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The Rise of the Machines: Pros and Cons of the Industrial Revolution

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The Industrial Revolution, the period in which agrarian and handicraft economies shifted rapidly to industrial and machine-manufacturing-dominated ones, began in the United Kingdom in the 18th century and later spread throughout many other parts of the world. This economic transformation changed not only how work was done and goods were produced, but it also altered how people related both to one another and to the planet at large. This wholesale change in societal organization continues today, and it has produced several effects that have rippled throughout Earth’s political, ecological, and cultural spheres. The following list describes some of the great benefits as well as some of the significant shortcomings associated with the Industrial Revolution.

  • Pro: Goods Became More Affordable and More Accessible

    Factories and the machines that they housed began to produce items faster and cheaper than could be made by hand. As the supply of various items rose, their cost to the consumer declined (see supply and demand). Shoes, clothing, household goods, tools, and other items that enhance people’s quality of life became more common and less expensive. Foreign markets also were created for these goods, and the balance of trade shifted in favor of the producer—which brought increased wealth to the companies that produced these goods and added tax revenue to government coffers. However, it also contributed to the wealth inequality between goods-producing and goods-consuming countries.

  • Pro: The Rapid Evolution of Labor-Saving Inventions

    The rapid production of hand tools and other useful items led to the development of new types of tools and vehicles to carry goods and people from one place to another. The growth of road and rail transportation and the invention of the telegraph (and its associated infrastructure of telegraph—and later telephone and fiber optic—lines) meant that word of advances in manufacturing, agricultural harvesting, energy production, and medical techniques could be communicated between interested parties quickly. Labor-saving machines such as the spinning jenny (a multiple-spindle machine for spinning wool or cotton) and other inventions, especially those driven by electricity (such as home appliances and refrigeration) and fossil fuels (such as automobiles and other fuel-powered vehicles), are also well-known products of the Industrial Revolution.

  • Pro: The Rapid Evolution of Medicine

    The Industrial Revolution was the engine behind various advances in medicine. Industrialization allowed medical instruments (such as scalpels, microscope lenses, test tubes, and other equipment) to be produced more quickly. Using machine manufacturing, refinements to these instruments could more efficiently roll out to the physicians that needed them. As communication between physicians in different areas improved, the details behind new cures and treatments for disease could be dispersed quickly, resulting in better care.

  • Pro: Enhanced Wealth and Quality of Life of the Average Person

    Mass production lowered the costs of much-needed tools, clothes, and other household items for the common (that is, nonaristocratic) people, which allowed them to save money for other things and build personal wealth. In addition, as new manufacturing machines were invented and new factories were built, new employment opportunities arose. No longer was the average person so closely tied to land-related concerns (such as being dependent upon the wages farm labor could provide or the plant and animal products farms could produce). Industrialization reduced the emphasis on landownership as the chief source of personal wealth. The rising demand for manufactured goods meant that average people could make their fortunes in cities as factory employees and as employees of businesses that supported the factories, which paid better wages than farm-related positions. Generally speaking, people could save some portion of their wages, and many had the opportunity to invest in profitable businesses, thereby growing their family “nest eggs.” The subsequent growth of the middle class in the United Kingdom and other industrializing societies meant that it was making inroads into the pool of economic power held by the aristocracy. Their greater buying power and importance in society led to changes in laws that were updated to better handle the demands of an industrialized society.

  • Pro: The Rise of Specialist Professions

    As industrialization progressed, more and more rural folk flocked to the cities in search of better pay in the factories. To increase the factories’ overall efficiency and to take advantage of new opportunities in the market, factory workers were trained to perform specialized tasks. Factory owners divided their workers into different groups, each group focusing on a specific task. Some groups secured and transported to the factories raw materials (namely iron, coal, and steel) used in mass production of goods, while other groups operated different machines. Some groups of workers fixed machines when they broke down, while others were charged with making improvements to them and overall factory operation.

    As the factories grew and workers became more specialized, additional teachers and trainers were needed to pass on specialized skills. In addition, the housing, transportation, and recreational needs of factory workers resulted in the rapid expansion of cities and towns. Governmental bureaucracies grew to support these, and new specialized departments were created to handle traffic, sanitation, taxation, and other services. Other businesses within the towns also became more specialized as more builders, physicians, lawyers, and other workers were added to handle the various needs of the new residents.

  • Con: Overcrowding of Cities and Industrial Towns

    The promise of better wages attracted migrants to cities and industrial towns that were ill-prepared to handle them. Although initial housing shortages in many areas eventually gave way to construction booms and the development of modern buildings, cramped shantytowns made up of shacks and other forms of poor-quality housing appeared first. Local sewerage and sanitation systems were overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people, and drinking water was often contaminated. People living in such close proximity, fatigued by poor working conditions, and drinking unsafe water presented ideal conditions for outbreaks of typhus, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. The need to treat these and other diseases in urban areas spurred medical advances and the development of modern building codes, health laws, and urban planning in many industrialized cities.

  • Con: Pollution and Other Environmental Ills

    With relatively few exceptions, the world’s modern environmental problems began or were greatly exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution. To fuel the factories and to sustain the output of each and every type of manufactured good, natural resources (water, trees, soil, rocks and minerals, wild and domesticated animals, etc.) were transformed, which reduced the planet’s stock of valuable natural capital. The global challenges of widespread water and air pollution, reductions in biodiversity, destruction of wildlife habitat, and even global warming can be traced back to this moment in human history. The more countries industrialize in pursuit of their own wealth, the greater this ecological transformation becomes. For example, atmospheric carbon dioxide, a primary driver of global warming, existed in concentrations of 275 to 290 parts per million by volume (ppmv) before 1750 and increased to more than 400 ppmv by 2017. In addition, human beings use more than 40% of Earth’s land-based net primary production, a measure of the rate at which plants convert solar energy into food and growth. As the world’s human population continues to grow and more and more people strive for the material benefits promised by the Industrial Revolution, more and more of Earth’s resources are appropriated for human use, leaving a dwindling stock for the plants and animals upon whose ecosystem services (clean air, clean water, etc.) the biosphere depends.

  • Con: Poor Working Conditions

    When factories sprung up in the cities and industrial towns, their owners prized production and profit over all else. Worker safety and wages were less important. Factory workers earned greater wages compared with agricultural workers, but this often came at the expense of time and less than ideal working conditions. Factory workers often labored 14–16 hours per day six days per week. Men’s meager wages were often more than twice those of women. The wages earned by children who worked to supplement family income were even lower. The various machines in the factory were often dirty, expelling smoke and soot, and unsafe, both of which contributed to accidents that resulted in worker injuries and deaths. The rise of labor unions, however, which began as a reaction to child labor, made factory work less grueling and less dangerous. During the first half of the 20th century, child labor was sharply curtailed, the workday was reduced substantially, and government safety standards were rolled out to protect the workers’ health and well-being.

  • Con: The Rise in Unhealthy Habits

    As more cheap labor-saving devices become available, people performed less strenuous physical activity. While grueling farm-related labor was made far easier, and in many cases far safer, by replacing animal power and human power with tractors and other specialized vehicles to till the soil and plant and harvest crops, other vehicles, such as trains and automobiles, effectively reduced the amount of healthy exercise people partook in each day. Also, many professions that required large amounts of physical exertion outdoors were replaced by indoor office work, which is often sedentary. Such sedentary behaviors also occur away from work, as television programs and other forms of passive entertainment came to dominate leisure time. Added to this is the fact that many people eat food that has been processed with salt and sugar to help with its preservation, lower its cooking time, and increase its sweetness. Together, these lifestyle trends have led to increases in lifestyle-related diseases associated with obesity, such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.