“Enlightenment” and Industrial Revolution

14 minute read (2917 words)

In the beginning God cre—” ope, sorry… wrong story. Let’s rewind. 

“In the beginning Eli Whitney created the cotton gin.”

Ah yes, the fabled tale: from nothing came something; from something came a cylindrical separator of cotton fibers from their seeds; and from this magical device came 200+ years of wondrous human industry and progress.

A well-distilled version of history, signed, sealed, and delivered in a nicely digestible package. We’ve covered a fair amount of the story of Earth up to this point—from the evolution of cells to the evolution of states—and most recently the sobering products of expansionism and slavery. Unpacking dominant, reductionist narratives and knowledge is central to our synthesis here at Overstory Alliance. And given how common such over-simplification is in regards to complex sociocultural processes, this next topic does not escape it, either.

The Industrial Revolution. Three words so well-traveled and widely-referenced as to perhaps border on a catch-all for anything regarding the birth of so-called modern development and technology. In the United States, at least, it seems many of us don’t pierce the subject much beyond our aforementioned linear fable of progress. But this era rife with far-reaching impacts, both past and persisting, requires a deeper dive to comprehend its earth-shattering connotations for both people and the planet. 

You might be wondering, “Very cool, but how does an obsolete cotton machine and some guy I vaguely recall from history class fit in with this?” 

An antique cotton gin device on display in a museum.
A picture of Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, at middle-age.

The man, the wheel, the legend

Great question. With all due respect to Mr. Whitney and his wheel, we must first start a bit earlier, before the advent of this one of many 18th-century innovations kickstarting the “enlightened” age of science, separatism, and steam.

The Precursors

Humanity has been tethered to so-called “traditional” energy flows for the majority of its bipedal and nearly hairless existence. Non-human beings more or less live “in the present”—reliant on the embodied energy in the fellow beings they consume through hunting and gathering—and so too did humans for many thousands of years. This relative immediacy of consumption thus equates to a general inability to store surplus energy, a way of life still maintained by certain cultures today.

But then came agriculture, the dawn of which signaled the first major human shift away from previous ways of being; a critical pre-industrial development to contextualize here. Cultivating and allocating food calories in a controlled fashion for non-survival purposes—an ability soon-to-be ingrained in capitalist-industrial society—was before then unheard of. Rises in population, specialization of labor, and expansion across the globe all followed the agricultural age, with energy surplus at the fulcrum. These “modernizing” human cultures coasted along in this manner for a long while, until…

BOOM. Hello, 18th century. As happy-go-lucky as things seemed to be, the dominant powers of the time were already hitting limits to their growth. Simply, their appetite for energy outgrew its availability. With Europe as the epicenter, forests had been widely clear-cut and burned for rudimentary heat energy, and agricultural land conversion reached its maximum in smaller nation-states like Britain. Even with an ever-increasing workforce (augmented in no small part by exploitative slave labor), surplus production gains began to plateau. Human and draft animal muscles require a great deal of feeding, so much so that biomass and sunlight alone could no longer provide a desirable energy return on investment. You can read more about that here, but what’s most important to this story are the changes this turning of history wrought. 

For our purposes, two main pillars give the Industrial Revolution era such significance—and such difference—over perhaps any other:

  1. A major shift in political philosophy and social structure
  2. A fantastical shift in energy production and consumption

The Philosophy

Still a bit pre-dating our patiently awaiting Mr. Whitney, the mid-18th century was a time of “new’s:” new innovations mixing with new tenors of an established philosophy—the Enlightenment. While patents flew off the shelves for such descriptively-named inventions as the “spinning jenny,” “flying shuttle,” and “seed drill,” political and thought leaders strove for efficiency in a similar vein to these fledgling technologies. With roots sown by long-gone thinkers such as Francis Bacon and René Descartes in the early 1600s, the Enlightenment is characterized as the age of science and reason, and, well… for good reason. Central to dominant thought was an aloof sort of intellectuality, a growing belief in the power of man to manipulate—and thereby control—nature. And though a litany of ideals would be carried forth by “enlightened” supporters of rational, scientific utility, Bacon and Descartes each championed one tenet of particular relevance to this coming period of industry and extraction: human exceptionalism.

The year is 1637. Descartes pens a treatise espousing “men as the masters and possessors of nature;” his English counterpart voices similar timbres of “human utility and power” grounded in “absolute knowledge and mastery” of the living world. The European philosophy of science is undergoing a relatively fundamental shift from the hand of God—organizing around biblical assertions of the universe—to the hand of man. Modernity had arrived.

And why is this so earth-shattering? Because when human-nature separatism philosophy happens to chart a collision course with the commercialization of fossil carbon substances able to pulverize once-firm limits to human growth… well, perhaps you can see why! Though prior science did certainly support inquiry and discovery, never before had a truly mechanistic approach to knowledge become the bedrock; wherein theological abstractions took a backseat to pragmatic might. Nature was now an inert medium to be shaped like soft clay, and as we’ll soon see, this objectification of the living world would open the door to its commodification.

But don’t just take my word for it; let’s review the tape. With the political and intellectual frameworks in place for a new mode of interaction with the living world, Britain would be the first to strike the flint for mass mechanization. Quite literally, that is, through the world’s first commercial coal mining. These lumps of carbon were not themselves recent finds, however mining technology had only just progressed to large-scale feasibility by the late 1700s. Lucky Britain! The resource-rich island had hit upon black gold. It seemed the perfect self-reinforcing cycle: energy fed industry, whose innovations increased efficiency of energy extraction, which fed back into further tech development, thereupon yielding ever-greater returns. And boy oh boy, did they tumble in fast. By the turn of the 19th century, Britain extracted about 90% of the world’s coal, over 10,000,000 tons per year. The industrial drama was set: science and separatism lifted the curtains—now from stage left, enter the steam.

The Steam Age

Fossil carbons, for all their ills, are without doubt an unbelievable energy return on investment—something early industrialists would not fail to recognize. Their initial capitalizing on this seemingly boundless energy would catalyze radical changes to Earth history, starting right in their own backyards.

In physical terms, the Industrial Revolution can be viewed as a “de-sequestering” en masse of ancient solar energy. Fairly simple, right? The equation being: coal and oil massively increase energy inputs to production, thereby massively overtaking any prior outputs of the agro-forestry way of life.

Socially, however, the changes are much more complicated. Given coal’s extreme energy density and industrial utility in comparison to muscles and simple machines, the writing was perhaps on the wall for previously “traditional” laborers. Nevertheless, a full three quarters of the British population lived in the countryside pre-Revolution, primarily working in farming or specialized trades. But mechanization, in no minced words, completely flipped the script. Coal-backed factories—specifically in the textile industry—popped up rapidly, with their huge outputs far surpassing small-scale production and profit margins. Hand-powered innovations like Mr. Whitney’s cotton gin only augmented coal-powered ones; human labor combined with fossil carbon labor maximizing economic yields—and industry dominance. Mass migrations into urban areas followed, an inevitable result of outcompeted laborers giving in to the new jobs, not only in the factories but in the blossoming coal industry powering them.

As we’ve said, the production of unnecessary “stuff” is a generally reckless activity for living beings; energy is precious, and wasting it is a self-endangerment. Spiders don’t commercialize web-building; you won’t catch birds building extra nests just for the fun of it. Most living beings create and use only what they need. But under the guise of limitless troves of fossil magic, these rapid societal changes were eaten up by entranced governments, and the industrial cogs were allowed to spin with hardly any regulatory oversight or interference. Trade and commerce—in the mold of earlier Enlightenment thought—became the new religion for leaders ever-more committed to squeezing utility out of nature. Bacon and Descartes surely would be proud.

And so to the most adverse of impacts brought forth by industrialization, governments largely turned a blind eye.

A Society Reeling

Such impacts manifested particularly within the new social order—and Britain, again, though not unique to this, found themselves at the forefront. There, women and children were unduly ensnared, as they filled an essential role for early profiteers: cheap, dispensable labor. Under the new urban standard of longer working hours for less and less pay, a man was often unable to be the sole breadwinner of his family, necessitating additional sources of income. Industries, of course, were all too happy to oblige. Women and children would form the bottom of the social totem pole, given the lowest-skilled, lowest-paying jobs with the highest risks. An additional unintended consequence, therefore, nestled within growing class stratification, was the breakdown of family and community life itself. With less and less agency over both their work and means of production—harsh results of the transition from agrarian labor to wage labor—social and familial bonds central to prior ways of living were fractured by the hours, conditions, and locations of industrial work-life.

The urban influx became so overwhelming that cities were left reeling. Overcrowding, and its related health and environmental costs, would wreak such havoc to the people and the areas that government intervention would become necessary. The total laissez-faire political attitude wasn’t working, spurring the creation of basic labor laws, organized policing forces, and better infrastructure to support the masses. 

Child laborers of a later time; an Alabama mill, 1910

At the same time, though, more and more rural peoples and communities struggled. Those who remained were not only outcompeted, but rendered by and large obsolete under the new urban paradigm. Continued enclosure laws consolidated rural land and power in the hands of fewer, a privatization practice that has only continued to gather strength within capitalist-industrial societies. It was, and very much still is, a catch-22 for Indigenous and traditional peoples the world over: adapt and conform to dominant socio-economic trends, or persist in alternative ways of being under ever-mounting stressors.

In sum: the 18th to early 19th centuries reshaped class and introduced entirely new inequities within nations themselves. But with the new era firmly solidified into the societal fabric of initial industrial states, the tendrils of coal-driven industrial capitalism could now snake far beyond national borders, giving rise to global impacts, injustices, and exploitations.

The Industrial Engine Goes Global

It’s 1820 now, 1637 is but a fond memory, and the Revolution is full steam ahead. Very literally, too. A second mass mechanization is underway in Britain, and spreading abroad: the mechanization of motive power. Boats and trains. You may love ‘em; you may hate ‘em; you may not care much about ‘em; but the steamboat and steam-powered locomotive brought to the scene in 1807 and 1814, respectively, would forever alter the nature of transport. Railroad tracks and river channels would become invaluable conduits for the extraction and distribution of energy, raw materials, and industrial commodities. But these practices are not, as before, concentrated largely to the national level. International trade is becoming part and parcel of capitalistic strategy to open new markets, as well as find new labor sources. With the means of both production and profit controlled by a burgeoning political-industrial elite in nations like Britain, France, and the United States, Western nations could flex their mechanistic muscle outwards.

Prior to direct imperial-colonial action, this collaboration would mainly happen between powerhouses. Take the U.S. and Britain, for example. The former, of course, had been dealing to the latter for a long while now. But no, not drugs, you dirty mind… cotton! Yep, like any good addiction the consumption would start early and ramp up steadily; though in Britain’s case, exponentially (shh, don’t tell the Queen!). In the early 1800s, the budding patriots were yet ill-equipped for a fully industrialized economy, so the U.S. functioned mainly as a proxy producer for the English Crown. Up until the Civil War disrupted production, this relationship would be perhaps the driver of global economics. On the backs of fossil, slave, and traditional labor, wealth for the two nations would explode during those decades, leaving other European powers wanting their own piece of the pie. 

And so imperialism was simply the next logical play in the chess match for states looking greedily outwards. The set-up moves would fall swiftly during this late-stage Industrial Revolution period (approximately 1820s – 1840s): Knight to C5—U.S. slave population explodes in response to European cotton demand; King to E7—conventional textile markets in Asia decimated by flood of mass-produced British products; Rook to D6—Belgium (1834), France (1842), Germany (1850s) launch construction of their own rail systems; Bishop to B8—Britain’s smaller-scale settlements and trading posts from East Asia to East Africa become more formalized under colonial rule… We could write a laundry list of chess moves edging the energy-hungry, growth-driven nations of the solidifying Global North order towards new avenues of power over people and planet.

But that’s a topic for another article. We’ll dive much further into the impacts of increased globalization, consumption, and exploitation during the late-19th and early-20th centuries—an age, and article, we entitle the “Great Acceleration”. For now, these two tightly intertwined periods, the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, have left us in a unique, precarious, and perhaps foreboding place.

Where We Are, and Headed

So let’s review that ol’ tape one last time. At this stage, the destruction of traditional ways of being—the cultural practices of Indigenous and non-“modernized” peoples—is well underway via the unyielding, rational utility of early industrial capitalism. Primary fossil energy use has begun its exponential climb, one which continues to the present day. The global North-South division—which will be concretized even more clearly through the coming imperial period—is tightly correlated to this energy use and the productive / consumptive capabilities it spawns. Finally, and equally important to all, dominant human society coerces a new relationship to the living world: one of separatism, one of commodification of beings and resources, and one of rapid over-exploitation. 

Like a new-age Genesis, the beginning of this fabled tale has been inscribed, yes, by cotton gins and factories, mining and burning, producing and enslaving. But it’s also true that there’s much yet for us to learn and undo, and the next chapter of the human story on Earth is ours to be written.

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