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August 11, 2014 by

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing (Article Series)

In our latest article series, Automation GT takes a look at the role played by manufacturing and automation in climate change throughout history. Rachel Greenberg writes technical and marketing content for Automation GT.

The advent of large-scale manufacturing and industry changed the world in many ways. While it has ultimately given us access to goods, services, and a quality of life that would otherwise be impossible, its blessings have been mixed and unevenly distributed. One of the major negative impacts of industry has been in the pollution and environmental side effects that for many have become synonymous with manufacturing.

We now know that the Industrial Revolution, the period in the 1800s in which industrial manufacturing dramatically increased in prevalence and impact, contributed to long-term environmental change the true scope of which was unpredictable for Victorian-era manufacturers. Today, it is of dramatic importance that we consider the continued environmental impact of manufacturing of all types, as well as the persisting culture of consumption that arose from this boom of industry.

At Automation GT, we consider environmental protection to be one of our highest priorities and we hope to encourage others to consider their own abilities to decrease their environmental impact and then take steps towards causing actual environmental improvement. In this spirit, we are taking a look at the environmental history of automation and industry, the areas where we can stand to improve, and the overall picture of environmental damage as related to manufacturing and industry.


The Historical Relationship Between Industry and the Environment


In an article for the Center for Advanced Studies, Sjur Kasa provides an interesting breakdown of the different eras of the Industrial Revolution and the feature environmental problems that they produced.

He writes that in the first years of the Industrial Revolution, spanning approximately from the years 1780 to 1848, major industries focused on cotton spinning, iron products, water wheels, and bleach, and depended on waterpower and coal. The major damage done during this period was in the creation of the infamous slums of the industrial age, and in the beginning of the smog problem that was of special note in England. We also began to see the depletion of forests beginning in this age.

The next fifty years saw the advent of the steam-powered engine. Notable industries included railways and rail equipment, steam engines, and machine tools. These industries continued to rely on coal, which ultimately led to increases in smog.

Following this, we began to see increased reliance on electrical powering based on coal sources for industrial machinery. Industry switched to the production of electrical equipment, heavy engineering, heavy chemicals, and steel products. Though at this time we began to see some easing on the burdens placed on employees and on urban air pollution, we also began to see an increase in water pollution as a result of the growing chemicals industries.

By 1943 and up through the present day, we see the era of “motorization of transport, civil economy and war.” Industrial energy continues to come from electricity based on coal, as well as nuclear energy in some places. The first world also begins its reliance on oil as society. Especially in America, the image of automobile ownership becomes a sign of personal financial comfort and stability, and is seen as a necessity of the new and growing suburban life. Industry begins to focus on automobiles and other transportation products including tanks, engines, and aircraft, as well as refineries of various types. At this time, we begin to face increases in smog, acid rain, climate change, and radiation. However, quality of life in the first world takes a dramatic jump for the better.

Kasa argues that today, we are on the verge of a new Industrial Revolution: that of the “computerization of the entire economy” which could ultimately lead to the “decoupling of energy use and production/consumption.” We can only try our best to make predictions on the environmental impacts from technologies still to be found, but with our improved knowledge on the environmental impact of our consumption habits, it is necessary that we make this decoupling of energy use and production a cornerstone of our future economy.


Damage Done and Solutions Found


As is evident in Kasa’s paper, at each different era of the Industrial Revolution, we faced distinct environmental problems that arose from the specific nature of the goods produced and the energy consumed.

However, it has frequently been the case that once we become aware of the damage we are doing, that we take steps to solve the problem and stop or at least decrease the damage. We can hope that we as a people will be able to take similar actions with our current environmental problems.


Air and Water Pollution

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the most evident environmental problem was widespread water and air pollution. In England, serious cholera and typhoid outbreaks became commonplace due to waste and sewage pumped into the Thames and other waterways. The Metropolis Water Act of 1852 was a first step towards decreasing the effects of factory runoff on English waterways, but pollution from sewage persisted into the 20th century.

In America, water pollution has continued to present a significant problem. In 1969, when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire due to the chemicals in the water, the American public began to pay more attention to the issue and in 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. However, as recently as 2006 “more than 62 percent of industrial and municipal facilities across the country dischared more pollution into U.S. waterways than their Clean Water Act permits allowed between July 2003 and December 2004.”

Similarly, air pollution has been a longtime problem in industrial history (to the point that smog and smoke became defining features of London, particularly noteworthy in Dickens—“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.”). Over 700 people died in one week in 1873 in London due to smog, and later in 1952, 4,000 people died from smog. In England, the Clean Air Act was passed in 1956 which ultimately led to a 60% reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions between 1970 and 1994.

In America, Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, but as recently as 2007, up to 46% of Americans were living in counties with unhealthy amounts of pollution or ozone in the air.


Environmental Damage in the Developing World

One of the major impacts of production that often seems invisible to many in wealthier nations is the extreme damage done to those living in developing countries. Because health and safety standards are often much lower in developing countries, and enforcement is often lax at best, significant environmental damage can pile up in these countries, especially when manufacturers choose to outsource production to these locations because with low health rates comes low production costs.

In fact, many of the health problems associated with life in the developing world can be directly correlated with the poor containment of pollution and impact from manufacturing. According to the World Health Organization, the major environmental problems facing those in developing countries include unsafe drinking water, air pollution, indoor smoke, the spread of malaria from improper sewage and infrastructure, road traffic, lead exposure, climate change, and unintentional poisonings.

And the death and disease suffered by these people is astounding. Especially compared with living standards in developed countries, it is astounding to consider the number of entirely preventable deaths that occur in the developing world each year. Consider the following statistics:

  • Over 1.2 million people die each year of malaria, likely as a direct result of poor treatment of water, deforestation, and poor infrastructure development.
  • 1.7 million people die each year because of diseases spread in unsafe drinking water.
  • Climate change is estimated to cause 150,000 deaths each year as changing temperatures, environmental disasters, and agricultural problems lead to the spread of diseases, loss of food, and deadly disasters (which tend to have much higher death rates in poorer areas).
  • Accidental poisonings kill over 355,000 people each year. Consider these pictures of the pollution in the Ganges River, and it becomes easy to see how improper disposal of waste materials as exaggerated by the prevalence of manufactured materials can produce a huge environmental and health hazard (WARNING: the custom of disposing of both animal and human remains in the Ganges River remains persistent. Many may find the above pictures disturbing.)

In addition, a large amount of annual population growth occurs in the developing world. As populations rise and already unhealthy areas become overcrowded, environmental damage and health risks will only be magnified.


Global Warming

The production of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, shot up dramatically following the start of the Industrial Revolution and by all accounts, this can be considered the start of our most pressing environmental concern as a global population: the rapidly escalating problem of climate change.

Climate change promises to radically alter the global way of life within the immediate future. Even an apparently small increase in average annual temperatures can make all the difference in whether or not a crop will be viable for that year, or whether not an area will remain liveable for humans as well as native plants and animals.

And in addition to increasing average temperatures comes many associated environmental problems that would have been difficult for previous generations to predict. It is very likely that global warming has played a large role in the severity of recent natural disasters including floods, hurricanes, and record-breaking snowstorms. These kinds of disasters bring high mortality rates, extreme property damage, and loss of major resources.

Though it is impossible to point to any single cause of global warming as our societal dependence on fossil fuels permeates every facet of our lives, there is no doubt that unregulated manufacturing presents a serious problem. Consider that, for example, a single power plant in Georgia released nearly 23 million metric tons of CO2 in 2010.


Fordism, Post-Fordism, and the Environment


Fordism, the manufacturing ideology based on that of industrialist Henry Ford, became the de facto model for most manufacturers in the mid- to late-twentieth century. In a Fordist model, workers are employed in assembly lines in which they perform rote tasks made faster and simpler by the use of machinery. Products are mass-produced and marketed based on general class distinctions and stereotypes, and employees are paid highly enough that they can afford to purchase the products they make.

One of the best results of Fordism was that people in the first world were able to experience an exceptionally high quality of life on average. This meant that fewer people were dying as a result of hunger, exposure, and preventable disease. More people were able to get higher paid, lower intensity jobs, and were often able to live longer and provide for larger families.

But on the flip side, Fordism has led to the creation of an unprecedented culture of consumption. The result has been the rise of the production and purchase of often unnecessary goods (e.g. fashion, toys, entertainment, luxury goods). These goods are often purchased for reasons of status, and increasing amounts of disposable income has allowed for shopping to become something of a hobby and consumerism to become the standard.

We begin to see carbon emissions rising to unusually high levels in the middle part of the 19th century, around the beginning of the Industrial Era. Rates rise steadily until the 1950s, around the time that Fordism and automotive production take off, suggesting a strong correlation between an overall increase in factories powered by coal and rising levels of pollution, and global environmental change.

Some theorists suggest that today we live in a Post-Fordism society. Post-Fordism is characterized by small batch production cycles, marketing targeted towards niche groups as opposed to large class groups, greater emphasis on information technologies and economies of scope (companies that produce more than one good at a lower total cost than a company that produces only one of those goods), and the employment of white-collar workers. However, not all theorists agree on whether or not we have left the Fordism age, with certain theorists preferring the phrase “Neo-Fordism” to suggest we have not made a total break from Fordism, while others choose “After-Fordism” to suggest we don’t know exactly where we stand in relation to Fordism yet.

As Kasa suggests, because this After-Fordism age relies so heavily on telecommunications and a stronger information network, there is the potential that we could use our reliance on technology to actually decrease our reliance on unsustainable energy sources. For example, today many people prefer to telecommute, or live in urban areas where public transportation is easily accesible. These people may not need to purchase a car, thereby saving all of the resource that would be needed to manufacture, deliver, sell, and power a car.

Part 1: The Industrial Revolution, Climate Change, Global Environmental Problems, and Manufacturing

Part 2: Does automation provide any environmental aid? How can innovation lead to a better environmental picture?

Part 3: Is automation a better environmental option than the alternative? Can we keep people at work while also saving the environment?

Part 4: How do global politics and other factors affect the environmental situation of manufacturing?

Part 5: What can we conclude from all of this, and what can everyone do to contribute to a greener world?