The Fruits of Civilization (24-2) Industrialization continued


One of the most salient points to be made about the nature of capitalists, the exploitative evil of which was most obvious during industrialization, is that most put up fierce resistance to reform. This same objection to decency remains apparent today, with concerted efforts to block regulations which may protect workers, consumers, or the environment.

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Concentration of wealth into the hands of a tiny minority is one of human history’s few economic continuities. Capital was always available to exploit resources. What changed was technology: machinery, and the means to power it.

The transformation to the industrial age had 3 distinguishing characteristics: 1) extensive employment of mechanically powered machinery, 2) greater use of energy from inanimate materials, notably fossil fuels, and, 3) prevalent use of materials not found in Nature.

The most meaningful technology improvements involved machinery and mechanical power, affording production that was previously done by human or animal power more slowly and/or laboriously, or not at all.

Since antiquity, pulleys, wheels, and levers had effectively multiplied applied power. Water and wind had long been used for mills and sailing ships. During the 18th century, these garnered even more use for a greater diversity of tasks. But power from these sources was still limited, and therefore limiting.

In the early stages of industrialization, the substitution of coal for charcoal and wood, and the introduction of the steam engine – for mining, manufacturing, and transportation – made all the difference. This large leap in power also produced prodigious amounts of pollution. It concomitantly created, much later, the perception of a trade-off between growth and environmental quality, with growth always winning, at least until the environment had been made obviously uninhabitable. Then the false issue became one of sustainability: how much rape could Nature take before it became unlivable.

With greater power resources, the use of processed metallic ores became manifold. As chemical science advanced, synthetic materials took an ever-increasing prominence. This too created a pollution problem, in production and especially after consumption. Synthetics were often created for their durability, which meant that they were not biodegradable.

Garbage grew exponentially in scale from consumption-driven growth. But its disposal raised no fuss greater than in earlier times.

In the Middle Ages, urban dwellers dumped their wastes into the streets from their doors and windows, letting the rain wash it away. Medieval European cities were rank. By the 1200s, the overwhelming stench led to laws requiring cesspits (holes in the ground), which were emptied regularly by town workers, with the waste carted to larger dump sites outside of town.