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Jeremy L. Caradonna

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199372409

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780199372409.001.0001

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The Industrial Revolution and Its Discontents

The Industrial Revolution and Its Discontents

Chapter:
Chapter 2 (p.55) The Industrial Revolution and Its Discontents
Source:
Sustainability
Author(s):

Jeremy L. Caradonna

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780199372409.003.0006

The stock narrative of the Industrial Revolution (ca. 1760–late 1800s) is one of moral and economic progress. Indeed, economic progress is cast as moral progress. The story tends to go something like this: inventors, economists, and statesmen in Western Europe dreamed up a new industrialized world. Fueled by the optimism and scientific know-how of the Enlightenment, a series of heroic men—James Watt, Adam Smith, William Huskisson, and so on— fought back against the stultifying effects of regulated economies, irrational laws and customs, and a traditional guild structure that quashed innovation. By the mid-nineteenth century, they had managed to implement a laissez-faire (“free”) economy that ran on new machines and was centered around modern factories and an urban working class. It was a long and difficult process, but this revolution eventually brought Europeans to a new plateau of civilization. In the end, Europeans lived in a new world based on wage labor, easy mobility, and the consumption of sparkling products. Europe had rescued itself from the pre-industrial misery that had hampered humankind since the dawn of time. Cheap and abundant fossil fuel powered the trains and other steam engines that drove humankind into this brave new future. Later, around the time that Europeans decided that colonial slavery wasn’t such a good idea, they exported this revolution to other parts of the world, so that everyone could participate in freedom and industrialized modernity. They did this, in part, by “opening up markets” in primitive agrarian societies. The net result has been increased human happiness, wealth, and productivity—the attainment of our true potential as a species! Sadly, this saccharine story still sweetens our societal self-image. Indeed, it is deeply ingrained in the collective identity of the industrialized world. The narrative has gotten more complex but remains a la base a triumphalist story.

Keywords:   Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Chartism, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Neo-Malthusians, Niger Delta, Raker Act, laissez-faire doctrine, law of diminishing returns, natural gas, transcendentalism

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