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What was the Industrial Revolution's Environmental Impact?

By
Stephanie Safdie
updated on Dec 30, 2022
black and white photo of industrial revolution

You know what they say about moderation being key – it’s okay to have something as long as you don’t get accustomed to large amounts of it, and this would’ve served as a good pre-requisite and motto to share before the industrial revolution.

skyline in distance from water

What was the industrial revolution, and how did it influence the excessive industrialization patterns that have continued into present day – which continue to put the Earth at risk due to unprecedented, exponentially rising global temperatures? 

What is Industrialization?

Before explaining the effects of the industrial revolution on the environment – it’s important to understand what industrialization is. The industrial revolution is largely to blame for the newfound, catastrophic-for-the-Earth impacts of industrialization. These are habits that we now view as the new normal in our society – despite their deleterious effects on the planet. 

Industrialization is the process of developing an economy largely dependent on the manufacturing and profits of goods to be produced without agricultural assistance – and referring to heavy machinery for production. In other words, industrialization is the opposite of making use of mother nature’s natural resources – and instead opting for finite resources to mass produce in order to support other new 21st century imperatives – such as capitalism and urbanization. 

More often than not, industrialization is assimilated with the idea of having a larger income and improving the living standards of those in the area to be industrialized. Think of industrialization as leveling up in the kitchen to optimize your time: such as by purchasing a high speed blender that no longer requires you to whisk by hand. Churching 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 industrialization. 

Industrialization has allowed developing countries to be given the opportunity for development and societal growth that would otherwise be impossible without it, but industrialization has also created codependency in our world. In other words, people use electronics and electricity for minuscule tasks that humans would do with ease before the industrial revolution. 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 back and forth 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 to buy back with them. This is because industrialization has valued productivity and efficiency over the environment, which has created a domino effect of continuously increasing global emissions. 

Is the industrial revolution the root cause of this newfound, trivial use and execution of unnecessary, high carbon emitting activities?

sunrise at airport

What was the Industrial Revolution?

The industrial revolution, which started back in the 18th century in Great Britain and later spread throughout Europe and to North America, was a period where in a short amount of time – industries were suddenly transitioning to the use of machinery instead of utilizing manmade labor. For instance, sewing machines became dominant instead of seamstresses – and cars became more popular than horse 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.  

In a sense, the industrial revolution didn’t only transform the way goods were manufactured or how people transported from one place to another – but it created the divide between a world before technology, and after. It is highly unlikely that the world will ever return to the state it was in prior to the industrial revolution’s environmental impact: such as using candles for light and heat or writing things by hand on pen and paper. The industrial revolution has taken away many warm-hearted traditions, and in turn has accelerated the personality of mankind to be more mechanic than humans were before. These personal effects of the industrial revolution can also be held accountable for one of the worst things to come out of the industrial revolution – how it negatively impacted the environment.

pollution from factory on field

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 left behind long lasting consequences for the environment. 

How did the industrial revolution impact the environment? 

One of the biggest negatives of the industrial revolution was the toll that excessive industrialization had on the environment – such as the several natural disasters that occurred due to the newly implemented, speedy industrialization tactics that had been put in place in rapid motion.

Many people see the industrial revolution as an event that happened once, but the reality is – there were several industrial revolutions. Each industrial revolution added to the growing amount of pollutants in the atmosphere, and created new standards of living. The problem with each industrial revolution was that it resulted in crowded cities growing due to the new machineries presenting new opportunities for people to travel and work in these places. 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 each industrial revolution, the first one taking place in Great Britain that set off a chain reaction for several other industrial revolutions that would later impact the environment and spike 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.

The problem with the industrial revolution’s environmental impact, is that it wasn’t noticed until decades after the industrial revolution had begun. It took years to notice signs of the consequences of industrialization 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. 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. 

The industrial revolution’s environmental impact isn’t just limited to an uptick in global emissions – but has raised the risk of exposure to new health problems with poor air quality due to industrialization, as well as threatened biodiversity and the natural habitat of wildlife that helps the environment thrive.

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

pollution into clear blue sky

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 – and that it is also up to humans to curb this uptick before global surface temperatures exceed a deleterious 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 in present day, despite the now wide-availability of renewable energy resources, are having trouble parting with. This new dependency, as well as a lack of awareness on what finite resources were doing to the problem 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 more coal needed to be provided. 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?

pipes in factory

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

The industrial revolution’s environmental impact is irreversible, but the continued devastating consequence of the industrial revolution is how it has encouraged the extent we rely on machinery and technology today – which remain the largest culprits of excessive emissions, and continuously worsening global warming. 

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. 

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 in the future. 

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 circumstances. 

What about Greenly? 

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.

smiling mantime to change

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