable future. The UN is one of those groups endeavoring towards this goal. According to a tweet by António Guterres, “In several regions of the world, coal power plants continue to be built in large numbers. Either we stop this addiction to coal or all our efforts to tackle the climate crisis will be doomed. We need ambitious #ClimateAction now.” In fact, the Lisbon Treaty, which amends the Constitutional lifeblood of the EU, declares that one of the objectives of the Union is to combat global environmental challenges, specifically climate change (Treaty of Lisbon). While politics weren’t a driving factor of the Industrial revolution, they play a big part in the Green Revolution and global climate change discussion.

The third and final aspect of both Revolutions with the ability to promote change is the citizens. Although living conditions for workers at the inception of the Industrial Revolution were terrible, there was no way of fighting against the system. Present day citizens, however, have much more freedom to mobilize and enact change. Although the Industrial Revolution had the eventual effect of cheaper and more varied consumer goods, urbanization, and greater economic health, living and working conditions were terrible for a while afterwards. The industrialization spread to America, where, according to an article from the U.S. Department of State, the free market ideology, “backed by a judiciary which time and again ruled against those who challenged the system,” would discourage federal government from being actively involved (The Struggles of Labor).

In England, workers were forced out of cottage industry and country life and into densely populated, unhygienic cities in search of work. There were so many people who, put out of a living by labor-assisted machinery, moved to urban centers that “between 1800 and 1850 the population of England doubled” (Flanders 167). The infrastructure of these cities, never built to accommodate those kinds of numbers and growth, failed to contain and order the mass of humanity. Insufficient systems of plumbing led to the dumping of every kind of waste imaginable into rivers and streams, leading to outbreaks of diseases like cholera. An account of the city of Manchester, written by Friedrick Engels, a critic of industrialization, describes the state of disrepair of a courtyard, “so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement.” Even though workers were under such terrible conditions for such a long time, they were unable to do anything about it. In the modern day, however, citizens are able to direct and influence change like never before. For one, more modes of expression are being made available and taken, ranging from marches to litigation. Grassroots organizations, like Citizens for Climate France, work to pressure decision-makers into action (Bryant).

Additionally, the Internet has played a huge role in providing a voice for the citizen and access to trustworthy information. Because of this globalization of perspectives, the citizen is no longer relegated to relying on rumor, but can instead actively endeavor to achieve knowledge of the truth and share original discourse and ideas. Social media, too, connects like-minded individuals and allows for vast social movements to sweep across the globe, unimpeded by distance or borders. Although conditions were bad for workers in the Industrial revolution, they had no way of improving their situation, but now, a Green Revolution, supported by many people around the planet, could gain strength through the combined power of their diverse voices making themselves heard through equally varied methods of speaking their mind.

Now the two Revolutions are separated into analyzable sections, it becomes possible to compare them, to attempt to extrapolate forwards. The Industrial Revolution was able to succeed because it had the support of the entrepreneurs and wasn’t affected by the displeasure of the citizens, while the government never played a role in this economic affair. On the other hand, the Green Revolution is being opposed by the entrepreneurs, especially in America, where strict environmental regulation would hamper many billion dollar company’s profits.

It is being mostly supported around the world by citizens who want to protect their planet, and are able to express themselves in very tangible ways. Lastly, many governments, especially ones in the EU, are pushing a pro-green, anti climate change stance. By stepping back and taking a look at only the most important factors of both movements, it becomes clear that the Industrial Revolution was an innovative economic transformation, while the success of the Green Revolution depends on the strength of the social and political movements it has spawned. Because of this inherent difference, one cannot only use the precedent of the Industrial Revolution to predict the inevitable success or failure of the Green Revolution occurring presently.

In the Industrial Revolution, success and prosperity were driven by profit, while in order to achieve that same success and prosperity from the Green Revolution, the world’s countries would need to agree that they value the health of the planet and their children and their children’s children more than their wallets. In the Industrial Revolution, government took a hands-off approach, while it is necessary now for the governments of the world to intervene before it’s too late, before coastal cities are flooded and more unique, fragile species are gone forever. In the Industrial Revolution, the working people were powerless to change their position. Today, it is more crucial than ever that the people of planet Earth find their voice, sign a petition, go to a rally, and make sure that they make good use of this unique moment in history.

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