human activity and the destruction of the planet

The industrial revolution

Leave a comment


The most significant development, which is being linked to the environmental changes we are seeing in our world is the industrial revolution, so I will deal with it in some depth from an historical point of view, so we can all see how it came about and how it is still continuing.

Britain is considered to have been the birthplace of the industrial revolution which, historians say, took place during the period of 1760 to 1840.  Before this, societies were mainly rural and the daily existence of small communities revolved around farming.  Life was difficult, with the majority of people on low incomes, so many were malnourished and diseases were rife. People produced most of their own food, clothing, furniture and tools, with manufacturing (cottage industries) being carried out in homes or in small, rural shops, using hand tools or simple machines.  The industrial revolution was to completely turn this around, having an impact on every family in the land and on their way of life.

Several factors contributed to Britain’s role as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. It had great deposits of coal and iron ore, which proved essential for industrialisation and it was a politically stable society. At the time, it was also the world’s leading colonial power, which meant that its colonies could serve as sources of raw materials, as well as a marketplace for manufactured goods.  As demand for British goods grew, merchants needed better methods of production, which led to the rise of mechanization and the whole factory system.

One of the first inventions to spark the industrial revolution was in the textile industry: by the spinning “jenny”, invented by an Englishman James Hargreaves in 1764. It was later improved on by others, and led to the power loom, which mechanised the process of weaving cloth, leading to the production of textiles on a wide-scale.  Industrialisation of the textiles industry meant that some craftspeople were replaced by machines. This led to the Luddite Rebellion in 1811-1813, in which textile workers protested against the newly developed labour-economizing technologies which replaced them with less-skilled, low-waged labourers, leaving the craftsmen without work.

Industrialisation of the textile industry was followed soon after by the development of the iron industry. Englishman Abraham Darby discovered a cheaper, easier method to produce cast iron, using a coke-fuelled furnace and then, in the 1850s, British engineer Henry Bessemer developed the first inexpensive process for mass-producing steel. Both iron and steel became essential materials, used to make everything from appliances, tools and machines, to ships, buildings and infrastructure.

Fig.16: Image of the Industrial revolution in Britain

The steam engine was integral to the industrialisation process. In 1712, Englishman Thomas Newcomen had developed the first practical steam engine (which was used primarily to pump water out of mines) but, by the 1770s, Scottish inventor, James Watt, had improved on this and the steam engine went on to power machinery, locomotives and ships in the years that were to follow.  Some say that the steam engine represented a second phase of the industrial revolution though many of these new technologies did overlap.

 Coal mining became a major industry in the 19th century, as coal and/or coke was needed to power up the factories, as well as the engines running the railways and steamships.

The Industrial Revolution brought about a greater volume and variety of factory-produced goods and raised the standard of living for many people, particularly for the middle and upper classes. However, life for the poor and working classes continued to be difficult. Wages for factory workers were low and working conditions could be dangerous and monotonous. Unskilled workers had little job security and were easily replaceable. Children were part of the labour force, often working long hours and involved in hazardous tasks. In the early 1860s, one-fifth of the workers in Britain’s textile industry were younger than 15.


Fig.17 Children working in a textiles factory (From:

Children in the coal mines

Fig.18: Young boys working as miners during the industrial revolution


Additionally, urban, industrialised areas were unable to keep pace with the flow of workers arriving from the countryside, resulting in inadequate, overcrowded housing and polluted, unsanitary living conditions in which disease was rampant. However, conditions for Britain’s working-classes began to gradually improve by the later part of the 19th century, as the government instituted various labour reforms and workers gained the right to form trade unions.

The invention of the steam engine led to significant improvements in transport, from largely horse-drawn methods to the introduction of steam-powered engines for ships and railways. Steam powered cars first appeared in the late 19th century but these were to be replaced later by the, more popular, petrol driven engines.

The Motor Car

The history of the development of the motor car is well-known to us, as is the rise in the use of motor cars in the last 100 years, which has been phenomenal, with many households now being 2 or 3-car families, or even more. The thing that underlines this to me is the change in the road where I grew up.  In the 1950’s, there were no parked vehicles on this road and goods were often delivered with horse-drawn vehicles.  When I last visited this street, in 2005, there were cars parked on both sides of the road, with room for only one vehicle to pass between them; woe betide if anything was coming the other way.  Traffic jams are now a world-wide phenomenon, particularly in capital cities.  My visits to Bangkok and Manila in 1994 were an eye-opener; in both of these cities, if you wanted to get anywhere by car and quickly, you had to leave home very early in the morning.


Fig.20 Takeover by the motor car

With petrol being a major culprit in contributing to carbon emissions, it would be expected that vehicles propelled by cleaner forms of energy would be starting to take over from petrol and diesel-driven vehicles but a chart published by Statista.com17 shows that the total number of new vehicles registered in the UK has been on the increase and few of these use alternative fuels. The actual numbers for the UK in 2014 were:


Petrol fuelled vehicles new registrations             1,184,409               47.8

Diesel fuelled vehicles new registrations             1,240,287                50.1

Alternative fuel vehicles new registrations               51,739                  2.1

So, the small increase in the use of alternative fuel is minimised by the continuing dominance of petrol and diesel fuelled vehicles and the ever-increasing overall numbers of cars being used on the roads.

From another source (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – SMMT)18, I have obtained further information about the preferred type of alternatively-fuelled cars during 2014, compared with 2008 and 2011.  The figure below shows that there is an increase in purchase of these vehicles over the six-year period, with a 25% increase between 2013 and 2014.


Fig.20: SMMT New car registrations for 12-month periods 2008, 2011 and 2014

©2016 SMMT Ltd. All Rights Reserved        Source: AIS 0207 235 7000

The continuing increase in vehicles of all kinds on the roads may be as a result of increases in the human population, or in an increased interest in driving by the developing countries of the world, as they try to catch up with the lifestyles of the developed countries. However, a recent initiative by Mexico City, to reduce the amount of pollution and smog in their capital city, has been to ban all vehicles from their roads for one day per week.

In the Netherlands in 2013, 1.4% of car sales were fully-electric vehicles and the Netherlands are currently second in the world (behind Norway) in adopting the highest number of fully electric plug-in vehicles19. Owners of these vehicles are already eligible for tax breaks and parking spots – a not surprising development in view of the vulnerability of this country to flooding as sea levels rise. A number of Dutch politicians are proposing the banning of gas and diesel-powered vehicles from 202520.

The large-scale production of chemicals, then cement, glass making and gas lighting also began during the industrial revolution.  Communication became easier with inventions, such as the telegraph and, in 1866, a telegraph cable was successfully laid across the Atlantic.

Thus Britain was the seat of these massive changes in industrialisation but it was not long before it spread, first to countries in Western Europe and then to America, being well established in these countries by the mid-19th century.  By the early 20th century, America had become the world’s leading industrial nation and remains so. Japan’s industrial revolution began in about 1870 but other large eastern nations followed much later. China’s was not until 1979 to 2000 and it still continues to escalate. India came under the East India Company at the time of the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, so there was some technological progress (such as the introduction of railways, canals, modern banks and postal system) but no significant advances during the 19th and 20th centuries, due to problems caused by some major famines and factional rivalries and wars, though India has been a major supplier of raw materials to Britain.

However, there are some people who believe that Britain’s colonisation of India and the sequestration of its resources, set that country back years, leading to the destruction of many forests, loss of land rights and the subversion of its education and cultural traditions, especially associated with arts and science (W. Pereira and J. Seabrook, 19964,21.

‘Follow Green Living’22 talks about the Uttarakhand (flooding) disaster, which was caused by deforestation. The World Wildlife Fund has stated that every minute, forest area equivalent to 36 football fields is lost, along with 137 species of plants, animals and insects, which totals 50,000 species a year.


Fig 21: INDIAN weavers at the 1886 colonial and Indian exhibition in South Kensington; copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Fig.22: Deforestation in India

Some countries have still not become industrialised and continue to be mainly agrarian, rural or nomadic communities.

Other changes associated with the industrial revolution

During the industrial revolution there were changes in the economy, society and culture, perhaps some of the most significant changes in human history. It was much more than just a mechanization drive. It was also an epoch in European social history that characterized the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the development of the latter. So, there was a change from family-based economies, organised around and within agrarian communities, to an economy organised around a factory system, dependent on owners and managers, and on businesses and their productivity. The factory replaced the home as the centre of production. The industrialists running factories pressured governments to spend money on infrastructure (railways, roads, shipping etc), to foster free trade between nations, and not to interfere with businesses and the way factories were run. This change in the focus of the economy will be discussed in more detail in chapter 7.

The industrial revolution also saw the rise of banks and industrial financiers. A stock exchange was established in London in the 1770s; the New York Stock Exchange was founded in the early 1790s. In 1776, Scottish social philosopher Adam Smith, who is regarded as the founder of modern economics, published “The Wealth of Nations.”23 In it, Smith promoted an economic system based on free enterprise, the private ownership of means of production, and lack of government interference.  In the 21st century we have seen how the increasing power of banks has upset the balance of the economy, leading to vast profits for bankers at the expense of the average person.

So there have been many downsides to the industrial revolution, not the least of which has been the concomitant changes that have occurred to the earth’s ecosystems, its biosphere, to global temperature and to the earth’s climate.

The Industrial Revolution (IR) Continuum

Historians now say that the industrial revolution was followed by a second one, which continued from 1870 to 1914, with advances in technology, and a 3rd one later which included the digitisation of manufacturing and the internet and others are now saying that we are entering a 4th industrial revolution, marked by further advances in technology, which will fundamentally alter the way we live, work and relate to one another – included in this revolution will be advances in green technology.  I personally don’t think it is helpful to divide the industrial revolution into historical eras.  This is because I believe that the chain of events the first industrial revolution initiated have continued to the present day. I call this process, which is still ongoing, the IR Continuum (ie the continuation of the first industrial revolution) and will use this name throughout the rest of this book.

Let’s look at a few of the things that have been invented since the late nineteenth century which, along with the industrial revolution, have changed the face of this planet and had a large impact on our experience as human beings living here.

  1. Electricity

The invention of electricity and the introduction of light bulbs by Edison in 1879 made a huge impact of the human way of life, as it extended the length of the day in which we could be active, from early morning until well into the evenings, as well as enabling people to work night shifts.


Fig 23: The development of the light bulb had a huge impact on society

The light bulb was followed by labour-saving devices, all powered by electricity; things for the home, such as washing machines and later dish-washers and the development of radio and television, as well as the motor car and other inventions described later in this chapter.  Whilst the motor car is powered by a petrol or diesel engine, electricity is needed to maintain and circulate that power.

 The problem with electricity of course is that, to generate it, we have been burning fossil fuels. And nuclear energy, now often promoted as a clean source of energy, is not the answer either as it has its own dangers from accidents (as in Chernobyl and Fukushima) as well as problems and dangers associated with disposal of nuclear waste. The present preferred means of generating energy are solar power, wind or water power but, as yet, they contribute to only a small proportion of electricity generation (see figure below, where renewable energy is marked as RE) and globally the proportion is even lower than that of the UK (see  Fig. 25)24.



Figure 24 shows UK electricity generation by fuel type since 1960.  In 2014, the UK electricity mix was 31% coal, 31% gas, 19% renewable and 18% nuclear. Chart by Carbon Brief using DECC data.  From CarbonBrief website: and

And an interesting development in 2016 (also reported by Carbon Brief) is a 22% decline in coal use in the UK since 2014, coal now being replaced by renewables and nuclear power in the generation of electricity, as reported in The Guardian, 24th September 201525.

Changing to renewables is not a world-wide phenomenon, though.  The biggest problem is that the global use of energy continues to increase; it has tripled since 1965, as shown in figure 25, with coal, gas and oil being the major energy sources.


Fig.25 Global energy use by source, 1965-2014. Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015. Chart by Carbon Brief: and

Despite the small proportion of renewable energy shown in the global graph, there is hope, as The Guardian recently reported26 that at least five countries have shown initiatives to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. For example: Uruguay gets 94.5% of its electricity from renewables, due to a hefty investment in wind, biomass and solar in recent years. Costa Rica went for 94 consecutive days earlier this year without using fossil fuel for energy at all, thanks to a mix of 78% hydropower, 12% geothermal and 10% wind. Iceland is able to tap geothermal sources for 85% of its heating, which with hydropower, enables this country to have 100% of its electricity from renewables. Paraguay has one huge hydropower dam at Itaipu, which supplies 90% of its energy and Lesotho gets 100% of its electricity from a cascade of dams that have enough spare capacity to export power to South Africa.

  1. Plastics

The first substance that could be described as plastic was Parkesine, produced by Parkes in 1862.  It was highly flammable, so later versions followed, such as celluloid, bakelite, artificial silk, cellophane, polythene etc. The great advantage of plastics is that they can be moulded into any shape that is required and much of our life activities today are surrounded and influenced by plastics in one shape or another. The downside of plastics is that most are not biodegradable.  So, the world now has many rubbish dumps, landfill sites and tips, all containing plastics, as well as other kinds of rubbish, the best example being that of Smoky Mountain near Manila.  In Britain, we are rapidly running out of landfill sites in which to dispose of our rubbish.  And we are told that our oceans are full of plastics, which damage marine life and wash up on beaches across the world.


Fig.26: An Indian boy walks by the Arabian Sea near Mumbai, piled with mainly plastic rubbish

A young Dutch student may have come up with a cheap solution with which to clear the oceans of plastic rubbish, using the pre-existing ocean currents27 but this is not yet tried on a global scale and there would still be a problem of disposal, once the plastic is collected.

  1. Weaponry

During the industrial revolution, there was a big development of new forms of weaponry, with hand-held weapons becoming ever more sophisticated and playing a major part in the First World War (1914-18).  By the time of the Second World War (1939-45), there had been a development of bombs, as well as the aircraft to drop them on enemy targets.  This culminated in 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 129,000 people immediately with many thousand others dying later as a result of nuclear fallout. Nuclear weapons have not been used in war since but are still owned by a number of countries, being used it is thought, as a deterrent to war.

Using weapons and bombs in war also has the effect of increasing carbon emissions.  For example, it has been calculated that, during the Iraq war, the total carbon emissions per year, as a result of the war, were higher than the emissions of 139 countries put together. This issue is of such importance that I have devoted a whole chapter to it (Chapter 6).

  1. Aviation

During the first half of the 20th century, there were huge advances in the manufacture of flying machines, first of all for early pioneers to fly over the great oceans but, later, to the development of passenger airlines, with some of the larger planes, such as the Airbus, now taking well over 500 passengers at a time.


Fig.27: The Airbus A380

In 1952, the first commercial jet flight took place and 24 years’ later, Concorde began its fascinating history.   Air travel has become so commonplace that it is now nothing special to fly to the other side of the world and back in a short space of time and to do it several times a year.

In her piece entitled “Counting the Cost”, written for the New Era Network in 200528 (and downloadable from their website, Molly Scott Cato MEP, a green economist, gave some compelling statistics about carbon dioxide emissions related to the aviation industry, the expansion of which has been completely unregulated.  Much of this increased usage of passenger airlines has been as a result of the expansion of tourism.  In 1990, CO2 emissions from aircraft accounted for about 2.4% of total emissions – they are projected to grow by another 3-7% by 2050 to approximately 10% of all emissions.  The entire transportation system accounts for about 25% of emissions. Global tourism increased from 8.5 million people in 1970 to 56.8 million in 2000. So, the current obsession with taking regular holidays (or mini-breaks) and flying around the world to some remote destination is a major contribution to the problems of global warming and climate change.  Yet, when people come into an unexpected financial windfall, the majority of them plan to use it first to take an overseas holiday. The effects of this on global warming are rarely thought of.  The airline industry is certainly not going to advertise their impact on climate change, for it might mean the loss of their business.

  1. Electronics, Space and the digital revolution

After the Second World War, we entered into an electronic era, the Space Age, satellite technology and the digital revolution, which began with the invention of the transistor in 1947, followed by computers, hard disks, microchips and microprocessors, recording devices for music and video/film, CDs, DVDs, iPODs, hand-held devices (calculators, 1972; mobile phones, 1983), computer games, smaller and smaller computers, the internet, computer software, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, smart phones, robots etc.

The development of space travel will be discussed further in the next chapter.

The Consumer Culture

The digital age has revolutionised the human way of life on a global scale, with vast advances in communication, which could never have been anticipated when the telegraph was first invented in the mid-1800s.  The downside of it is that some of the devices invented are superseded very rapidly by improved versions, leading to a throw-away culture, as people try to obtain the latest version of the devices they treasure.  All of this, of course, feeds into the escalation of the IR Continuum.

Whilst a significant number of people adhere to the consumer culture, wishing to have the latest invention in line with their friends and colleagues, there are those who are deeply concerned about it.  In fact, when I first talked about writing this book to some of my friends, the throw-away culture that we live in was the first thing that sprang to their minds.  Not only is it damaging to the planet, feeding into the IR Continuum and the accumulation of discarded items, it is also bound up with trading patterns and an obsession  with economic growth, as discussed in chapters 4 and 7.

Who are the worst polluters?

It is the industrialised countries that have contributed most to carbon emissions, though the whole world feels the effect of this.  And amongst the industrialised nations, some emit more per head than others.  Damon Matthews from Montreal in Canada has calculated climate debts for each country related to their population size. He sees those who pollute more than their fair share (i.e. above the global average), as being in climate debt.  From these calculations, the US leads the list by a long way, with the greatest climate debt, Russia is second and Japan third; the UK is the 6th worst polluter in the world29.  Other ways of presenting the data show the UK in first place (because we have been industrialised for longer).

However, in terms of individuals, the richest people in the world contribute to 85% of carbon emissions (see also in Chapter 5).


Fig.29: Picture showing different ages of man up to the present computer generation





















Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s