ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY V:
THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
To begin with, a recapitulation of some of the main themes in recent weeks. If we look at
what makes up the arrival of the modern world view in the period 1450 - 1750 we can
identify (among others) the following elements:
· The arrival of the clock - standard time
· The development of abstract space through perspective
· New focus on the details of the natural world
· The replacement of an earth-centred universe with a sun- and then, more recently, a "de-
· The discovery of the "New World" and the spread of global commerce.
· The elimination of "special internal qualities" in physical objects in the spatial
environment, in favour of laws of motion, etc.
· The experimental model leading to the identification of these laws and a wide range of
new empirical fact.
The end product of all of this was the "mechanisation" of the world picture and the
assumption of the uniformity of nature.
To elaborate on this, and to repeat what has been said before:
The arrival of modernity signalled the new supremacy of a world view which was
characterized by abstracted space and time, subject to measurement and laws. Shortly
after Galileo, of whom I have spoken, Isaac Newton codified the universal laws of
gravitation, and there were other figures who belonged to the new world of scientists that
mingled experiment and mathematics into predictive models of physical behaviour.
As I also mentioned, the most powerful new metaphor that arose to describe this world
was a mechanical, clockwork model, partly because, once set in motion by a descending
weight, whole apparatuses of complexity could be geared together and differential motion
engaged. The idea of the material, physical universe as being made of atomic particles
took a little longer, but these were eventually linked into the same scheme. I also lectured last time on the discovery of the "New World", and the new empires that
followed in its wake, and how this was in many ways symbolic of the fact that the old
maps and the old assumptions were useless. Also, in the late 15th century came the
invention of printing, and the arrival of the book (far more than the arrival of the internet)
revolutionized the distribution of knowledge. Cheap knowledge was now in the hands,
not of an elite priesthood, but of any citizen. One result of these upheavals was the
Protestant Reformation, which split Europe into warring camps of Protestant sects, each
with its own bible, and interpretation of the word of God, and the Catholic Church. The
idea of the individual ability to judge, without masters, to read and think for oneself, was
linked to the glorification of the emerging powers and new dignities of the individual
human is familiarly represented by Michelangelo's statues -- David, Adam, and the
portraits of ordinary individuals -- Leonardo's Mona Lisa.
But this new individualism comes at a price. For one thing, the contrast between the
previous world view and the new world view, and the loss of old certainties opens up
another possibility: the possibility that none of these world views, or cosmologies is
absolutely true. After all, people believed in the Medieval world view for 1000 years:
how long will the new one last?
One thing we have been doing for the last few weeks is comparing different cosmologies,
mythologies, from the outside. It was during this Early Modern period that people began
to see that different societies might have different world views, and that both or neither
might be true. How could we prove one is better than the other?
It is at this point that something called modern "scepticism" begins to arrive on the scene,
and we find a new consciousness of the possibility that perhaps no explanation will ever
be good enough. The question: "What is your scientific proof?" might also be followed
by a darker question: "How can anyone prove anything for sure?".
The best, and most famous example of this is the figure of Hamlet (1604), who questions
everything, and is paralyzed by doubt. We now call this "existential doubt" -- the position
that everything is meaningless, that nothing makes sense. Nature, the world around us, is,
if not actively hostile, indifferent to us and our hopes and dreams.
This assault on the centredness of human beings in the universe was reinforced by the
increasing number of astronomical discoveries that in the course of the next 100 years as
telescopes improved, revealed that the universe was huge, maybe infinite in extent, and
the earth and the sun were small pieces in this cosmos. The previous world views with
gods and goddesses may have been wrong, but at least it was cozy. It wasn't big, cold,
The new scientific worldview might say that God was the universal clockmaker, but He
seemed to get pushed more and more to the side -- maybe He just set the laws of
gravitation going, and then went away. Or an even more horrible thought: suppose the
universe was just set going by its own laws, and there was no God. It was just a big machine, that gave us a little life, for no real reason, and then chewed us up and killed us,
without caring. We are just accidents, and tiny insignificant ones at that.
So there is a paradox. A paradox central to the modern world view. On the one hand,
there is a new idea -- the individual at the centre of things, the "I", the self as an emerging
power in the world. And on the other hand, there is the increasing scientific knowledge
suggesting that human beings are not the centre of things.
This tension remains with us.
What was certain was that the mind (whatever it was) was free to survey the world, and,
thanks to the emerging technologies, more and more free to supervise the manipulation of
the world, just as God had been free to do with the universe what he wanted to do. In the
18th century human beings begin to take on the thought patterns previously associated
with God. So perhaps that was the answer: become a kind of God (or at least God-in-
training). If the world was not perfect, then we could improve it along our own lines.
2. THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Towards the end of the 17th century we begin to experience a startling increase in the
capacity of human beings to harness energy, commonly referred to as the Industrial
Revolution. This Revolution first began in England, and was a mixture of a number of
different forces. No one has been able to come up with a good simple explanation.
Among the forces that combined to produce this revolution:
- The arrival of corporations, factories, and large-scale industries in the slave colonies;
· An increasing population due to an earlier Agricultural Revolution brought about by
changes in crops, such as the arrival of the potato from the New World; but also due to a
decline in some of the earlier diseases such as plague.
· The increasing application of scientific understanding to technological change,
particularly through engineering.
· A relatively open society in England, that allowed for a certain amount of social
movement and ensured that people were not looked down on for being associated with
investing money in factory and farm.
· The earlier examples of machine and mass labour use in the West Indian slave sugar
The symbol of the Industrial Revolution is the steam engine, which works by the
alternative heating and cooling of steam in a tightly sealed boiler, which in turn moves a piston up and down or round and round. This up and down motion is, like clockwork,
something that can be harnessed. This invention was b