Though it began in England over two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution has transformed into much more complex global phenomena recently. Multi-national corporations design, build, and assemble products using resources and labor from around the world. Apple’s little iPhone, for example, in 2007, was designed, built, and assembled on 3 different continents, using over 30 companies. And, in return, the iPhone, in that same year, was sold to consumers in more than 75 different countries (“iPhone”). In today’s global economy, we are all inextricably linked as workers and consumers. An earthquake in Japan can and did in Spring 2011 immediately stop the supply of new iPads flowing to California. We can easily and instantly play a computer game online with a student from Argentina, some 3500 miles away. High-tech inventions such as the Internet have increased global interaction exponentially since the 18th century. Globalization—Industrialization 3.0—has made the world a small place indeed.

Though a great deal has changed since those first textile factories began to spring up in Manchester along the banks of the Irwell river, the world today faces many of the same challenges and questions that England faced two centuries ago. Should governments intervene on behalf of worker safety? The environment? Public health? If so, how and to what degree? Is capitalism, as Adam Smith proposed, at its heart a positive influence in the world that creates new technologies, jobs, and wealth for all? Or is it, as Marx argued, an exploitive system that allows the wealthy and powerful to steal from the weak and marginalized people of the world? Can Marx and Smith both be right? Where will industrialization take us next? And, finally, taking into account the advances and the ills, did the Industrial Revolution improve life?

Proponents of the benefits of industrialization point to amazing inventions, technological advances, and increased global wealth. Global GDP per capita—the most common measurement of national wealth—has increased 800% over the past 200 years in 1990 dollars (“The Contours of World Development”). most people in the world experience better education than they did 200 years ago. 90% of United Nation member countries in 2011 had a literacy rate well above 50%, and just about half of the countries in the world had a literacy rate above 90% (“Literacy Rate of Countries”). In contrast, the large majority of Europeans before 1850 were illiterate. Healthcare also certainly improved. Some diseases that decimated populations in the past have now essentially been defeated through scientific and technological advances made possible by the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions. Life expectancy in most countries has surely improved, as discussed earlier. And what would our lives be like without railroads and cars, modern medicine and inoculations, computers and the Internet?

Critics of industrialization, however, point to a global economic system that seems exploitive and unsustainable. They point out that wealth has been unequally distributed around the world and that the wealth gap has grown over time. In 1820, European countries had an average income level twice that of the rest of the world. In 1998, however, Europe had an average income level seven times that of the rest of the world (“Contours of World Development”). Another concern is that as more than two billion people in India and China enter into the “take off” period of industrialization, their growing middle classes want the consumer products that Americans and other more developed countries have enjoyed. But what will happen if the rest of the world replicates our amount and pace of consumption? In 2010, the United States, with less than 5% of the global population, used about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—mostly oil and coal (“The State of Consumption Today”). Fossil fuels are finite. They will run out. Yet they are arguably the most important resources that drive current industrialization. And they are pollutants. If billions of people replicate this level of consumption, they will hasten? ecological and economical disaster. Another concern is that multinational corporations owe their loyalty not to any nation but to the profit motive. So who or what will keep them from creating pollution or exploiting weak, desperate countries? Who will stop global resource depletion? We have seen how unbridled capitalism in England led to exploitation of the weakest and most vulnerable. Will that story repeat now on a global scale? An historian of Luddism wrote of the legacy of industrialism:

The record of the last five thousand years of history clearly suggests that every single preceding civilization has perished, no matter where or how long it has been able to flourish, as a result of its sustained assault on the environment, usually ending in soil loss, flooding, and starvation, and a successive distension of all social strata, usually ending in rebellion, warfare, and dissolution. Civilizations, and the empires that give them shape, may achieve much of use and merit. . . . but they seem unable to appreciate scale or limits, and in their growth and turgidity cannot maintain balance within or without. Industrial civilization is different only in that it is now much larger and more powerful than any known before, by geometric differences in all dimensions, and its collapse will be far more extensive and thoroughgoing, far more calamitous. (Sale 278)

So which is it? Has the Industrial Revolution improved life or not? Is the world a better place? A safer place? Do most people have more material wealth than they did two centuries ago? Are they healthier? Are they happier? Is the world more socially and economically just? Is the world headed in the right direction? You have had a chance to read the history and enter into the debate. Now it’s your turn to weigh in. You decide.

To kill or destroy a large amount of something or some group
One who argues in favor of something
Please make a selection.