Industrialization (Global Warming)

Industrialization, sometimes called development, has been a far-reaching, evolutionary process for more than 200 years. Industrialization is not only a process of extracting resources from the Earth and turning them into goods for consumption. It has significant implications for ways of thinking, social relationships, and the view of the Earth and its resources. Because of its dependence on fossil fuels to spur production and growth, industrialization has radically changed the global environment.

Historical roots

The Industrial Revolution began around the turn of the 19th century. It marked a significant turn in human history, sparking a protracted effort to lower risk to human survival by increasing economic surplus, and mastering the environment. The Industrial Revolution’s shorter-term impacts included a general increase in the living standard, improved overall nutrition and health, increased life spans, intensification of global trading, and increased gaps between the rich and poor within and across nations. The level of industrialization is a measure for a country’s stage of development. Increased industrialization implies a higher quality of life and progress for a country’s residents.

Industrialization initially emerged in Britain in the context of emerging capitalist social relations and rapidly spread to North America and Western Europe. Later, in the 20th century, communist and socialist economies adopted industrial processes and technology. Industrial development continues today in widely varying cultural circumstances, in nations such as China, India, and Indonesia, which are now major contributors of airborne pollutants.


Industrialization, historically seen as a linear process, is particularly suited to enriching mass societies because it allows for the efficient exploitation of vast amounts of natural resources and the use of fossil fuels to produce goods seen as necessary for improved overall social well-being. In essence, industrialization allows for the creation of an economic surplus that, in the relatively short term, lessens risk and increases the comfort for large segments of the population around the globe. Where industrialization is limited, living standards tend to be lower, with attendant poverty, poor health, and shortened lifespan.

Widespread benefits

Typical analyses of industrialization study changes in local, regional, national, and global economies; social class relationships; government policy; industrial locations; and work processes and industrial organizations. While industrialization’s impacts have been debated, the predominant view has been positive, equating industrialization with human progress. Until relatively recently, industrialization’s environmental impacts have been ignored or relegated to the background. The mainly positive view of industrialization has prevailed, despite a long history of profit-maximizing firms that failed to account fully for the environmental costs of natural-resource extraction and production.


The positive view of industrialization is pervasive and understandable. For example, the overall wealth of developed countries is a powerful example for countries seeking to industrialize. The compelling myth that a seemingly unlimited supply of material goods is essential to individual freedom and happiness, a corollary to Adam Smith’s insatiable wants and needs, bolsters this view. As industrialization spreads to more areas of an increasingly global sociocul-tural system, the growing demand for fuel and goods increases stress on the planet’s ecosystems.

Challenges to industrialization

The traditional linear economics of industrialization posed a particularly thorny problem for the environment. Until relatively recently, industrial efficiency tended to revolve around ways to transform various materials into finished goods in the quickest, cheapest way, with limited regard for byproducts that may have had value if processed or reprocessed. Waste minimization was not a high priority because the costs of limiting pollution appeared to exceed the cost of releasing toxins into the air, soil, and water. In fact, for generations, economists tended to write off pollution costs as an externality, a price paid by someone else, not the industrial operation creating the pollution. Only in the past generation or so have plant operators, responding to laws and economic realities, focused on building loops to capture and reuse what once was considered waste.

The sheer abundance of natural resources in North America masked wider environmental effects of industrialization. Locally, it was easy for people to see denuded forests or fouled water or feel the sting of polluted air in their eyes or lungs. Yet, local leaders equated spewing smokestacks and polluted water with growth, jobs, and overall community economic well-being. Those who questioned industrial pollution, even if they had support from scientific data, faced criticism because they were said to oppose growth and development. In addition, scientific tools to assess impacts of industrial pollution were limited. Improved scientific techniques have increased knowledge about pollution and implications of industrialization on the global climate. This new knowledge has added power to traditional social critiques of industrialization.

Industrialization has not been accepted universally; critical analyses tend to focus on negative impacts of wealth concentration into fewer hands, worker exploitation, and, to some extent, local impacts of pollution. Analyses of industrial pollution have become more common since the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. In addition, clearly recognizable historic, literary, and scientific threads link industrialization to environmental degradation. In the United States, for instance, Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Tho-reau rebuked encroaching industrialization during the early 1800s. By the 1860s, nascent conservationists were beginning to develop scientific techniques to measure hydrological impacts of widespread deforestation driven by insatiable timber demands, of coalmines, railroads, and construction that underpinned the growing industrial economy. At the same time, these researchers speculated about the possibility of climate change related to the loss of forest cover across North American. Meanwhile, other researchers, especially in Europe, were beginning to research the impacts of what are now called greenhouse gases on the climate.

Role of energy

Energy consumption is key to understanding industrialization’s impacts on climate. Pre-industrial economies were based on human and animal labor. In the mid-1800s, the industrial transition to larger operations, fired first by coal and later by oil and natural gas, unlocked carbon and other chemicals that had been sequestered under the Earth for eons. By the late 1700s, much of Europe had already been deforested, so the emergence of coal as a widely-used fuel was essential for continued survival of Western civilization, much less industrialization. Yet, coal opened opportunities for industrialization, making possible the production of steam-driven machines to replace human and animal labor. It also opened the way for stronger iron and steel for machinery and construction. In North America, the emergence of coal power occurred alongside forest clear-cutting, so the country was in the wood and steel age at the same time.

Mining coal: At the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began a significant turn in human history, sparking a protracted effort to lower risk to human survival by increasing economic surplus and mastering the environment.

Mining coal: At the turn of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution began a significant turn in human history, sparking a protracted effort to lower risk to human survival by increasing economic surplus and mastering the environment.

Industrial processes of the 19th and much of the 20th century wasted energy and polluted the atmosphere. Palls of smoke laden with carbon dioxide, nitrogen compounds, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants hung over industrial cities and towns, blocking sunshine and creating dangerous smog. Acid rain damaged stone edifices, vegetation, and surface water supplies. Massive amounts of useful gas were flamed off into the atmosphere as coal was turned into coke to fuel the burgeoning metallurgical industry. Later, oil refineries burned off volatiles regarded as useless byproducts. Meanwhile, forests across the country were cut indiscriminately, eliminating ecosystems that could have cleaned the air. Farmers burned forests to clear land for agriculture; wood left over from deforestation was burned on purpose or by forest fires. Gradually, however, people became more aware of the immediate health risks posed by industrial pollutants. Yet, discussions of climate change resulting from industrial fossil fuel emissions still have to vie for attention; it is difficult for people to discern the long-run impacts of climate change, and industrial progress is still valued in many circles.

Whatever its negatives, industrialization offers short-term, tangible benefits. Since the dawning of industrialization over two centuries ago, immediate benefits generally have been more important than environmental considerations that affect future generations. Continued industrialization has virtually guaranteed an economic surplus to decrease risks, increase general living standards, and stimulate long-term growth in demand. Supply and demand feed each other, not only in already-industrialized nations, but in the hopes and dreams of industrializing nations seeking to increase their material wealth. Pressure on the Earth’s resources grows as atmospheric pollutants continue to increase.

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