Do you ever wonder about humanity's transition from manual labor to machinery and technology? And the environmental impact of industrial revolution? Well, a lot happened when the British inventors started creating machines and tools to make human life easy.
The iron and steel industry increased and prospered. Britain imported iron from Sweden and Russia, and production increased to 250,000 tons by 1805. The Industrial Revolution saw an increase in chemical production. They mass-produced sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acids, sodium carbonate, potash, bleaching powder, etc.
Fertility rates increased, and the population grew exponentially. The American Industrial Revolution improved communication and banking systems. Agricultural practices became more refined and highly productive. We made a lot of improvements during this era, and it is reflective of our current state.
However, the industrial revolution has severe environmental impacts. This article explores the environmental impacts of the Industrial Revolution on developed and developing nations.
The Industrial Revolution started in England in the late 18th century and expanded into the early 19th century. The first industrial revolution began in 1760 and ended in 1840. You can define the Industrial Revolution as the period of evolution from human and animal labor to machinery.
The term industrial revolution refers to the transition from animal and human labor to machinery, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, and high steam power usage. We also got improved water energy and the development of machine tools. The first most used machinery was the steam engine. Thomas Newcomen invented it. Its sole power source is coal burning.
In 1776, a Scottish mechanical engineer known as James Watt improved the design of the steam engine. His improvement changed the early textile, mines, transport, and steel industries. We used to travel on foot or by horses and mulls, but steam engine transportation moved faster.
These new changes brought about socio-economic growth in England. Inventors and businessmen created new industries. We stopped weaving fabric with our hands because the Industrial Revolution provided cloth-making machines.
England experienced a slow economic development through capitalism. It became the wealthiest country in the world in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
The Industrial Revolution led to many social, cultural, political, and geopolitical changes. The father of economics, Adam Smith, published the Wealth of Nations in 1776. England had extensive availability of water and coal to power factories and iron ore to build machines and buildings.
Rich people invested enormous amounts in new inventions in the manufacturing industries. England even developed a banking system to make investment possible. This rapid growth created massive job opportunities for the British people.
Although industrialization has benefited the world’s economy, we can’t ignore its environmental degradation. Here are some of the environmental effects of the Industrial Revolution on the environment:
The Industrial Revolution began because of the rise of mass production. The need for mass production led to the invention of machinery fueled by energy converted from various natural resources. We found a way to convert burning coal into energy to power a steam engine.
The introduction of steam engines led to the constant coal burning, which produced black smoke in the air. It constantly pollutes the air, and citizens avoid industrial areas as the air is too thick and dangerous to inhale.
As the industrial revolution grew, we figured out more ways to use other types of fossil fuel to power ships, trains, and other industrial machinery. However, human activities that involve burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Greenhouse gas emissions are chemical compounds that cause health and environmental damage. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to global warming.
The unending demand for mass production caused by the rapid population growth increased greenhouse gas concentrations in the air3. These greenhouse gas emissions include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases.
Scientists noticed an increase in nitrogen and carbon dioxide levels between 1750 to 1950. However, the air pollution was around industrial regions and their surrounding areas.
Now, carbon emissions are thick in the atmosphere. London and Edinburgh were known as the Smoke and Auld Reeki because of their terrible air quality. In 1952, 12,000 people died from the harmful air quality in London. Air pollution also affects plants and other life forms.
Carbon emissions caused global warming, and some countries like the US, Canada, and Norway experienced acid rain- damaging wildlife habitats. The acid rainfall of the 1980s in Europe led to a sharp decline in forest habitats. Global climate change led to a series of human health problems and environmental damages, which we are still experiencing today.
Another environmental impact of rapid urbanization is water pollution. Industrial wastewater and mining activities pollute water sources (rivers, streams, groundwater, estuaries). The United Kingdom’s water sources experienced a lot of pollution as the home of the Industrial Revolution. Various industries release wastewater that contains harmful compounds and chemicals.
Colored dyes and waste from the textile industry and toxic metals and plastics from the engineering and tanneries industry pollute the water. Oil spills from mineral oil refining and petrochemicals, animal waste processing, and food and paper mills factories also pollute water sources.
The pollution can occur with an instant or gradual deposit of wastewater. An example is the BOD load from a yeast factory discharged in the 1990s to the head of the estuary of the River Forth in Scotland. The presence of these harmful chemical compounds in water endangers the lives of marine animals2.
As a result, some animals become extinct. Or they are on the verge of extinction. Aquatic plants also experience the negative impacts of polluted water.
It is also dangerous to human health because we are susceptible to the toxins in contaminated water, especially when we drink the contaminated water directly and consume marine animals that ingest industrial waste. Industrial wastewater damages the agricultural sector because the damaged water is dangerous to the plant's health.
The Mettupalayam Industrial Estate on the fringe of Puducherry contaminated groundwater with heavy metals, salts, and fluoride effluents. Its pollution spread to the Mettupalayam well field that holds the main wells for Puducherry’s drinking water supply.
The increase in the use of plastics also contributes to marine pollution because we don't have proper plastic waste channels. It causes waste throughout its lifetime, from the point of manufacture to the post-consumer stage.
Another significant negative impact of the industrial revolution is soil pollution. There are a lot of studies that show that the Industrial Revolution changed the soil's composition. The process of urbanization and human activities like using fertilizers and pesticides1, sewage irrigation, and wastewater lead to significant levels of environmental pollution.
Industrial wastes contain chemicals like copper, zinc, lead, mercury, aluminum, and acids that pollute the soil and its fauna. Soil pollution is dangerous because it can cause toxicity, cancer, and gene mutations. The environmental quality drops because the basic soil properties and compositions are changing.
The pollutants alter the soil's structure, making it toxic for plant growth. For instance, Combretum ovalifolium, Derris scanden, Derris ovalifolia, Mallotus philippensis, Atlantia monophylla, and Lepisanthus tetraphylla are endangered plant species in Puducherry.
Also, the peri-urban estuaries that house the mangroves are recipients of a large quantity of untreated sewage and solid wastes subject to contamination.
In addition to the effects of industrial waste on soil, improper agricultural practices like the wrong application of herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides further damage the soil fauna. Apart from the manufacturers’ waste products, the waste from product usage also has environmental impacts on the land.
Another cause of soil pollution is the mining of raw materials. Most fossil fuels we convert to energy are from beneath the ground. Coal mines disrupt the soil fauna ecosystem by changing the landscape pattern. It also contaminates groundwater sources with heavy metals and toxic chemicals and causes soil erosion.
Food production reduces drastically when the soil loses water retention capabilities and the presence of microbial activities4. Food scarcity has become a problem, especially in developed nations. Also, consuming food grown on contaminated soil can affect animal organs like the liver, heart, skin, and kidneys.
Another environmental impact of the industrial revolution is the reduction of natural resources. There are different types of natural resources in the environment. They are mineral, energy, soil, water, and biological resources.
We started using all of them after the Second Industrial Revolution and kept using more as the population increased demand for mass production. Most of the energy we use is from fossil fuels and coal mining. So, the more we use them, the less they become. There might not be any left for future generations if we don't use renewable energy for industrial activities.
The World Bank recorded that our energy source relies on 66% of fossil fuels. The extraction of these materials is responsible for 90% of the global water stress. The extraction and processing of materials, fossil fuels, and food contribute to half of the global greenhouse gas emissions. Population growth increased greenhouse gas emissions, heralding global warming.
There's also the scarcity of raw materials because of the environmental damage caused by industrial pollution (i.e., climate change and global warming). An example of this is water resources. Industrial pollution contaminates water sources, making it harmful for drinking. It causes water scarcity in a region.
The natural disasters caused by climate change can also lead to the depletion of our resources. For instance, drought causes water scarcity. If we don't cut back on our industrialization rates, global material use could double to 190 billion tonnes (from 92 billion), while greenhouse gas emissions could increase by 43% by 2060.
Climate change refers to climate alterations caused by human activities, i.e., the Industrial Revolution and rapid urbanization. Industrial revolution causes global temperatures to rise because of the high demand for fossil fuels and other natural resources that produce global emissions.
The released greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, slowly increasing global warming. It alters the state of the global climate, and weather patterns start fluctuating. Every industry created during the industrial revolution contributes to global emissions.
Climate change increases drought. It changes the water composition of a region, making it scarce. It is drier in developing countries that are already experiencing water scarcity problems. The long-lasting droughts lead to low success rates in our agricultural practices. It also increases the vulnerability of the ecosystems, making them more susceptible to damage.
Global warming also causes severe storms. Oceans become water, and frozen regions start melting, increasing the water quantity in the environment. It can lead to extreme rainfall and flooding because water evaporation is high. Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons start destroying the environment.
The extreme weather patterns lead to food and habitat loss for animals and humans. It also leads to the loss of many species. Forest wildfires are a consequence of climate change. Wildfires in the western United States increased between 1984 and 2015. In California, the burned areas increased five times between 1972 and 2018.
Loss of human structures and properties plunges millions into poverty. It will force us to direct all our economic resources toward saving the environment and the dying economy.
Throughout the centuries, the Industrial Revolution has destroyed animal habitats. This, with other human activities, led to the extinction of 869 species in the last five hundred years, according to IUCN. We destroy their habitats with deforestation to make space for our human structures and activities.
However, the lack of habitat puts these animals in danger. It is why many animal species are extinct or on the verge of extinction. A new study shows that the Industrial Revolution also had an environmental impact on marine life. We disrupt the marine environment with our ships, mining, and overfishing. It is causing a reduction in the species of marine animals.
Unethical labor was around during the early years of the Industrial Revolution, the 1800s. It includes child labor, improper treatment of factory workers, and enslavement of human labor. With the rapid economic growth, children under 14 had to work in the agriculture and mining industries.
Children had to work because their parents were underpaid. They did not have enough to survive. Also, they had to work because some were orphans, and girls forcefully became sex workers. Over 20,000 children die from work-related hazards and stress.
Although we gained tremendous benefits and opportunities from the industrial revolution, we cannot ignore its destruction of the planet. The Industrial Revolution is responsible for much of the environmental pollution we experience. Burning fossil fuels result in the constant production of carbon dioxide (a form of natural gas), causing global warming, which leads to a cascade of natural disasters.
Governments must set strict environmental regulations to reduce the effects of the industrial revolution. These regulations should focus on renewable energy and proper waste management. We should also make our activities greener to protect the planet. May we all continuously move forward with sustainable development in our minds.
Liu, Y., Su, C., Zhang, H., Li, X., & Pei, J. (2014). Interaction of Soil Heavy Metal Pollution with Industrialisation and the Landscape Pattern in Taiyuan City, China. PLOS ONE, 9(9), e105798.
D’Arcy, B., Kim, L., & Morrison, P. A. (2017). Industrial pollution and the water environment: a historical perspective. In IWA Publishing eBooks.
Fowler, D., Brimblecombe, P., Burrows, J. P., Heal, M. R., Grennfelt, P., Stevenson, D. S., Jowett, A., Nemitz, E., Coyle, M., Lui, X., Chang, Y., Fuller, G. W., Sutton, M. A., Klimont, Z., Unsworth, M. H., & Vieno, M. (2020). A chronology of global air quality. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 378(2183), 20190314.
Sethi, S., & Gupta, P. (2021). Soil contamination: a menace to life. In IntechOpen eBooks.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.
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Isabela Sedano, BEng.