The Industrial Revolution and global environmental change

The year is 1798. Britain is on the verge of economic and ecological collapse. With burgeoning population growth, poverty on the rise and an empire beginning to shrink in on itself, it looked as if the country was growing too fast for the finite carrying capacity of its land to handle. Indeed, the symptoms of the crisis were already appearing: for the first time, the word “slum” was invented to describe the decrepit living conditions of poorhouses in suburban districts which were already overflowing with beggars and prostitutes. This was the well-thought out view of the contemporary British demographer and economist Thomas Robert Malthus, in any case.

In his  An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus was adamant that overpopulation and excessive lifestyles would lead to increased risk of violence, poverty, disease and plague, as pressure mounted on food-stocks and resources. The population boom – which saw the number of Brits approach 9 million by 1800 – needed to stop, Malthus argued, otherwise food would very quickly run out. As a cleric of the Church of England, he argued that this situation was proof of the need to behave virtuously and not live selfishly, pursuing excess and vice.

Of course, Malthus’ predictions turned out to be wrong. Not because of his reasoning; his logic was sound – the way England was going it was undoubtedly heading straight-on towards catastrophe. Instead, his analysis turned out to be foiled by simple human ingenuity. Britain was in the middle of a technological renaissance, the implications of which would not yet be evident at the time. A number of technological innovations would drastically improve the productivity of labourers and industries, improve the efficiency of production and create huge benefits for the national economy.

James Watt’s invention of the steam engine of 1776 would allow for better transportation of workers and goods, massively increasing the amount of work that could be accomplished in one day’s labour. This was bolstered by the later invention of the locomotive, which made cross-country transportation even faster. It then became easier to transport food and other resources from one side of the country to the other. Innovations in the early telecommunications industry allowed for greater connectivity between people and increased an individual’s ability to promote his business or product.


James Watt’s invention of the stream train increased productivity in industry and agriculture

These and other such innovations resulted in the transition, as Wikipedia puts it, “from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, improved efficiency of water power, the increasing use of steam power and the development of machine tools”, comprehensively improving the country’s ability to generate the sustainable growth needed to prop up its rapidly growing population. And, correspondingly, energy-production became more efficient as people turned from wood and other bio-fuels towards coal to generate their power.

Throughout the proceeding nineteenth century, British society completely back-flipped to become one of the most prosperous nations in the world. The population doubled by the midway-mark of the century and hit 30 million by 1901. Brits were, on the whole, much wealthier – with 50 per cent more income – in 1850 than in 1750, despite having trebled in population; and in terms of calorie intake, they were more well-nourished than they had ever been since being a primitive hunter-gatherer society.

More than this, Britain began to experience a sort of exponential economic growth and momentum that was unprecedented throughout its history. The First Industrial Revolution, as it was later to become known as, evolved into a Second Industrial Revolution, due to innovations such as electricity, the internal combustion engine, railroads and increased use of steam-powered boats, ships and trains, as well as advances in chemistry which led to the generation of better substances and materials. New methods of social and economic organisation, such as mass production and the production line, aided by advancements in communication technologies such as the telegraph and radio, elevated the self-sustainability and efficiency levels not just of the British but in populations throughout the rest of Europe and across the Atlantic.


All this technological innovation was made possible through changes in the organisation of British society which brought about the formation of a dynamic market economy, ending the predominance of the largely inefficient and socially divisive system of feudalism. Land was turned into private property, enabling technological development in the agricultural sector. The serfs which worked the land of landlords in feudal times were therefore free to wander the country selling their labour to entrepreneurs, which was beneficial when the demand for labour grew as industry diversified and expanded. And as these trends progressed, the market economy emerged and banks began to lend money to budding businessmen looking to become entrepreneurs. This generated easily accessible and tradeable financial capital, making the invention of new ideas and markets desirable for capitalists, encouraging innovation.

So Malthus’ error was an understandable one: no one at the time could have seen the Industrial Revolution coming because technological change, and the societal change needed to spur it, is gradual and invisible to the common person. Under the magnifying glass of history, his apocalyptic vision of doom and gloom for Britain was not false; it was proven wrong by a society which was moving in the right direction at the right time.

Fast forward to 2013. Similar “Malthusian” (there is now an adjective named after Malthus) predictions are being made by environmentalists and proponents of sustainability and the need to stem population growth. Except now, thanks to the technological, political and societal advances brought about by globalisation, their focus is not on single countries or societies, but on the whole planet itself. And, not only is the scope of our vision larger, so are the significance of our problems, largely due to the very technological and organisational improvements that allowed the developed world to overcome the same ecological problems that Malthus was concerned with.

Today, these aforementioned advances in technology and societal organisation have become the main drivers in environmental change – and we may be worse off than before because of it. Before the Industrial Revolution, humans had to make changes in order to adapt to the obstacles thrown at us by the environment. The way we eventually adapted to them (by developing technology to make the exploitation of natural resources more sustainable and efficient) swung the balance of agency (the ability to influence the world around us) in our favour. Then, it was the environment that needed to make certain changes to stabilise itself from the new environmental impacts of our technology. And today, it is starting to show.

The planet has entered a new geologic era: the “Anthropocene“, according to geologists. In this new era, humans have had a significant impact on the world’s ecosystems. While no definitive start-date has been realised for this era, it is commonly argued that the machine-oriented turn human civilisation has taken in order to supplement its burgeoning population growth has led humans to inadvertently begin geo-engineering the world around us. Modern lifestyle patterns and increasing urbanisation have had an adverse effect on biodiversity, increased farming has cut into the amount of land that can be afforded to wildlife and the coal and natural gas that’s been burned to fulfill our rising energy needs has created a dangerous level of carbon dioxide emissions which are warming up our atmosphere.


Humans are now creating massive systemic changes in the world around us. Environmental concerns are no longer context-specific (as in the case of Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century), but planet-wide; the way we are living our lives today in the modern era is directly impacting on the ecology of the earth. We are learning that we may be changing the planet permanently and making it insecure for future populations. Environmental scientists have come up with a metric to judge the environmental sustainability of human activities, mapping out nine planetary boundaries that humans cannot afford to cross. This metric uses scientific analysis of data on environmental change to determine a quantitatively defined scenario of a “safe operating space” within which humans can organise themselves without creating an unsustainable and irreversibly catastrophic impact on the planet. The thing is, we have already crossed three of these thresholds, having surpassed the specified safe levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration, biodiversity loss and nitrogen that is removed from the atmosphere.

Now, we must turn our attention to stopping the severity of these problems, while at the same time avoiding crossing the other planetary boundaries – the unsafe levels of ocean acidification, land use, global consumption of water, ozone depletion, aerosols in the atmosphere, and pollution. However, just as was the case in 1798 British society, the problem is being complicated even further by the fact that we are now in the middle of a massive global population boom.


The global population has exploded since the Industrial Revolution; in 1818, the global population reached 1 billion for the first time and trebled itself by the middle of the twentieth century as richer countries in the Global North industrialised. Then, the global population doubled in just 40 years, from 3 billion in 1959 to 6 billion in 1999, as a result of the industrialisation of many developing countries, in particular China, India and the rest of Asia. We have just surpassed 7 billion people and are expected to reach 9 billion by 2042. By then, many of today’s emerging economies will have modernised and developed a strong middle-class, resulting in reductions in fertility levels. The latest United Nations projections indicate that world population will nearly stabilise at just above 10 billion people after 2062.


This growth represents a problem because even today just under 1 billion people are perpetually malnourished and almost half the world’s population lives on under $2 a day (80 per cent live off of only $10). Further, almost half the world’s population lack proper access to water resources; 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation, while access to clean water is an entirely different story altogether. If scientists warning us about catastrophic climate change are right, we will see water resources become harder to exploit due to drought and famine.

Tackling all these ecological problems will be an incredibly difficult task on their own merit, but altogether raise an extremely complicated conundrum for human civilisation. We need to find a way to operate within the planetary boundaries that have been mapped out for us, while also sustaining our ongoing population growth. At the same time, we must facilitate the economic development required to prop up this population growth and reduce global poverty and inequality.The task gets even further complicated by the fact that we are already struggling to feed one seventh of our current population worldwide and find ways to provide it with its energy and resource security needs.

The task seems drastically difficult, perhaps even impossible. But the predicament hardly appears much more ominous today than it did in Malthus’ time, given our relative technological capabilities compared to back then. And ultimately, we may very well be on the way to an answer to all our environmental problems if we make the right choices in the present. It is a big if, and it looks unlikely, but as Malthus discovered, no obstacle is too great for human ingenuity. I will explore this thought in my next post.

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