The History of Environmentalism: Part Three: Making a Mess (The Industrial Revolution)

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

When we last left our planet, the Middle Ages were dawning, and people were crowding closer and closer together. Sure, there were some ups and downs – kingdoms rose and fell, peoples who were once considered barbarians settled down and became the emerging peoples of Europe, and intercontinental trade was once again begun, on a scale like never before. Perhaps the most important change during this period of time, however, was the largest influx of people to cities the world had seen to this point. As you would imagine, when more and more people crowd together, they create more and more waste. But this is just where the problem begins.

The Industrial Revolution, which followed the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of environmentalism thus far. With the mechanization of the Western world came a whole new set of problems and challenges. First and foremost, what was powering these machines? Coal, and a lot of it. The problem? Coal is dirty. To create the steam needed to run the newly mechanized world, ungodly amounts of coal were ripped from the British landscape, and then from all over Europe, the United States, and eventually from the entire world.

If you think that the environmental impact of mining all of this coal was pretty serious, the environmental impact of burning all of this coal eclipses that by a long shot. A personal favorite anecdote that I’ve always been told about this period of time involves the adaptation of a species of insect which was forced to adapt by becoming black in order to blend in with the soot-covered buildings of London. From coal mines to cities and factories, there was coal dust, soot, smog, and smoke in the air everywhere – by far the most pouted skies in history.

This environmental impact was not the only effect of the industrial revolution – there were plenty of other things that resulted out of the Industrial Revolution, though most of them would end up being detrimental to the environment in the long run. Our consumerist culture, our complete disregard for our world’s air and water supply, a lack of concern for the limits of our natural resources, and the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels would all play a role later on in history.

Before I wrap this up, let me remind you that the Industrial Revolution wasn’t all bad. The technological advances led to a higher standard of living for the world at large, and created widespread employment and limitless opportunities. Social mobility finally peaked out from it’s hiding place, and the old world order began to decline. Perhaps most importantly, we could never fix the environmental problems of the early industrial revolution without the technologies it helped to create.

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