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An Industrial Revolution Like No Other

French illustrator and printmaker Gustave Doré shows the
squalid conditions in London, England created for the urban
labouring classes by the Industrial Revolution

From the very beginning proponents of the industrial revolution looked upon nature as a pirate might look upon a defenseless gold-laden ship – as easy pickings. A long term view of stewardship gave way to the short term mindset of a plunderer.

There was another necessary shift in thinking—the idea of taming or even conquering Nature. For centuries, Nature had been thought of as a source, an erratic source, not only of materials but of power – never entirely under human control. It was studied by philosophers, seeking to discover its laws, including the 17th-century English philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon, who had dreamt of taming nature through increased understanding of its mysteries. Looking back from a 19th-century vantage point, when the British industrial revolution was well advanced, the scientist Sir John Herschell… commented that, “it seemed”, on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, “as if the genius of mankind, long pent up, had at length rushed eagerly upon Nature”. Watt himself had claimed in revolutionary fashion that “Nature can be conquered if we can but find her weak side”. Such an approach was completely opposed to Chinese and Indian views of Nature, where balance was stressed, not conquest. – Microsoft Encarta 2007

The smoke of their foul dens Broodeth on Thy fair Earth as a black pestilence, Hiding the kind day’s eye. No flower, no grass there groweth, Only their engines’ dung which the fierce furnace throweth. – Wilfrid Scawen Blunt (1840 – 1922), British poet, traveller, and diplomat, describing a north of England industrial town


If we could do it all over again, would we do things differently? And if so, how?

Why do I bother asking such a question, since we can’t retrace our steps? Well, because today we are doing it all over again, and on a far larger scale and at a more rapid pace than we, or the environment, have ever experienced before.

China. 1.3 billion people. I can still remember as a small boy listening with awe as my school teacher theorised over what would happen if every man, woman and child in China, in an officially synchronised moment, leapt into the air and landed hard on the earth. He believed the shock waves would be felt around the world.

In a way, this is happening. Although not synchronised, China’s great leap into the 21st century is certainly orchestrated, and instead of one short, sharp, shock, the shockwaves are spreading continually, in ever widening circles from an increasingly potent inner core.

Click for full view
"Made in China, Bought by Us"
by Amelia Roberts

Developed‘ nations are orchestrating this change. We are encouraging, even luring, countries like China and India into the global economy. A move consistent with the short-term priority of profits-for-a-few over all else that has been the central theme of the industrial revolution since its inception.

Can the environment withstand China’s growing economic might? As one of the planet’s worst polluters, Beijing’s ecological sins are creating problems on a global scale. Many countries are now feeling the consequences.

The cloud of dirt was hard to make out from the ground, but at an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,808 feet), the scientists could see the gigantic mass of ozone, dust and soot with the naked eye. In a specially outfitted aircraft taking off from Munich airport, they surveyed a brownish mixture stretching from Germany all the way to the Mediterranean Sea.

These kinds of clouds float above Europe for most of the year and they’ve traveled far to get there. By analyzing the makeup of particles in the cloud, European scientists were able to identify its origin. “There was a whole bunch from China in there,” says Andreas Stohl, a 38-year-old from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

Some 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) to the west, Steven Cliff is slowly winding his way up Mount Tamalpais near San Francisco in his RV. The 36-year-old researcher has installed a complex instrument to measure the air from Asia that reaches the West Coast of the United States over the Pacific Ocean….

Back in a lab at the University of California at Davis, Cliff and his colleagues analyze the origins of the air pollution with the help of x-rays. According to their “chemical signature,” most have come from coal-fired Chinese power plants, Chinese smelters and chemical factories, as well as from the tailpipes of countless Chinese diesel-powered cars and trucks.

On the other side of the Pacific, in Yokohama, Japanese climate change researcher Hajime Akimoto places three photos of the Earth next to each other. They show in red where concentrations of nitrogen dioxide are especially high. The picture from 1996 shows the area between Beijing and Shanghai as a loose group of reddish spots, but one from 2005 completely covers that part of China in bright red.

Winds are blowing ever-greater amounts of pollution from China into Japan, leading many Japanese to complain about irritated eyes and throats. Last year, two cities made official warnings about health dangers caused by Japan’s big red neighbor across the sea for the first time.

China has become a global environmental problem. Initially, it was only the economists who were shocked by how the country was changing the world with its cheap clothes, televisions and washing machines. But now climate researchers are concerned about another Chinese export — the pollution it is spreading across the planet. The massive nation is already the world’s second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases after the United States. [Editor’s note: China has now overtaken the U.S. in this regard]

And particularly in North America and Europe, awe over China’s booming economy and its ability to produce cheap goods for the entire world is now often giving way to a critical question: Can the planet handle China’s growing damage to the environment? – China’s Poison for the Planet, Spiegel (rest of article highly recommended)

China is experiencing intense growing pains. It has only 8 percent of the world’s arable land and 7% of its fresh water, but more than a fifth of its population. Cancer, a virtually unknown malady a century ago, is now the top killer in China, due to pollution of air, water and soils. The pressure on China’s resources is even causing the central government to look at purchasing land abroad, where Chinese farmers would grow food to send back home – a trend with alarming consequences for the poor worldwide. And, as the U.S. diminishes in its role as the world’s superpower, China is set to increase its military prowess.

While we are buying up China’s cheap goods, with the delusional belief we’re saving money, there is an environmental bill accruing that we will never be able to afford to pay. Isn’t it time to rethink the global economy philosophy? While we’re congratulating enormous stores like Wal-Mart, Tesco, and Marks & Spencer for what we perceive as a new enthusiasm for green, let’s not forget the bigger picture. What exactly are we financing?

If emerging economies have to relive the entire industrial revolution with all its waste, its energy use, and its pollution, I think it’s all over. – Robert B. Shapiro (1938 – ) US business executive


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