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The Industrial Revolution in Europe, Essay Example

Pages: 4

Words: 1146

Essay

In modern American society, with all its comforts and conveniences, many people tend to idealize what they see as the simpler, pastoral life led by people before the industrialization of Europe. Some writers, like Daniel Quinn in Ishmael, have gone so far as to argue that the invention of agriculture itself was a huge mistake. Although most people would not agree, there is a strong undercurrent in contemporary discourse suggesting a return to preindustrial practices would be a step not backwards, but in the right direction; it would solve a multitude of problems, such as global warming, by getting humans back in touch with Nature. (Of course, the people making these arguments usually use their computers to post blogs on the topic while sitting in their climate controlled apartments, drinking coffee made from sanitary water and beans imported from half-way around the world and roasted in an industrial plant.) In fact, the Industrial Revolution did bring about a whole new set of problems for those who lived through it and for their descendants, but overall its effects have been positive, especially for those of us living in the post-Industrial world.

The negatives of industrialization were well documented by observers at the time. In England, for example, even fiction writers like Charles Dickens were greatly concerned with the horrible conditions faced by the working poor. Although Dickens never worked in a factory, per se, he suffered greatly from his experiences working for an ink manufacturer (pasting labels on bottles) when he was just a child. He saw first-hand how the working poor were unable to meet the expenses of city life on the wages they earned; he was sent to work because his father was in debtor’s prison and needed the income to get out. This experience became part of his novel, David Copperfield, and his depictions of the conditions endured by the poor in London were a running theme in his works.

Although the vast majority of people in pre-Industrial Europe were peasants and thus quite poor, the general feeling at the time was that poverty in the country was preferable to poverty in the city. In fact, rural poverty was just as cruel and the work performed by peasants—when they could find work—was just as dangerous and grueling as that of the factory workers. Nonetheless, many people came to the cities in search of jobs in the factories; some of them had lost their jobs as artisans or craftsmen due to the invention of machines that replaced them. These urban migrants usually ended up living in slums where the conditions were horrible. By the time Engels described the slum of Salford in England in 1844, such communities could be found across Britain and Europe, wherever new industries were arising. Even though it is easy to think that such slums were only a transient effect of the growth of industry, they endured well into the twentieth century, as documented by Robert Roberts in his description of the same slum in Salford sixty years after Engels wrote. The modern version of these slums is the public housing project, generally found in outlying areas of European cities like Paris. Although the outer face of the slum has changed, it remains very much a living legacy of industrialization.

At the same time, industrialization was the beginning of widespread pollution. Cities had always been dirty places. Without modern sanitation, even wealthy neighborhoods faced problems disposing of their sewage and in the poor parts of town it ran in the streets. With the great influx of residents brought by industrialization, the problem became much worse and was compounded by the toxic run-off from various industries and the smog they created. As is often the case today, the health of the poor and the condition of the environment often fell victim to the desire of the wealthy industrialist to make money. This was not, however, a new problem. For example, in 1306 King Edward I had to outlaw sea coal because it caused such terrible smog when it burned (Davis 34).

Although the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution cannot be denied, the benefits far outweigh them. No one would want to go back to the days when women died in childbirth by the score and infant mortality was so high that every family could expect to lose a child. Few would be willing to give up antibiotics, modern plumbing, clean water, or the ease of communication and transportation afforded by modern technology, which arose out of the Industrial Age. That so many people suffered under horrible living and working conditions becomes no less regrettable in light of our current privileges, but denying the benefits that have grown from the impetus of that time would only mean that their suffering had no value.

Even more importantly, without the Industrial Revolution, the shape of European and American societies would be vastly different. The rise of the working and middle classes undermined the aristocratic, feudal culture. The ideals of the Enlightenment could only come to fruition with the development of a working class that had a sense of solidarity and a middle class that resented being treated as substandard.  For such boons as social mobility and universal education we are indebted to the class struggles spawned by the Industrial Revolution.  If the actual education offered to the public falls somewhat short of the Hellenistic ideal envisaged by Arnold in Culture and Anarchy (154), we have only ourselves to blame.

Perhaps the greatest challenge now is to see how we can bring the benefits of the Industrial Revolution to underdeveloped parts of the world without visiting upon them the horrors as well. The fact is, we have not yet gotten rid of the negatives of Industrial society; we have only exported them to places like India. If we want to claim that the world is truly a better place for having endured industrialization in Europe, we should make sure it is better not just for Europeans and Americans, but for everyone. Perhaps the worst legacy of that era is the continuing willingness of some to value money over human lives.

References

Arnold, Matthew. Culture and Anarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. Print.

Davis, Devra. When Smoke Ran Like Water: Tales of Environmental Deception and the Battle Against Pollution.  Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2002. Print. Note: I tried to find the text of the original proclamation from 1306, but could not locate it in the time before this assignment was due. I have, therefore, cited a secondary source for this fact, but the book was a National Book Award finalist, so it is a fairly reliable secondary source.

Dickens, Charles. David Copperfield. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Quinn, Daniel. Ishmael. New York: Bantam, 1995. Print.

Roberts, Robert. The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century. New York: Penguin, 1990. Print.

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