The 18th Century Industrial Revolution

The 18th century Industrial Revolution was not an isolated event but took place within an evolutionary historical context. It marked a major transition between two distinctly different types of societal systems; creating a radical change in the way people thought, lived, worked and organised themselves. At the beginning of the process, the majority of the population lived in small self-sufficient village communities based around agriculture, craft and cottage industries. Everyone knew everyone else and the needs of the community itself was the organising principle of society. The revolution led to a movement of the population into towns and cities, finding employment in factories and industries, which became the new organising principle. While we have progressed as a society in many small incremental steps, the basic pattern of life, work, education, politics and economics has changed very little.

Work: Then and Now

Pre-revolutionary rural life for the masses in 17th and 18th century Europe was characterised by poverty, poor food and hygiene, social isolation and lack of formal education. Fewer than 1 in 5000 were literate and old age was considered to start at 35. The Industrial Revolution kickstarted not only a lifestyle transformation, but also a social one, leading directly to the conditions of the modern developed world. This current society is characterised by relative affluence, education, leisure, healthcare, social mobility, transportation, good quality housing, protections under law, etc. No-one is trying to suggest that it´s either perfect or enjoyed equally by everyone. However, in broad outline it's what a sizeable majority in the so-called developed nations considers both normal and desirable. It can be termed the "industrial growth society". However, the basic ideas and principles on which it is built, the way that society is organised and governed, conforms very closely to those established around the time of the industrial revolution.

While the industrial revolution created massive, long lasting and far reaching changes to the way we all live, the key elements that enabled this to happen, to initiate the transition, took place within a very short 2-3 year period.

Date Element Description
1733 Technological. Flying Shuttle invented. Up to this point, weaving was a cottage industry. With the invention of the flying shuttle, it made possible industrial-scale weaving, carried out in a factory. However, something else was also needed...
1733 Legal. Expiry of patent on Thomas Newcomen's invention of the piston steam engine. Anyone could now freely make one. Newcomen's invention enabled mines to be drained to greater depths than had previously been economically possible and so helped provide the coal, iron and other metals that were vital to the expansion of industry, beginning the ongoing build-up of atmospheric CO2 so integral to current climate change. However, something else was also needed...
1734 Financial. Bank of England in its present form. The beginning of the capitalist era. Entrepreneurs could now borrow large sums to open factories, with the money, plus interest, paid back from profits. It also started the current system of money creation, whereby new money is created by debt. However, something else was also needed...
1734 Structural. First Anglo-Russian trading agreement. With this element in place, a regulated process of international trade was established and the key principles of the Industrial Revolution exported to the rest of the world. This ushered in the era of globalised trade; now at its most destructive apex. However, something else was also needed...
1700s Political. Most significantly, the industrial revolution ushered in a time of political upheaval. Both the French Revolution (1789) and the American War of Independence, leading to the drafting of the US Constitution (1787) marked a transition from rule by the aristocracy to rule by new financial interests based around industry, trade & banking, plus the establishment of the modern world of nation states.

The Role of Ideas

These developments were only seized upon and put into widespread practice because the minds of educated people were ready to receive them. We tend to look on the transition of the industrial revolution in terms of technology, lifestyle and economic patterns, just as we frame our current response to the environment crisis in similar terms. However, underpinning the physical, structural and social changes that took place, there was also taking place an intellectual and philosophical revolution that introduced new ideas and ways of thinking into the collective consciousness; a movement we now call "the enlightenment", developed by an elite and educated group of mainly men. These ideas were considered very radical at the time but have now become embedded into our culture, such that we rarely question whether they are any longer appropriate or true, even though they still deeply influence our worldview.

Sir Isaac Newton. 1642-1727. Scientist & Mathematician.

Widely recognised as one of the most influential scientists of all time, Newton basically established the concept of nature as a giant machine with an identifiable, measurable physical mechanism. His ideas formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until the 20th century, with the advent of Albert Einstein, the quantum theorists and the Gaia hypothesis. For Newton, time and space were the constants in which the universe moved and had its being, whereas Einstein demonstrated that they were not actually fixed, rather varying according to the observer. Quantum mechanics developed this idea further, showing that actually all phenomena are themselves the product of consciousness, while the Gaia hypothesis is that the entire Earth is itself a unified conscious being.

John Locke, 1632-1704. Political Philosopher.

Known as the Father of Liberalism. As well as expounding the principles of representative democracy and majority rule, Locke stated his belief, in his Second Treatise, that nature on its own provides little of value to society, rather that the labour expended on the exploitation of nature in the creation of goods gives it its value. In this one single belief underpinning the principles of the Industrial Revolution, and now governing practically the entire global economy, lies one key to understanding just why we are now faced with the wholesale destruction & abuse of the natural world.

Adam Smith, 1723-1790. Economist.

Known as the father of economics and capitalism. His classic work "The Wealth of Nations" (published 1776) established 3 key ideas guiding economic thinking to this day. Firstly, that the accumulation of wealth and material goods leads to and produces happiness, leading directly to the modern ingrained belief in fluctuations of Gross Domestic Product being a measure of collective well-being. His second key idea was that the great wealth of just a few people benefits everyone. Does it really? Finally, he established the principle that free market capitalism is the best way to end poverty. Nowadays, an increasing number hold a contrary belief that it is actually creating more problems than it solves.

More and more people believe that we are now nearing the end of the historical era initiated by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The progressive build-up of fossil fuel emissions begun at this time has resulted in a global climate change crisis, while the economic and political principles of the industrial era have led to an unsustainable abuse of the natural world that threatens us all. Both of these issues result from the way that we think about ourselves, our relationship with each other and our relationship with nature. New understanding and insights into our shared humanity, our mutual interdependence with each other and the living planet, a new enlightenment, just like the 18th century version, is forming the basis of a new vision of society that can guide us through the current turmoil and uncertainty.

We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.
Albert Einstein

Change Agents

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Planetary Mission

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