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September 2014

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


As we have mentioned in earlier installments of this series, there is only so much that manufacturers can do to offset the impact from manufacturing on the environment without significant cultural and political shifts. However, achieving this kind of change will be a monumental task. In one form or another, coal has been used as an energy source from as long ago as the 2nd century BCE, and as a result much of our current way of life depends on this relatively cheap and available energy source.


The Political Structure Supporting Fossil Fuel Dependence


Before the Industrial Revolution, anything that might have been considered “industry” was powered by windmills, watermills, or wood burning. However, wind and watermill technologies at the time could only supply local energy and only in small amounts, while wood as fuel could be very dirty and could take a toll on the surrounding landscape. These limitations prevented the development of large-scale industry until manufacturers began to rely on fossil fuels

The boom in reliance on fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution enabled a large part of the population growth that we began to see in the late 1800s. As we discussed previously, growth in industry produced greater access to reliable employment as well as greater access to goods like food, clean water, and medicine, which meant that fewer people died from easily preventable causes. This meant that the rates at which people were having children were suddenly above replacement rates. When in the past a family might have had seven children in order to see three survive, soon it became much more likely that all seven children would survive into adulthood.

It is natural for a community to want to attempt to replicate the rapid and healthy growth of its previous generations. This is why in many nations like America, we become locked into a certain culture of production and consumption. However, in ecological population growth models, what will usually happen is that in times of plenty, a population of animals will grow and grow until they have surpassed their carrying capacity, at which time the population will then likely take a nosedive before balancing out at a healthy level.



In nature, an example of this might be seen in a population of deer. The event that sets off the population growth might be a loss of a natural predator in the wild like wolves due to poaching. With a dramatic decrease in present threats, the deer begin to have more offspring that survive into adulthood and their population grows dramatically until the herd has surpassed their sustainable population and there is no longer enough healthy vegetation and clean water to support all of the animals, and they begin to die off. In a scenario like this one, because the deer would have been consuming a dramatic amount of food and water all at once, it might take a long time before the levels of food and water rebound and so the deer population may actually shoot back down to an extremely low level in the meantime before leveling out at a healthy number. This loss of resources resulting from population growth is referred to as a degraded carrying capacity, and as capacity continues to degrade, populations will have to fall accordingly

Though we may want to distinguish ourselves from animal populations and hope that we are not subject to the same kinds of forces, in fact we are seeing similar things happen in human populations. Our extreme use of fossil fuels has produced or may produce a number of major disasters:

  • Climate change resulting from burning fossil fuels has contributed to extremely aggressive weather patterns with major implications for human populations. The increasing frequency and devastation of natural catastrophes including hurricanes and tsunamis can to a significant degree be attributed to climate change. In recent years, we have seen huge death rates associated with these kinds of disasters. In the 2004 Indian Earthquake and Tsunami, 230,000 people died. At home in the US, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 produced 1,833 confirmed deaths.
  • Climate change and pollution have also changed the ways in which we are able to grow and supply food and clean water. In California, current drought conditions have severely threatened crop output for the coming year, and predictions of skyrocketing average temperatures will greatly compromise the feasibility of growing certain crops. In addition, changing temperatures threaten many species including several varieties of bees, which are necessary to the survival of many plants, and therefore crops.
  • Political violence largely motivated by a desire for access to cheaper fossil fuels is detrimental for all parties. Though the direct role played by oil in recent conflicts is a point subject to debate, it is undeniable that the oil market plays a large role in economic and strategic international exchange, and because so much of our infrastructure depends on fossil fuels, we allow other countries to wield an incredible amount of power while we depend on them to keep our system running.


Socio-Political Factors


We tend to view personal and societal increases in wealth as unequivocally good, but in order to understand how we are exceeding our carrying capacity, we must be willing to examine the consequences of our views on the personal attainment of wealth, and to change our cultural priorities in such a way that we do not depend so heavily on resource-exhausting material goods.

It would take a lifetime of writing to successfully talk about the political, economic, and cultural factors that have made America a nation that so heavily values hard work for all people, and the right to earn status and wealth. In fact, we can trace the origins of this cultural to events well before the founding of the nation. However, one undeniably critical element is the role played by the notion of the “Protestant work ethic” in our nation’s founding. With our founding principles so heavily indebted to the concept of the importance of hard and productive work for every person, it is easy to understand the emergence of the “American dream,” concept and the “rags to riches” stories that have long been symbolic of the promise of America.

One can hardly claim that it is a bad thing to value hard work. But we shouldn’t forget that its related virtue is frugality. A culture that is not so hung up on easily attained commodities will be a first and important step towards encouraging real economic and political change. Consider the following from an interview with Naomi Klein on her forthcoming book:

Klein moves from an analysis of how huge corporations and free-market ideology block the attempt to fight climate change, to a critique of many of our supposed saviors (big green organizations that are actually bound up with oil companies; billionaires like Richard Branson who promise more than they deliver), and then winds up giving examples of where people are doing things right. In the end, Klein argues that the climate crisis can become a catalyst of great and positive social transformation. But to get there means retooling a capitalism that runs on fossil fuels, demands endless growth, and concentrates power in the hands of the 1 percent. “Dealing with the climate crisis,” she says simply, “will require a completely different economic system.


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?