How has industrialisation changed our lives?

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The industrial revolution provided us with the energy, commerce, science and technology that has changed human lives and destinies for the better and for the worse. It has also amplified the speed with which we are creating and dealing with problems for the human race and the planet.

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  • www.rodmatthews.com

    How has industrialisation changed our lives?

    By Rod Matthews

    Confirmation bias is a well documented tendency for people to look for, interpret and re-

    present information in a way that best suits their current belief. As a result it would be easy to

    provide a highly skewed answer to the question how has industrialisation changed human

    lives and destinies?

    The most honest answer would be that industrialisation has been a double edged sword. To

    examine this in more detail we can start by listing some of the major areas of humans lives

    that could be said to have been effected by the industrial revolution.

    Energy Production:

    Prior to the industrial revolution the major source of energy was firewood. The industrial

    revolution includes the comercialisation of coal and then oil into primary energy sources.*

    Benefits:

    The benefits of moving from wood to coal and to oil include:

    Reduced deforestation

    Increase in energy output

    It is unlikely that we would have discovered electricity by using wood

    Drawbacks:

    The drawbacks of using coal and oil include:

    Higher concentration of carbon and other harmful polutants

    Scarring of the landscape with mining

    Commerce, Finance and Trade:

    In The Ascent of Money A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson1 it is argued

    that the end of fuedalism in Britain, the funding of war through bonds and bullion, and the

    growth in the liquidity of capital were major contributors to the beginings of the industrial

    revolution.

    Benefits:

    Increased equity of access to capital - democratised money

    Led to the rise of the middle class and the entrepreneurial

    Sped up the process of specialisation and innovation

    Improved the standard of living for many millions

    1 Ferguson, Niall, 2008, The Ascent of Money A Financial History of the World, The

    Penguin Press, United States.

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    Drawbacks:

    It merely transferred power from one elite to another (from the class elite to the

    financial elite)

    Led to boom and bust cycles that create misery for the non-financial elite

    Led to the creation of complex financial instruments that are no better than ponzi

    schemes

    The Rise of Science:

    The European Renaisance of the 14th

    to 17th

    centuries combined with the explosion of

    mechanical inventions led to the rise of the respectability of science.

    Benefits:

    Increased critical thinking and reduction in ignorance

    Increased technology, invention and discovery

    Increased quality of life on a daily basis

    Drawbacks:

    Transferrence of power from one elite to another (from the religious to the

    scientific elite)

    Increased reductionism and not encouraging creativity

    Unintended consequences (e.g. the transport revolution has reduced our fitness)

    Chemistry and Biology:

    The rise of scientific thinking has been highly pronounced in the areas of chemistry and

    biology.

    Benefits:

    Increases in survival and longevity

    Reduction of disease and discomfort

    Increase in quality of life

    Reduction of ignorance and increased education

    Increase in the quantity and quality of food

    Increase in the productivity of agriculture

    Drawbacks:

    Chemical polution

    Inhumane testing procedures

    It has produced a cycle of creating and dealing with unintended consequences

    Population:

    Underpinning all of this is the increase in population that started in the 1700s and 1800s and

    exploded in the 1950s.

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    Benefits:

    We are saving more lives It is pretty hard to argue against the protection of our

    own species Why is that???

    More people means more ideas, more specialisation and more of one type of

    resource the human resource

    Pushes us to learn to live with a broader range of people and reduces racism in the

    longer term

    Drawbacks:

    It is hard to see how we are going to solve the issue of space for everyone and

    everything to live

    The negative behaviours that increase as people are asked to learn to live in

    smaller areas

    Environmental degradation

    Exploitation of all resources energy, time, money and people

    Robert K. Merton coined the phrase unintended consequences to describe unanticipated or

    unforseen outcomes of a purposeful action.2 He notes that there are potentially three

    unintended consiquences to any action:

    1. A positive outcome

    2. A negative outcome

    3. The opposite to what was intended

    The Industrial Revolution is certainly an excellent case study in the unintended consequences

    of purposeful actions. The industrial revolution provided us with the energy, commerce,

    science and technology that has changed human lives and destinies for the better and for the

    worse. It has also amplified the speed with which we are creating and dealing with problems

    for the human race and the planet.

    Notes:

    * As an interesting side note, coal had been used as a fuel by the Greeks and perhaps even

    earlier.3

    Perhaps we are currently using the energy of the future and we are missing the

    technology, investment or market forces to make it into the coal of the future.

    2 Merton, Robert K., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unintended_consequences This page was

    last modified on 30 August 2012 at 21:38.

    3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal#Early_uses_as_fuel This page was last modified on 8

    September 2012 at 14:55.