Industrial Revolution Industrialization

The transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society began only about 250 years ago, but its consequences for the natural world are almost unprecedented. The major innovation that marks the industrial era is the exploitation of the earth's vast stocks of fossil fuel. The availability of more energy per capita has led to undreamed of material wealth for a significant percentage of the world's population, but it has also put tremendous pressure on land and natural resources. The major negative effects of industrialization on biodiversity are: (1) population growth and the consequent destruction of natural habitats, (2) the commercialization of society and the treatment of nature as a commodity, and (3) the increase in income disparity both within and among nations.

Modern humans have inhabited planet earth for several hundred thousand years. In terms of the impact on biological diversity, human history can be divided into three broad categories of economies: the hunter-gatherer or foraging economy, which represents more than 95 percent of our time on earth; depend ence on agriculture as the primary food source, beginning about 10,000 years ago; and the modern industrial economy. The economic organization of these three broad epochs differed dramatically.

Hunter-gatherers lived on direct flows from nature within the confines of local ecosystems. Although the case for hunter-gatherer "harmony" with the natural world can be overstated, the fact that they depended on direct flows from specific kinds of ecosystems gave rise to institutions and technologies that preserved those flows. Agriculture made our dependence on other species less direct and exacerbated the conflicts between humans and the rest of the biological world. After the widespread adoption of agriculture, we depended upon far fewer species, and we began our continuing war on biological "pests" that threaten our crops and livestock.

Agriculture brought two new threats to biodiversity: settled communities that made it possible to amass individual possessions; and the explosive growth of the human population. The total human population 10,000 years ago was about 4 million; as the agricultural way of life became dominant, it mushroomed to 200 million by 3,000 years ago. The industrial revolution further removed humans from the constraints of local ecosystems, and the population growth rate continued to increase. As in the case of the agricultural revolution, industrialization made us less dependent on biological variety but more dependent on technology to manipulate a few crops and animals.

Industrialization is usually defined in terms of technology, but it was even more an institutional and social revolution. Technological advances in the Middle Ages (500-1500 C.E.) including the wheeled plow, the water wheel, and the horse collar, and steady improvements in the organization of agricul

A shepherd watches thick, dark smoke pour from a large chimney at a fertilizer complex at Homs, Syria. (Christine Osborne/Corbis)

ture paved the way for the remarkable flowering of commerce and technology from 1750 to the present. Social transformations include the rise of the nation state, the rise of the consumer society, and global economic integration controlled by supranational economic units. The consequences of the industrial revolution for the human condition and for the natural world have been profound. During the past two and a half centuries, the human population has increased from 1 billion to more than 6 billion. The worldwide dominance of the market economy has created an ever-increasing output of economic goods and services going to a smaller and smaller percentage of the world's population.

It is hard to comprehend the magnitude of the impact of industrialization on the envi ronment. It is now accepted that human activity has changed the earth's climate worldwide with largely unknown but likely negative effects on biodiversity. Large-scale human management of freshwater has significantly changed stream flows around the globe. Human movement of earth for agriculture, road and building construction, and mining rivals the impact of natural erosion, earthquakes, and volcanic activity. It has been estimated that humans directly use or impound about 40 percent of the earth's "net primary productivity"—that is, the solar energy captured by photosynthesis minus that used by organisms for respiration. All the world's ecosystems are now dominated by human activity.

The following are some of the main adverse consequences for biodiversity associated with industrialization:

Population growth. The sheer numbers of people on the planet mean more direct use of land for habitation and food. Habitat loss is the main contributor to biodiversity decline, and habitats for other species shrink in proportion to the expanding human population. The concentration of people in cities means more direct pressure on soil resources in outlying areas to feed the growing population, and the increased use of fertilizer and pesticides upsets the nutrient balance of rivers and streams. Fragmentation of the land has led to the extinctions of large carnivores in many areas of the world. It also enhances the introduction of alien species through the "edge effect" of making interior patches of habitat more accessible to invading species.

In an industrial society, the human population depends on maintaining large energy and resource flows to produce a steady throughput of consumer goods. Many of the harmful effects associated with industrialization are not new. But the increase in population that came with industrialization vastly increased the use of resources going into the economic process, as well as the amount of pollution coming out of it. Although population growth is not the whole story behind biodiversity loss, sheer numbers of people do matter, and the fact that the human population is projected to reach 10 billion by the middle of this century—most of that increase occurring in developing countries—does not bode well for biodiversity preservation.

The commercialization of society and the commodification of nature. The industrial market economy is a relatively recent development, although its roots go back to the origins of agriculture. In only the past few decades, however, this rather unique system of economic organization has spread across the globe.

All of the earth's ecosystems are now under the power of a single type of human society based on buying and selling. This can affect species directly, as seen in the illegal market for wild animals and their parts. A single animal of some endangered species can sell for tens of thousands of dollars, a large sum anywhere but a fortune to residents of some impoverished countries. Black bear gall bladders reportedly sell for $10,000 a kilo in Japan; a Siberian tiger can fetch $25,000 when its various body parts are sold on the black market; and an Indian rhino horn can bring $100,000 in some Asian countries when ground into powder and sold as an aphrodisiac. Globalization means that if a demand for an animal exists anywhere in the world, that animal's life is in danger.

Equally serious are the indirect effects of commercial activity on biodiversity. In the global economy, the environmental effects of economic change are far reaching and impossible to predict. For example, the near-extinction of the rhino can be traced in part to the oil price increase of the 1970s. The new oil money flowing into the Middle East sharply increased the demand for ceremonial rhino horn knives used by indigenous cultures there. Logging and mining activities in once remote areas in equatorial Africa are threatening many endangered species with extinction, especially rare primates, as animals are being hunted for "bush meat."

One particular aspect of the commercial economy particularly threatening to biodiversity is the practice of "discounting." Discounting means simply that most people would rather have something now than a few months or years from now. Suppose we are indifferent between having $100 today and $110 a year from now. That would indicate a discount rate of about 10 percent. Put another way, it means that an offer of $100 delivered a year from now is worth only $90 to us today. We discount the future in market transactions. This makes perfect sense for individuals making market transactions. But is it sensible for society as whole to discount things like biodiversity or a stable climate? Discounting means that it may make economic sense to cut down a rain forest if it yields a greater stream of income sold as timber and the proceeds invested in something else than as an intact forest. In the logic of the industrial market economy, everything—including the irreplaceable features of the biological world—is treated as a consumer good.

Increasing income disparities. Increasing income stratification is apparently accelerating and occurring within almost every geographic, economic, and social category. According to World Bank estimates, the world's poorest countries are getting absolutely poorer, while the growth rate of per capita income in the richest countries is accelerating. All these changes have negative consequences for the variety and richness of the biological world. The disparity between the richest and poorest is remarkable. It has been estimated that the wealth of the 350 richest people on earth is almost equal to the annual income of the poorest half of the world's population.

This aspect of industrialization puts pressure on biodiversity from both the wealthy at the top and the poor at the bottom. The richest 20 percent or so of the world's population consume enormous amounts of resources, and their appetite for consumer goods puts tremendous pressure on the environment. The average U.S. citizen consumes about thirty times as much energy and forty times the quantity of other natural resources as does a citizen of a poor country. Furthermore, it is the wealthy countries (and wealthy individuals within those countries) who make the decisions about environmental protection and resource use;

these are the people who can best isolate themselves from the adverse effects of the economic growth they promote. At the bottom, impoverished people contribute to biodiversity loss through hunting wild animals to supplement their meager diets, clearing tropical forests for small-scale agriculture, and cutting trees for fuel.

Some make the claim that only with increasing industrialization can poor countries afford the costs of environmental cleanup and create reserves for wildlife protection. Many economists use this logic to argue that economic growth is good for the environment. In some cases, it is true that in the early stages of industrial development there is a decline in environmental quality, but when per capita income reaches a certain level it improves. That is true for a number of specific environmental pollutants. For example, some indicators of water and air quality are higher in the industrial north than in the poor countries. For other environmental indicators, however, the relationship between economic growth and environmental integrity is negative. Greenhouse gas emissions rise steadily with economic output. Biodiversity loss is irreversible, so once a species or ecosystem is lost, or within-species genetic diversity is reduced, no recovery is possible even in the wealthy nations.

Technology, substitution, and biodiversity loss. Much of the debate about the industrial economy and the environment has centered on the "limits to growth." In general, biologists argue that humans are subject to the same carrying capacity constraints as other species, and that we have reached or passed those limits. Most economists argue that the key difference between humans and other species is that we can, through our advanced technology, substitute one resource for another as a particular resource becomes scarce. If we drive one species of fish to extinction, we can switch to another. The problem is that as we use up biological resources and move from one species or ecosystem to another, we steadily impoverish the tapestry of life upon which we depend. The result will most likely not be "overshoot and collapse," but rather a steady erosion not only in the richness of the biological world but also eventually in human living standards.

The growth in material wealth made possible by industrialization depended upon an ideology of progress and unlimited faith in technology. In many ways this ideology has served us well, but it has put the human species on a collision course with the rest of nature. Unless we can find a way to reconcile the rules of the global market, which gives us material well-being, and the rules of the biophysical world, which gives us our very existence, the long-term prospect for the industrial age is not bright.

See also: Agriculture, Origin of; Economics; Population, Human, Curbs to Growth; Population Growth, Human; Sustainable Development; Valuing Biodiversity


Daly, Herman. 1996. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon; Davidson, Eric. 2000. You Can't Eat GNP: Economics as if Ecology Mattered. Cambridge: Perseus; Eldredge, Niles. 1998. Life in the Balance: Humanity and the Biodiversity Crisis. Princeton: Princeton University Press; Goudie, Andrew. 1994. The Human Impact on the Natural Environment, 4th ed. Cambridge: MIT Press; McDaniel, Carl, and John Gowdy. 2000. Paradise for Sale: A Parable of Nature. Berkeley: University of California Press; Ponting, Clive. 1991. A Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations. London: Penguin.

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