Industrialization and the Environment


During the past several hundred years, human being have begun to industrialize rapidly. Tons of new technologies with all sorts of capabilities have sprung up. In many cases, these added capabilities have been used to manipulate natural things for human benefit, often at the expense of other things. On the other hand, technological advancement has required that humans come to a better understanding of the world, bringing with it a greater potential to do good, to manipulate things for the benefit of the planet. Technological advancement has essentially given us the “can”, and so now the question becomes “should”. Should we do something because we can? Industrialization has increased the effect humans have on the environment, for good or for bad.

It is hard to argue that industrialization has not brought humans a greater ability to manipulate their environment. The list of things that we are now capable of is staggering. Computers, mind-bogglingly sophisticated machines in and of themselves, have enable a world of things to be possible, including the reading of genetic code, prompting Rifkin, in an interview, to deem genes “the raw resource of the biotech industry”. The genetic material that governs every aspect of the development of life is now merely a material for the manipulation of an entire industry. We can clone things (not very well, but still), creating identical creatures at will. “we can go to the moon, orbit earth in space for weeks at a time, send television images around the world in a matter of seconds, and transplant hearts” (Southwick, 170). We can so alter our environment that we are completely unaware of the natural things around us. A room in Japan can completely resemble a room in Egypt, which can completely resemble a room in Canada. It is possible to be completely and utterly disconnected from anything natural. People can now spend entire days indoors, without ever even being aware of whether or not the sun is shining. Food is available at the grocery store, in neat little packages that may be consumed at whim. Fruits and vegetables once considered seasonal are now available year-round. We can splice genes, create entirely new living things with weird abilities (plants that can repel pests without needing to be sprayed with pesticide? Animals that grow so large that their skeletons cannot support them?). The list goes on and on. The question is, what does all of this mean? What have we done with these remarkable abilities?

Technology has allowed us a certain degree of freedom from consequences. We can do things now that we never could have done before without a certain degree of human suffering. The major example of this, of course, is population growth. It all started back when we were hunter-gatherers: bands of people remained fairly small because that was all that the environment could support. There simply wasn’t enough food for anyone else. With the advent of agriculture, large civilizations began to develop because agriculture brought with it the ability to extract more nutrition from a smaller area of land. Since those early days, this has continued to be true of many technologies: they have enabled greater and greater numbers of humans to survive quite painlessly. “advances in agricultural and industrial technology have effectively increased the size of the globe over the last two centuries, in terms of the maximum population which it will support” (Dolan, 58). In some places, this has gone beyond merely allowing people to survive to adulthood. In those countries that are the most technologically advanced, people have more money, which they often spend on nonessentials. Richer people, Wattenberg says, are “driving more cars, consuming more resources”. People are aware that it is technology that has allowed them the freedom that they have, making them even less likely to change their behavior. Americans, for example, believe “religiously” in “technoscientific Salvationism” and progress, according to Weiskel. Technoscientific Salvationism is, of course, another name for the phenomenon that we have been discussing in class: the “tech fix”, the belief that science will always allow us to manipulate the world to aid in our survival, that every crisis that seemingly looms overhead will be solved before it harms us by the advent of some new technology. The problem with all of this is that, as in the case of the growing population, some feel that we have already exceeded the number of people that the planet can comfortably support. Some people feel that all the technologies that we have employed are only temporary fixes, and the reality is that we are getting ourselves into deeper and deeper trouble by postponing consequences that will eventually prove to be unavoidable.

Technology is not only allowing us to extract more and more from the earth without giving anything back. It also enables us to understand the workings of the environment, making us very aware of exactly what might go wrong, and how to fix it. One has only to take a look through a couple of scientific articles to realize the depth of understanding that we have obtained about the earth. For class, we have read short articles by Fahey and Ravishankara, Kerr, Poliakoff, Fitzpatrick, Farren and Anastas, Quay, Hanses, and Blunier, on the mechanisms behind and current state of such things as the ozone layer, making chemistry more green, CO2 uptake, frozen methane and global warming. We are able to monitor the workings of the planet very closely, and with a level of detail that is quite staggering. Should anything go wrong, it is quite probable that scientists would be able to pinpoint exactly what the cause of the problem was, making it far more likely that we’d be able to fix it. The technology enables us to understand the damage that we’re causing the earth to a higher degree than ever before. Additionally, industrialization allows us to improve existing technologies, making them more efficient and greener, providing us with the same services with a smaller cost to the planet as a whole. “Novel, profitable, and environmentally benign processes are being reported across the world” (Poliakoff, et. al., 808). These increased capabilities have caused some to observe that “wealthy countries tend to be better at cleaning up their pollution than poor nations” (Wattenberg). Throughout the world, “there is an increasing awareness that sophisticated technologies and radical new processes will be needed for the full potential for environmental improvement to be realized” (Poliakoff, et. al., 807). The possibility exists that we may use our technological advancement to help the planet.

All of this leads to the realization that industrialization has brought human beings a great deal of power. We have the capabilities to blow up the entire earth, wipe out all of life. We also possess the abilities to control everything that we do, create incredible technologies with miniscule environmental impact, control population growth, understand and care for the world to a degree never before possible. So, in the end, industrialization has brought us a greater responsibility. As Rifkin put it in an interview, the question isn’t if we can do things, it’s “should”. Or, as Weiskel noted, our beliefs will govern our future behavior: dearly-held, unconscious collective assumptions may impede our chances for survival. Or, as Poliakoff, et. al., noted, “fundamental changes in technology are adopted… only when they provide real advantage” (810). Are human beings inherently selfish, or are they capable of rising above that? Will we use this power we have developed to help ourselves, or to attempt to help the world? “Why can’t we achieve a better balance between people, resources, and the environment? … The complete answers to these questions lie deeply within the complex realms of science, philosophy, religion, economics, and politics.” (170). The answers may be complicated. The truth is, industrialization has changed our relationship to the environment. It has enabled us to hurt it far more than any other species, but it has also given us the ability to help. The power of choice now lies with us.

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last updated 2/6/03