Industrial Revolution: Light and Darkness

I have lived in the Scranton, Pennsylvania area, in which the scars left by coalmining are still visible. I have lived in Steubenville, Ohio, which has not recovered from the pollution of the steel industry. I have also lived in the Franklin/Oil City region of Pennsylvania, the first part of the world to experience the modern oil boom. You can still find debris from the old oil rigs in the woods. Each of these places shows how industrialism came in, enriched an area for a time with a booming economy, and the cost of environmental degradation, then moved on to new territories, leaving a depressed economy and the scars of the environmental damage.

Notice the role of high energy in each of these three areas: coal and oil of course have been the two principal energy sources driving the industrial revolution; the mass production of steel required massive amounts of energy.

For just a small example of the radical increase in energy needs: a four-cylinder engine might be rated at 130 horsepower; that might be more horsepower than a Civil War cavalry troop!

A classic economic analysis reduced the sources of wealth to three: land, labor, and capital. Or we could express them more broadly as raw materials, energy used to transform those materials, and durable products (means of production) capable of being applied to the continued transformation of raw materials.

In a pre-industrial society, capital is less significant (a developed mine here, a mill there, a kiln there, a ship), while apart from the energy of human beings and draft animals, energy needs were fairly simple. Industrialization vastly expanded the need for raw materials, forms of energy that dwarf the contributions of animals and men, and extensive capital goods such as factories, warehouses, means of transportation and communication. As we well know, massive amounts of energy have become essential.

It was no longer human labor transforming a field to make it produce crops or shaping a piece of metal to make a cup or a sword, but the human manipulation of machines – machines which have acquired ever greater degrees of automation and more remote means of human control – that have changed the whole face of the earth.

We need to acknowledge the advances this has brought about, but also the dark side of the progress as well.

As for the advances: vastly improved health care, vastly reduced infant mortality, increased longevity, more abundant food. These advances have reached wide swaths of humanity such that in many regions even the poor enjoy luxuries and conveniences never dreamed of by kings of past ages; there are also large populations that continue to live in dire poverty and are vulnerable to devastating famines and also poor health and its attendants.

Note, I have not listed the advances in transportation, communication, computing, lighting, heating, and ‘climate control’. While they are certainly conveniences, it is not at all clear what real betterment they have contributed to the human condition, except insofar as they have served improved health and nutrition. Notice also that I have not mentioned at all the advances in the weapons of war.

That leads us to the dark side of the industrial revolution.

First, is the diminution of what is truly human in scale and its replacement by the machine; we moved from the age of strong men and weak machines to the age of strong machines and weak men. The mechanistic and technological reality also has shaped the contraceptive mentality and the legalization of abortion, which have compromised the whole realm of advanced health care.

Second is the movement of the majority of the population from rural areas to massive, overcrowded cities. Technology already puts people at a remove from nature, cities remove them even further. I would say that separation from the rhythms of nature has a negative effect on the whole of human psychology.

Human work should transform the natural worlds, yes, but in a way that is consistent with the nature of things.

Third, the artificial world of industry and technology has introduced an insane, frenetic pace to human life. The pace of modern life works against contemplation and reflection. Instead it produces superficiality.

Often, I encounter praises of the modern world that declare something to the effect that in pre-industrial society the vast majority of humanity lived in abject poverty with a life span of about 35 years. That claim seems very suspect. Before the industrial revolution, infant mortality was high, but if a person survived infancy, then he had a good chance of a reasonably long life. The Psalms refer to the human life span as seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. (Ps 90:10) One would think that during the course of 2500 years or so someone would have remarked on how far off the expectations were. Certainly, past ages were marked by a keen sense of the general tragedy of human life, but that should not be exaggerated. I think anyone who is truly familiar with the high middle ages (1100-1300AD) will realize that the people of the time possessed a sort of joy that is often very lacking in our machine world.

Now someone might ask, “What is your point, Father? Surely you don’t mean to suggest that we throw out all of our modern advances and start living like our ancestors of three hundred years ago?” (To be continued)

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.