Energy Policy

The Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution

It would be difficult to discuss the history of human energy use without at least a brief discussion of the Industrial Revolution. And, in a class where we're focusing on energy not just for energy's sake, but also incorporating the climate impacts of our energy use, it's absolutely critical.

And while we tend to think of the Industrial Revolution in a historical context, because it occurred so long ago in the western world (starting in England, and spreading readily to other European countries and the colonies now known as the US), it's important to remember - especially in the context of energy policy - that much of the world is still striving to achieve industrialization. Industrialization serves as a major sticking point for international climate policy negotiations, with lesser industrialized countries lamenting the fact that the western world enjoyed unmitigated development with cheap, dirty fuel sources and had no climate considerations burdening their desire to grow and evolve. The western world, however, recognizes the implications of continued growth in carbon-intensive fuel sources to support a higher quality of life around the world and (from the luxury of their industrialized societies) calls for cleaner, more expensive energy alternatives moving forward.

The Industrial Revolution marks a turning point in how we viewed energy, consumption, and our environment. Prior to this, the manufacturing process was small and on a highly localized scale. Skilled laborers worked in small groups to create complex goods. The Industrial Revolution saw increased farm production and efficiency, allowing more people to abandon subsistence farming for livelihoods in industrial centers. Fewer farmers feeding more people allows society to advance and branch out in all areas, with individuals able to devote time to livelihoods in manufacturing, textiles, services, and other areas.

And while it's termed a 'revolution,' these changes still took time. Remember our discussions about energy transitions and how they are slow-moving events? The Industrial Revolution was no exception to that. The primary difference here is that the Industrial Revolution marks a time in history when we had a fundamental shift in how we did things, and this transcends just a system of factories. Agricultural practices, economic policies, and societal norms were all upended to make way for more efficient ways of doing business and a rapid pursuit of a higher quality of life. On a rudimentary level, we can think about the Industrial Revolution as being similar to the advent of e-mail. E-mail fundamentally changed how businesses operate - and seemingly helped make them more efficient. Good news - we didn't have to unlock millions of years' worth of carbon for the e-mail revolution.

Joking aside, you can probably pinpoint a few major shifts in how we operate. But even as revolutionary as some of our recent technological advancements have been, few things will ever be quite the spot-on history that the Industrial Revolution has been. Lumped under this heading is a series of events that cascaded into the very real quality of life improvements for people of the times, and people today. Modern-day conveniences like washing machines and sewing machines (just to name a few) owe their roots to the Industrial Revolution.

But, for many people living the reality of the changes on the ground, it wasn't all good. Poor working conditions, child labor, crowded living conditions with little sanitation, and extreme air pollution are but a few of the consequences of the growth and advancement during this time. And lest we forget that industrialization in the West would not have been possible without the horrors of slavery and colonialism (and the illiberal practice of neocolonialism that arguably exists today), as well resource exploitation. And this phenomenon is not only historical. A bevy of research has found that airborne pollution - largely from manufactururing and energy generation associated with industrialization - causes major health impacts. One recent study found that pollution reduces the averages Chinese citizens' life by almost 3 years. There are negative impacts from things like mining rare earth metals, toxic electronic waste pollution, land grabs to secure raw materials, and more - all resulting as a consequence of the current energy transition and global industrialization. These impacts are disproportionately visited upon marginalized populations domestically and globally. It's important to keep these side effects in mind as we think about radical shifts in energy sources. While our goal to be more efficient and provide more people with a better quality of life isn't all that different from the goals of large-scale industrialization, we must be mindful of the unintended consequences and externalities of our actions.