How has industrialisation changed our lives?
By Rod Matthews
Confirmation bias is a well documented tendency for people to look for, interpret and re-
present information in a way that best suits their current belief. As a result it would be easy to
provide a highly skewed answer to the question how has industrialisation changed human
lives and destinies?
The most honest answer would be that industrialisation has been a double edged sword. To
examine this in more detail we can start by listing some of the major areas of humans lives
that could be said to have been effected by the industrial revolution.
Prior to the industrial revolution the major source of energy was firewood. The industrial
revolution includes the comercialisation of coal and then oil into primary energy sources.*
The benefits of moving from wood to coal and to oil include:
Increase in energy output
It is unlikely that we would have discovered electricity by using wood
The drawbacks of using coal and oil include:
Higher concentration of carbon and other harmful polutants
Scarring of the landscape with mining
Commerce, Finance and Trade:
In The Ascent of Money A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson1 it is argued
that the end of fuedalism in Britain, the funding of war through bonds and bullion, and the
growth in the liquidity of capital were major contributors to the beginings of the industrial
Increased equity of access to capital - democratised money
Led to the rise of the middle class and the entrepreneurial
Sped up the process of specialisation and innovation
Improved the standard of living for many millions
1 Ferguson, Niall, 2008, The Ascent of Money A Financial History of the World, The
Penguin Press, United States.
It merely transferred power from one elite to another (from the class elite to the
Led to boom and bust cycles that create misery for the non-financial elite
Led to the creation of complex financial instruments that are no better than ponzi
The Rise of Science:
The European Renaisance of the 14th
centuries combined with the explosion of
mechanical inventions led to the rise of the respectability of science.
Increased critical thinking and reduction in ignorance
Increased technology, invention and discovery
Increased quality of life on a daily basis
Transferrence of power from one elite to another (from the religious to the
Increased reductionism and not encouraging creativity
Unintended consequences (e.g. the transport revolution has reduced our fitness)
Chemistry and Biology:
The rise of scientific thinking has been highly pronounced in the areas of chemistry and
Increases in survival and longevity
Reduction of disease and discomfort
Increase in quality of life
Reduction of ignorance and increased education
Increase in the quantity and quality of food
Increase in the productivity of agriculture
Inhumane testing procedures
It has produced a cycle of creating and dealing with unintended consequences
Underpinning all of this is the increase in population that started in the 1700s and 1800s and
exploded in the 1950s.
We are saving more lives It is pretty hard to argue against the protection of our
own species Why is that???
More people means more ideas, more specialisation and more of one type of
resource the human resource
Pushes us to learn to live with a broader range of people and reduces racism in the
It is hard to see how we are going to solve the issue of space for everyone and
everything to live
The negative behaviours that increase as people are asked to learn to live in
Exploitation of all resources energy, time, money and people
Robert K. Merton coined the phrase unintended consequences to describe unanticipated or
unforseen outcomes of a purposeful action.2 He notes that there are potentially three
unintended consiquences to any action:
1. A positive outcome
2. A negative outcome
3. The opposite to what was intended
The Industrial Revolution is certainly an excellent case study in the unintended consequences
of purposeful actions. The industrial revolution provided us with the energy, commerce,
science and technology that has changed human lives and destinies for the better and for the
worse. It has also amplified the speed with which we are creating and dealing with problems
for the human race and the planet.
* As an interesting side note, coal had been used as a fuel by the Greeks and perhaps even
Perhaps we are currently using the energy of the future and we are missing the
technology, investment or market forces to make it into the coal of the future.
2 Merton, Robert K., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unintended_consequences This page was
last modified on 30 August 2012 at 21:38.
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal#Early_uses_as_fuel This page was last modified on 8
September 2012 at 14:55.