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What was the Industrial Revolution's Environmental Impact?

What was the industrial revolution, how did it impact the environment, and why has it influenced the industrial impact that continues in the present day?
Ecology News
black and white photo of the Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution is called a revolution for a reason - it advanced society in a number of crucial ways and created rapid economic growth. By shifting to an manufacturing based economy the industrial revolution created huge advancements in terms of increased production and efficiencies, it advanced transportation systems, and even led to eventual improvements in working and living conditions.

However, these advancements have come at a cost - the industrial revolution also marks the start of our intensive use of fossil fuels: the driving force behind climate change.

👉 What does the term industrial revolution mean? And how has it affected our global climate?  

The Industrial Revolution

A bit of context: what is industrialisation?

Before explaining the effects of the industrial revolution on the environment it's important to understand what industrialisation is. 

Industrialisation is the period of social and economic change that transforms a human group from an agrarian society into an industrial society. This involves an extensive reorganisation of an economy for the purpose of manufacturing.

Heavy machinery

Unlike traditional manufacturing processes which relied on agricultural assistance, the industrial revolution marked the advent of manufacturing based on heavy industrial machinery in order to improve efficiencies and output. Steam power for example allowed for the creation of a semi-automated factory system, which meant that goods could be mass produced instead of laboriously created by hand.

Economic development at a cost

More often than not, industrialisation is aligned with the idea of economic development and improved living standards of those in the area to be industrialised, however it also comes with a cost.

Think of industrialisation as levelling up your kitchen to optimise your time: such as by purchasing a high speed blender that no longer requires you to whisk by hand. Churning something by hand requires more time, muscle, and doesn't harm the environment in any way – whereas the blender, while more convenient and productive, requires energy to be powered.

This example represents the pros and cons of industrialisation. 

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Benefits of industrialisation

Industrialisation has allowed developing countries to be given the opportunity for development and societal growth that would otherwise be impossible without it, but industrialisation has also created codependency in our world. 

In other words, people use electronics and electricity for simple tasks that can easily be manually.

For instance, think of someone who lives half a mile from a grocery store – who just ran out of a carton of eggs for their next recipe. Before the industrial revolution, someone wouldn't think twice about walking ten minutes to the grocery store and carrying the eggs back to their house. Nowadays, people are much more likely to take their cars to the grocery store – even if it's possible to walk and carry whatever they need back with them.

This is because industrialisation has valued productivity and efficiency over the environment, which has created a domino effect of continuously increasing global emissions. 

Fuelled by the burning of fossil fuels, the industrial revolution is largely to blame for the current state of our Earth's climate. And these harmful habits haven't abated since - we're still burning fossil fuels and releasing harmful levels of carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere.

History of the Industrial Revolution

World's leading commercial nation

The industrial revolution began back in the 18th century with the British industrial revolution and later spread throughout many European countries and to North America, was a period where - in a short amount of time - industries quickly transitioned to the use of machinery instead of utilising human labor. 

Industrial society

Machine manufacturing meant that textile production could be largely automated and sewing machines became dominant instead of seamstresses – and cars became more popular than horse-drawn carriages. The industrial revolution was the start of the society we live in today: one where we rely on the use of technology to function in our daily lives.  

Technological advancement

The industrial revolution paved the way for phenomenal technological advancement because the industrial revolution also marked a shift towards a society based on engineering and science. In fact it wasn't until after the industrial revolution that modern medicine started to emerge.

industrial zone during nightindustrial zone during night

Environmental harm

Yet the price to pay for all this advancement has been the gradual destruction of our environment. Because these advancements relied on the use of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas and petroleum.

During the industrial revolution, finite resources were being used at an implausible rate – one that created an undesirable smog in the air of cities like London and New York due to the newfound excessive emissions polluting the atmosphere. This wasn't a temporary change of scenery – the industrial revolution has left behind long lasting consequences for the environment. 

How did the industrial revolution impact the environment? 

Many industrial revolutions

Many people see the industrial revolution as an event that happened once, but the reality is – there were several industrial revolutions. For example the second industrial revolution, also known as the technological revolution, was a phase of rapid scientific discover, mass production and industralization. The second American industrial revolution is considered to have taken place between the 19th century, and only just ended after World War II.

Each industrial revolution added to the growing amount of pollutants in the atmosphere, and created new standards of living.

Population growth and mass production

Each industrial revolution also resulted in rapid urbanisation, with growing cities becoming increasingly crowded due to the new machineries, presenting new opportunities for people to travel and become factory workers in these places (common jobs included working as a labourer in textile factories, coal mining, working in a cotton mill, or working in iron production).

Dirt accumulated on the streets, fossil fuels from the factories working at an unprecedented rate were emitted into the atmosphere, and waterways were infiltrated with various debris from the factories as well.

Keep in mind that all of this occurred before technologies like carbon capture and storage – meaning there was truly no way to mitigate the effects of climate change that continued to occur. 

Is it safe to say that the start of rising global emissions began with the industrial revolution?

Did emissions start to rise alongside the industrial revolution? 

To put it plain and simple – yes. 

Global emissions began to rise with the first Industrial Revolution taking place in Great Britain. This set off a chain reaction for several other industrial revolutions that would later impact the environment and spike emissions. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

The amount of carbon dioxide began to steadily increase throughout the industrial revolution, and those emissions have been on the rise ever since – with the dramatic increase in greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Unknown effects

The problem with the industrial revolution's environmental impact, is that it wasn't understood until decades after the industrial revolution had begun. It took years to notice the consequences of industrialisation on the planet – such as a newfound depleting ozone layer, which wasn't discovered by scientists until the 1980s. 

The industrial revolution's environmental impact is known to be a bad one – with the increase of production in wasteful and greenhouse gas emitting industries such as the plastic industry starting to take flight during the industrial revolution.

Continued reliance on fossil fuels

Industries such as the plastics industry have only been catapulted since the industrial revolution, meaning it isn't just emissions that have risen since the start of the industrial revolution – the need for mass production and the accumulation of waste have also increased dramatically since the start of the industrial revolution. The rise in single use plastics, products, and mass production have resulted in excess waste in landfills and ultimately – even more greenhouse gas emissions. 

Wider issues

The industrial revolution's environmental impact isn't just limited to an uptick in global GHG emissions – it has also raised the risk of new health problems, is threatening fragile ecosystems and the survival of many different species of wildlife, is depleting natural resources and our finite supply of many raw materials.

Clearly, emissions and other environmental problems started with the industrial revolution – but at what rate are emissions increasing today?

How has global warming gotten worse since the industrial revolution?

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global emissions are on the rise due to one thing – increased human activity. This means that humans are mostly to blame for global warming and the continued rise in emissions – which also means that it is also up to humans to curb this uptick before global surface temperatures exceed a dangerous level. 

As explained earlier, the industrial revolution set off a domino effect for more intensive technology and mass production. While this can be viewed as a positive - by expanding society and providing the resources necessary to help developing countries establish themselves – the problem is that things like industrialization and urbanization weren't done sustainably. 

The industrial revolution's environmental impact created a dependency on finite resources like fossil fuel – something that many companies still rely on, despite the wide-availability of renewable energy resourcesThis new dependency, as well as a lack of awareness on what finite resources were doing to the Earth's atmosphere until the end of the 20th century –  is what has encouraged industrialization to continue at the rate it does today. 

The lack of knowledge regarding the impact of industrialization fueled an increase in emissions. For instance, the steam engine, created by James Watt who was dedicated to improving the initial model proposed by Thomas Newcomen in the 18th century – required an abundance of coal to be powered. The more factories that set out to use steam engines, meant that more coal mines that were needed to provide fuel. There was no way for people to realize the use of a finite resource like coal would later be detrimental to the environment. 

Global warming has been on the rise for decades now, with these finite resources expected to run out entirely by the end of the century. 

Is it too late to reverse the effects of the negative environmental impact caused by the industrial revolution?

wheelsindustrial wheels

Is there a way to reverse the effects of the industrial revolution’s environmental impact? 

The industrial revolution changed the fundamentals of our societies - often for the better - however, the environmental damage that is has caused is irreversible, and the continued devastating consequence of the industrial revolution is how it has encouraged our reliance on machinery and technology (the largest culprits of excessive emissions, and continuously worsening global warming). 

Government intervention to reduce emissions

The good news is that several countries and governments around the world are starting to prioritize the importance of curbing global emissions. For instance, the Biden administration in the U.S. recently announced a $369 billion dollar climate bill that is set to help curb inflation and incentivize Americans to make more sustainable choices – such as by providing tax reductions for those who opt for solar panels or purchase electric cars instead of gasoline powered vehicles. 

Irreversible harm

Unfortunately, much of the environmental damage has already been done due to the industrial revolution and its continued influence on present day mass production and other high-carbon emitting activities – but it isn't too late to start making a difference to prevent these emissions from rising further in the future. 

How Greenly can help

At Greenly, we strive to show you that small actions can make a big difference. The fight against climate change isn't an easy one with the weight on your shoulders alone, but the world can work towards a better future if everyone makes the effort. 

The industrial revolution's environmental impact wasn't good for the planet – but it also doesn't have to influence the trajectory humans take in the present day to improve the current environmental situation. 

If reading this article about the industrial revolution's environmental impact has made you interested in reducing your carbon emissions to further fight against climate change – Greenly can help you!

Greenly can help you make an environmental change for the better, starting with a carbon footprint assessment to know how much carbon emissions your company produces.

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