Towards the end of the second millennium, particularly the 18th and 19th centuries, rapid changes occurred across the economic fabric of the world. Various industries underwent mechanization, transportation infrastructure improved to facilitate the expansion of trade, and steam power dramatically enhanced production and mobility. Manual labor was supplanted or enhanced by machines in the manufacturing industries, whilst increased production lead to increased consumption of natural resources and greater material abundance across the classes.
Brown (2003) observes that at the foundation of this period, historically referred to as the Inustrial Revolution, was a shift in sources of energy from wood to fossil fuel. The exponential energy gain to be had from such a shift translated to the expansion of economic activity. The Industrial Revolution did not stop there though. Rather, the Industrial Revolution was a continuous process of economic expansion that resulted in a transformation of how natural resources were viewed. While concerns had already been raised since the 17th century about the use of natural resources for economic activity, industrialization spread the casual acceptance of natural resources as capital. (Peterson del Mar, 2006)
In effect, the Industrial Revolution impacted the environment by disseminating economical assumptions about the value of natural resources, and magnified the rate at which resources were being consumed. Under the lens of industrial capitalism, trees have no value unless logged, rivers and streams have no value unfished and wildlife have no value unharvested. As such, there was little in the way of popular resistance against the use of natural resources for commerce and industry. It was deemed that the improvement of human civilization necessitated the harvesting of wildlife, the logging of forests, the expansion of fisheries and the industrialization of agriculture.
As mentioned above, concern for environmental welfare dates back to the 17th century. Some of this concern for environmental welfare came from upper-class urban dwellers, who felt that the conditions of city living disconnected them from the spiritual nourishment of nature’s aesthetic. The other source of concern came from scientists and economists who felt that resource conservation and protection was necessary to ensure continued economic health. However, Environmentalism as a movement or revolution did not fully come into being until the 20th century. (Peterson del Mar, 2006)
While technology and industrialization grew to become a defining feature of not just commerce and industry but modern living, there was also an increase in the anxiety over their potential effects on the cultural and natural landscape. For many, the tipping points that took environmental sentiment towards movement and/or revolution were the publication of books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb.
Both writers took a good look at the environmental impacts of modern life – Carson examined the health impacts and environmental consequences of the indiscriminate use of DDT as a pesticide, while Ehrlich questioned the ability of economic expansion and use of natural resources could outpace the demands of a growing population – and ultimately, both of them provoked examination into the relationship between man and environment in the industrial age. The result was increased interest in environmental problems and the formation of various environmental groups designed to pressure industry and commerce to take environmental matters seriously.
In the 21st century, it will be necessary for environmentalism to persist, not just as a fashionable lifestyle or an alternative form of consumption, but as a means to examine whether modern life is not just sustainable or desirable. Environmentalism is not a spiritual or moral issue, but a practical one that encourages us to redesign industry, commerce and personal living to be more than just desirable but sustainable and eternal.
Peterson del Mar, D. (2006) A short history of a big idea: Environmentalism. Pearson Education Limited: Essex, England.
Brown, L.R. (2003) Eco-Economy: Building an Econom
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