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The Environment Since the Industrial Revolution


The unprecedented improvements in the quality of human life during the past 200 years have been the direct result of the individual freedom, technology, industry, and economic growth that began to flower during the Industrial Revolution.

The dramatic increase in life expectancy, and hence population, since the Industrial Revolution can be attributed to what may be called “Old Environmentalism” — the modern medicine and sanitation that came about in increasingly wealthy capitalist society. Affordable soap, underwear, cast-iron sewer pipe, indoor plumbing, sewerage systems, and water-treatment plants have all contributed to our well-being.

Life expectancy in the United States has effectively doubled during the past 200 years. In the 19th century it increased by 15 years, and it has increased by another 25 years since 1900. The improvement has been about the same in other developed nations and evident, though less pronounced, in the Third World.

Birth rates did not increase during the Industrial Revolution, but improved diet, housing, clothing, and sanitation reduced the death rate and population soared. Between the time of Christ and 1760, the world’s population doubled. It doubled again in the next 150 years and now doubles every 35 years in most countries.

Thomas Malthus noted the sudden increase in people in his apocalyptic Essay on the Principles of Population (1798), which argued that populations increase in geometric progression, far outstripping the world’s arithmetically increasing food supply. Only starvation could balance birth and death rates, he reasoned. What Malthus did not know was that improvements in technology and economic growth would be even more exponential and would be able to supply food in abundance for vastly increased populations. . . .

Belief in the divine right of kings had begun to erode in 17th-century England. The English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and the ideas of men such as John Milton and John Locke ushered in limited government and individual freedom. Once people realized that sovereigns were the historical exploiters of their subjects, constitutional monarchy and a bill of rights were adopted to protect individual liberties and property — requisites for a flourishing economic life.

As the economies of England, the United States, and much of Western Europe grew, the quality of life improved steadily. That economic growth was the result of technological advances achieved by the entrepreneurial private sector: The McCormick reaper (1834) increased agricultural productivity. The use of the flying shuttle (1733), steam power (1785), and Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) increased productivity in the textile industry. Newcomen’s atmospheric pump (1708), which removed water from coal mines, and Kelly’s and Bessemer’s steel converters (1851 and 1856) improved productivity in the coal and steel industries. Advances in transportation (Fulton’s steamboat, 1807, the Liverpool-Manchester railroad, 1829) and communications (transatlantic cable, 1866, telephone, 1876) opened markets and facilitated trade.

Private enterprise also produced advances in medicine. By about 1830 research had revealed that “cures” such as bleeding, cupping, purging, fasting, and leeching were often worse than the ailments. For a century thereafter, according to biologist Lewis Thomas, doctors practiced “supportive treatment” — nursing care, bed rest, sensible diet, common sense, and trust in nature. The role of bacteria and, later, viruses in illness was discovered, and diagnostic analysis paved the way for the wonder drugs developed by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries starting in the 1930s. Modern medical treatment came into being — at no cost to taxpayers, since Old Environmentalism depended on private enterprise.

A Gauge of Progress

Since we are all born of woman and must pass through childhood, the status of women and children is as good a gauge as any of the quality of life in any historical period. Until the Industrial Revolution, the record had been dismal.

Edward Gibbon, the 18th-century historian, explained that his father, also named Edward, named many of his sons Edward in hopes that at least one would survive to carry on his name. His concern was justified. Edward the historian was the only survivor of seven children. Oliver Cromwell was the only child of ten to reach adulthood. Queen Anne of England had seventeen children, none of whom survived her. It was not uncommon for women in the Scottish highlands to bear twenty children and only two survive, Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. Most 17th-century women were pregnant from puberty to death and often saw none of their children live to adulthood. Children realized that their lives were marginal, since death was always at hand. Few knew a grandparent, and many had lost one or both parents and many siblings. Childhood diseases would quite possibly carry them off before age 15.

A high death rate results in a young population. During the 18th century fifty percent of the available workforce was under the age of fifteen. Britain was eighty percent rural, and for centuries rural children had worked from the age of five. It should be no surprise, then, that whole families sought employment in the coal mines during slack agricultural season and children, harnessed to coal carts in narrow underground tunnels, worked 12-hour shifts for starvation wages. But the greater demand for labor and the improved technology occasioned by the Industrial Revolution meant higher wages. Men were able to retire most of their families from the pits, and we find no record of women or girls working in the northern mines after 1780, according to British economist and historian T.S. Ashton.

Improvements in economic, and thereby physical, well-being during the Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Age that followed ended child labor, put children in schools, and freed women from being child-bearing machines and beasts of burden to become literate and intellectually productive human beings.

Through voluntary exchange to mutual benefit, entrepreneurs created wealth by recombining economic assets to make a final product worth more than the sum of its parts. That created the economic infrastructure that made it possible for members of the lower classes to lift themselves into a middle class of unprecedented affluence. It was a peaceful process. No conflagration of Napoleonic magnitude occurred between 1815 and 1914. . . .

Once primitive man used fire, progress would not be turned back — energy and technology were necessary for survival. New applications of energy developed by the Industrial Revolution provided energy-intensive agricultural methods that allowed for massive increases in population density. When Columbus discovered America, what is now the United States supported fewer than a million Indians. Today the same area supports 250 million people and exports millions of tons of food. Our current population density of 69 persons per square mile is less than eight percent of that of England, leaving room for many more inhabitants. . . .

Environmental Balance Today

Survival depends on individual creativity, which is a discovery process. As each individual seeks his own best interests in an interdependent world, he can never be sure of the outcome of his actions. His every action affects the economy and the environment around him, so he and everyone else must adjust to change. A free economy has altered our planet for survival through human action, not through human design. In a similar fashion, the human race came into existence through unpredictable mutations in individual beings, each of whom then had to adjust to survive. All of nature works that way.

The extraordinary and unprecedented improvement in our quality of life during the past 200 years can be attributed to individual freedom, technology, industry, and economic growth. Let us not sacrifice the system that has given us longer life and better health to unwarranted fear of the very processes of that system.

This is an edited version of a piece that originally appeared in the March-April 1991 issue of the Cato Policy Report, published by the Cato Institute, 1000 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001. Reprinted by permission.

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    Mr. Smith, a Freedom Daily subscriber, is a free-lance writer in Atlanta.