Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 7, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part III

The Age of Precision

The industrial revolution and the birth of the treadmill

The rulers of England and later the rest of Europe who embraced the Industrial Revolution starting in the early nineteenth century did so out of a genuine belief that by doing so they could make life easier for all people, feed an increasing population, and open up an era of plenty unprecedented in history. Unlike us, they truly did not have the science to see what type of genie they were releasing from the bottle. The laws of thermodynamics were postulated in the 1850’s, and Darwin had not yet been born at the start of the Industrial Revolution. The dream of unlimited energy was a seductive one, and by the time the negative social impacts began to develop, the addiction had already taken hold. And at the time, social consequences were the only thing that could be fathomed. The idea of ecological consequences was still many years away. Schnaiberg and Gould describe the thinking of that time as follows:

“The technologists of the industrial revolutions lived in a world with a cornucopia of resources to be extracted and manipulated to produce a seemingly endless variety of manufactured goods and wealth. Both Adam Smith, the father of modern capitalism, and Karl Marx, the father of modern communism, believed that the problem of production had been solved by the emergence of new technological innovation. No longer would human societies have to struggle to meet the basic needs of their populations. The crux of the political debate in the industrial era would be centered on the distribution of the endless wealth made available to societies through modern technologies, not on the ability of modern technologies to provide all the goods that people demanded. No longer forced to live in the relative poverty of subsistence agriculture, and no longer dependent on a finite resource base for the provision of goods, politics in the industrial world turned its attention toward the distribution of infinite wealth, and away from the question of survival in an untamed natural world. However, it would not be long before ecological limits reemerged and reimposed themselves on human societies in the form of crises of resource depletion and environmental pollution.[i]


[i] Schnaiberg and Gould, Environment and Society, the Enduring Conflict, Page 26

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