Recently, I visited Iron Bridge in Shropshire, England. Located in a steep-sided valley (or gorge, as the British call it) through which the Severn River runs, the gorge is a UNESCO World Heritage site because the Industrial Revolution began there. A Quaker named Abraham Darby developed a cost effective method for making cast iron at the beginning of the eighteenth century using coke. The gorge had exposed seams of iron ore and coal, and had long been a center for industrial activity. But Darby’s inventiveness, and that of those associated with his enterprise, developed the technologies and incidentally the mass production that marked the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, enriching the lives of the masses with a wealth of affordable material items.
More broadly, take a moment to catalogue, mentally and informally, just a few of the labor saving devices that make your life so much easier and better than the lives of people three hundred years ago. My list includes a wide array of kitchen appliances, clothes washers and dryers, vacuums, TVs, etc. Of course, the list extends beyond one’s home to transport, factories, etc. Many of the items on my list post-date the Industrial Revolution itself, but are nonetheless unforeseen results of what happened at Iron Bridge. Lest you have remaining doubts, visiting the late nineteenth century Victorian village houses and shops at Iron Bridge will emphasize how much easier and richer life is for the majority of Americans and Europeans in the twenty-first century than it was in previous generations. And the Victorians lived more than a century after the Industrial Revolution began!
My visit prompted some ruminating about how much stuff a person actually needs. Mentally consider each room of your house. What is it you do there? What stuff do you need to do it? The Information Age is making content (music, books, and images) available in digital format. Digital primarily requires silicon and electricity, with increasingly small devices for storage and playback. To what extent can digitalization and miniaturization reduce the human ecological footprint while simultaneously improving our quality of life?
Quality clothes, household goods items, and furniture may last longer (a thought triggered by an exhibition of the cast iron goods industrial Britain produced) and therefore require fewer limited resources than the disposable items (e.g., trendy clothes, non-repairable appliances, and paper goods) with which we currently fill our houses.
In other words, I began to wonder: can we retain the quality of life improvements that the Industrial Age ushered in while reducing our ecological footprint through better, more ecologically attuned living? One vital element in answering that question affirmatively will be to identify ample, affordable, and sustainable sources of energy. Fossil fuels fail those tests. Many renewable sources of energy (e.g., wind) also currently fail those tests. Solar, fusion, or another source may, in time, meet those standards.
Most British during the Victorian era worked six fifteen hour days every week. Those in service (i.e., employed by the wealthy as servants or staff) generally worked six and a half days. Very few people (mostly the idle rich) enjoyed a life of leisure.
Today, people in industrialized nations typically think in terms of a 35 to 40 hour workweek. Managers and professionals often work more; the unemployed, retired, and some of the underemployed work less. But overall, the workweek has substantially declined over the last one hundred and fifty years.
Acquiring less stuff, stuff of better quality designed to last longer, will probably further reduce the workweek. Additional technological advances that improve productivity and produce goods using fewer resources will also reduce labor requirements. This can create bifurcated cultures, divided between the employed and unemployed. Or, this can, through reduced workweek and earlier retirements free people for pursuits that include continuing education, creation/appreciation of the arts, self-care (e.g., exercise and prayer/meditation) – activities that make a person more fully human and for which no machine or electronic device can substitute.
The Darbys, for five generations, lived in houses that overlooked Iron Bridge. Initially, the smoke and pollution of the works signified progress; the river and surrounding countryside effective mitigated the pollution. Then, being on site became convenient – a means to ensure proper oversight and management, with suffering from the pollution as a cost of doing business. Finally, the family let go of the enterprise, entrusting its management to others. Production and business moved to other sites in England; the family likewise relocated to, literally, greener pastures. Today, people again swim (those willing to brave the cold!) and eat fish caught in the Severn. Progress is possible.