By Eric McLamb
Ecology Prime Media, Inc.

The Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in Earth’s ecology and humans’ relationship with their environment. Relatively overnight, it dramatically changed every aspect of human life and lifestyles.

Top Image: Dillingen, Germany, skyline in 1850 as the Industrial Revolution powers world industrialization. Bottom Image: The Shanghai, China, skyline today as a product of the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The impact of the Industrial Revolution on the world’s health and psyche would not begin to register until the early 1960s, some 200 years after its beginnings. From human development, health and life longevity, to social improvements and the impact on natural resources, public well-being, energy usage and sanitation, the effects have been profound.

It wasn’t that the Industrial Revolution became a stalwart juggernaut overnight. It started in the mid-1700s in Great Britain, some 350 years after the Black Plague decimated the world’s population by nearly 25%. An estimated 75-100 million people died from the Black Plague leaving a world population of about 360 million.

The Industrial Revolution began when machinery started to replace manual labor. Fossil fuels replaced wind, water and wood as energy sources used primarily for the manufacture of textiles and iron making processes.

The full impact of the Industrial Revolution would not begin to be realized until about 100 years later in the 1800s when the use of machines to replace human labor spread throughout Europe and North America. This transformation is referred to as the industrialization of the world. With machinery, it took fewer people to grow food and thus allowed more people to pursue other things like medicine, technology and art.

The Industrial Revolution and Population Growth

The most prolific evidence of the Industrial Revolution’s impact on the modern world is seen in the worldwide human population growth. Humans have been around for about 2.2 million years. By the dawn of the first millennium of the Current Era (C.E., also A.D.), estimates place the total world’s (modern) human population at between 150 – 200 million, and 300 million in the year 1,000. Today, the global population is estimated at 7.6 billion, according to the United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2018).

The world’s human population growth rate hovered around .1 percent (.001) per year for seven to eight centuries after 1 C.E. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, this population had grown by about 57 percent to 700 million. It would reach one billion in 1800.

The birth of the Industrial Revolution altered medicine and living standards, resulting in the population explosion that would commence at that point and steamroll into the 20th and 21st centuries. In only 100 years after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the world population would grow 100 percent to two billion people in 1927 (about 1.6 billion by 1900).

During the 20th century, world population growth would take on exponential proportions, growing to six billion people just before the start of the 21stcentury. That’s a 400 percent population increase in a single century. In the 250 years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today, the world’s population has increased by over six billion people!

Human population growth is indelibly tied together with increased use of natural and human-made resources, energy, land for growing food and for living, and waste by-products that are disposed of, to decompose, pollute or be recycled. This exponential population growth led to the exponential requirements for resources, energy, food, housing and land, as well as the exponential increase in waste by-products.

Awareness of Unsustainable Growth and Dependence on Limited Resources

There were many indicators that the Industrial Revolution propelled the world human population into an era of living and production at the ultimate expense of the human condition. It also impacted the resources that had been taken for granted for the entire prior history of humankind. There had always been more resources than the demand for them.

Rachel Carson, above, is widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement. Her acclaimed book, Silent Spring, described the harmful effects of pesticides and other human activity on the environment. In 2006, Silent Spring was named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by Discover Magazine. (Photo Credit: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

It would take just one person in the 1960s to make the general public aware of the cause and effect of human outgrowth from the Industrial Revolution. Rachel Carson took on the powerful and robust chemical industry in her globally acclaimed 1962 book, Silent Spring. In it she raised important questions about humans’ impact on nature. For the first time, the public and industry would begin to grasp the concept of sustainable production and development.

The Beginning of the Fossil Fuel Economy

It was the fossil fuel coal that initiated the Industrial Revolution, forever changing the way people would live and utilize energy. While this propelled human progress to extraordinary levels, it came at extraordinary costs to our environment, and ultimately to the health of all living things.

Likewise, while coal and other fossil fuels were taken for granted as inexhaustible energy resources, it was American geophysicist M. King Hubbert who predicted in 1949 that the fossil fuel era would be very short-lived and that other energy sources would ultimately be required. It was not if, but when.

Hubbert predicted that fossil fuel production, in particular oil, would reach its peak starting in 1970 and would go into steady decline against the rising energy demands of the population. The decline in production started in the United States in 1971 and has spread to other oil producing nations as well. This peak production is known as “Hubbert’s Peak.

By the time the world began to heed Hubbert’s prediction, the use of fossil fuels – so heavily relied upon to fuel the Industrial Revolution — had become so firmly interwoven into human progress and economy, that changing this energy system would drastically alter the very way we have lived our lives. It will happen, but it will take time, continued ingenuity and vast economic incentives to transform dependence on this fuel that fostered the growth and prosperity launched by the Industrial Revolution.

The Era of Sustainability: The Next Revolution

Looking back at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it is difficult to realize how what took place then is having such complicated and vast effects today. This is the principle of environmental unity – a change in one system will cause changes in others.

Certainly, the seeds of progress – and the ramifications of that progress – were planted then. It is with the very same mechanisms and effects that brought about both the progress and the indelibly connected results of that progress to our ecology – the good, the bad and the ugly – over the last 250 years, we are entering a new era of sustainability. That is the next revolution.

Did you know…?

  • World Population Day is observed worldwide each year on July 11. It was inspired by The Day of Five Billion which was observed on July 11, 1987 and was made official in 1989 by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
  • The steam engine is widely accepted as the first machine that helped usher in the Industrial Revolution. Using coal as its energy resource, the first steam engine was invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen. It was vastly improved upon by James Watt in 1769.
  • Britain was the first country to industrialize and ignite the start of the Industrial Revolution using coal out of necessity. By the 1700s, Britain had depleted its wood resources and was left with large reserves of coal that were tapped for developing the new technology. Coal was abundant throughout Britain and could be provided by its colonies as well. Hence, it was coal that spurred the fossil fuel-dominated economy we have today.
  • At the end of 2017, the estimated total number of humans who have ever lived is 108.4 billion, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

Eric McLamb is a 40-year veteran of educational, environmental and entertainment media. He has extensive experience in environmental journalism – including myriad articles published online and in textbooks and has closely worked with such pioneers as The Cousteau Society, National Geographic, National Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation as well as the television empires of Turner Broadcasting System and Discovery Communications. He is the founder of Ecology Prime Media. 

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