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The Environmental Impact of Manufacturing from the Industrial Revolution to Automation and Everything In Between

manufacturing and the environment

In international social and political discourse, there are some subjects that should be considered universally important. Without doubt, human impact on the environment is one such subject.

Though it has taken many years for global warming to capture public awareness in a way that truly reflects the urgency of the situation, it now finally seems as though most people have recognized the degree to which we are responsible for our environmental problems, and the degree to which we will have to change in order to resolve these problems.

Though many of us are reluctant to lower the quality of our lifestyles, the truth is that if we want to make a significant effort to save the environment and ourselves, we all need to be willing to make changes in every aspect of our lives. To that end, we at Automation GT recently ran an article series in which we looked at many of the ways in which industry has shaped our current environmental crisis, and how those of us involved in industry in a variety of capacities can use our resources to ease our environmental impact. Go to Automation GT to read the full article series, but in the meantime, here is a brief outline of the content of our series:

Industrial Beginnings and Population Growth

When looking for evidence of the human role in climate change, a picture is worth a thousand words:

For most of human history, the global population has grown at a relatively stable rate, which meant that our relationship with the environment was relatively stable. The rate began to increase around 3,000 years ago, but since the 18th century, the rate of population growth has increased dramatically, and this can largely be attributed to improvements in our average quality of life and general health over the last few centuries. To a significant degree, we owe much of this improvement to the wealth and resources that industry tends to generate for a local community.

The Industrial Revolution

The 18th century marked the introduction of the factory as we would recognize it today. However, the first generations of factories utilized wind mills, water mills, and wood for energy. Each of these methods produces only a small amount of energy, which cannot be stored and transported very well. This limited the range and scope of these early factories. The development and implementation of early fossil fuel technology marked the beginning of the true Industrial Revolution, as the use of fossil fuels enabled manufacturers to develop larger, more efficient factories, but as output increased, so did the environmental damage caused by industry.

Ongoing Relationship: Manufacturers and Environmental Policy Makers

manufacturing and the environment industrialAs industry has grown and taken an increasingly large role on the global scene, the relationship between industry and those who try to address the side effects from industry on the environment has been one of constant change, of push and pull.

Historically, it has usually taken some time before we can really realize the specific damage that certain technologies can cause. This means that there is often a significant amount of damage done before policy can catch up. However, we have a fairly successful track record of identifying and eventually curbing the impacts of industry on the environment. For example, through policy and the improvement of new technologies, air pollution from manufacturing in England has been greatly decreased since it was at its worst.

The Culture of Industry and New Era Environmental Problems

Today, we live in a culture that has been significantly shaped by the forces of industry. We live in a society that has come to place an extreme value on the consumption of material goods. However, the environmental cost of this kind of culture is not always immediately visible. To produce any single good, there is a long chain of processes that should also be accounted for when considering the environmental cost of anything.

The rate at which we consume goods and the demand we place on cheap and easily accessible materials are both unsustainable and have led to the development of a fossil fuel-dependent economy.

Many believe that our material culture is a byproduct of the Fordist model of manufacturing, which states that a factory worker at a Ford factory should make enough money to be able to afford the cars they build. As this factory model was adopted widely, we began to see an increasing number of “middle-class” Americans with cars, commutes, and a lifestyle that promoted high spending habits.

In addition, because industrial societies tend to become wealthier and to have better access to food, clean water, and medicine, life expectancy tends to increase as countries become more industrialized. This has contributed to our rapidly growing world population. And as the human population grows and becomes more dependent on fossil fuels, the eventual fallout will become even more dramatic.

Global Warming

The economy of high consumerism has supported the growth of industry, which has in turn contributed to global warming.

Though we still face major problems with pollution as a result of industry, especially in the developing world, we have managed to decrease the amount of uncontrolled pollution that occurs as a direct result of manufacturing. However, we have not yet figured out an adequate way to respond to the threat of global warming. Worse still, we continue to fail to curb those factors that we know will continue to aggravate the problem.

Global warming represents a very real threat to life as we know it on Earth. As global warming becomes an even greater problem in the future, environmental disasters will become more common. It will become more difficult to provide food and clean water to many people, and average quality of life will be greatly affected.

Technology as a Bane and a Boost

As Homer Simpson says of beer, in this case technology is the cause of and solution to many of our environmental problems. Technology enabled the industrial revolution which improved average quality of life in the developed world, but led to serious environmental problems. But technological development occurs when innovative people are faced with major challenges. The challenge today is to allow humans to continue to explore and develop our societies in such a way that we not only avoid further environmental damage, but we also find ways to repair the damage we have caused.

And there are already lots of inventors who have developed sustainable technologies and alternative fuels, while other scientists have identified plans for environmental recovery. At this stage, we need to overcome the societal and economic barriers that are preventing us from embracing the solutions that are already available to us.

Rachel Greenberg writes for Automation GT. She lives in San Diego, CA where she is currently pursuing a Master’s degree.