The relationship between industrial development and the environment

Does industrial development lead to environment decline?

This is one of the key questions in the Global Development for A-level sociology.

The historical relationship between industrialisation and harm to the environment

Historically, both Capitalist and Socialist models of development have largely ignored the environmental impact of development for most of the last 200 years, with the environment only appearing  on the International Development Agenda until the late 1980s (see later).

The industrial capitalist model of development favoured by Modernisation Theorists is based on achieving economic growth through industrialisation and exporting goods to other countries in order to increase income. Both of these processes have been historically dependent on consuming large amounts of natural resources and have tended to create large amounts of pollution. This is because the efficiencies of industrial production are achieved through mechanisation, which has historically been fuelled by polluting fossil fuels, mostly coal (which aren’t needed when people grow their own food and make their own clothes in subsistence systems), and the exporting of goods around the world also requires more energy for transportation compared to subsistence systems, which has increased the demand for oil.

The Modernisation Approach also aims to achieve the ‘high age of mass consumption’, implying that the ultimate aim of development is for everyone in the world to consume at the level of people in the western, developed world. Today this would mean the average person eating a lot more meat, owning a car, taking holidays abroad and having a higher turnover of material goods (mobile phones and clothes for example), and the more people who move towards this, then the greater the demand on the earth’s natural resources (land, water, fossil fuels, minerals) and the greater the pollution that is created in the manufacturing and distribution of these goods.

While it remains easy for people in the West today to ignore the environmental impacts of the industrial-capitalist mode of development there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that this path to development has resulted in significant harm to the environment. We have already seen this in case studies such as the coal mining fuelling industrialisation in Northern India, Deforestation in Haiti, and the toxic waste resulting from ship-breaking in Bangladesh.

A clear relationships between industrial development and increasing CO2 emissions…

CO2 emissions are effectively a measurement of how much oil and coal a country uses, the burning of which lead to global warming which is widely regarded as the major environmental problem of our time.

Based on the table to the chart above (taken from Our World in Data) ,there seems to be a clear relationship between Industrial Capitalist Development and environmental decline.

Increasing Awareness of Environmental Decline in Recent Decades…

Increasing awareness of the damage we are doing to the environment has led to the emergence of numerous conservation groups, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature who have successfully campaigned for the establishment of various nature reserves around the world, and also to well-known international environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace and the Friends of The Earth who campaign more broadly to get governments to introduce measures to slow the pace of environmental decline. These groups today have wide ranging support from the general public to the extent that Green Parties around Europe have gained steady support in the last three decades (not that you’d know this because the media under-reports it).

There are numerous ways of categorising the harms we are doing to the planet, and one way of doing so is to break down environmental challenges into the following categories…Global warming and sea level rise

  • Global Warming and Sea Levels Rising
  • Deforestation
  • Desertification
  • Pollution and toxic waste
  • Resource Depletion
  • Species Extinction
  • New ‘Risky’ Technologies

We will explore these challenges further in future posts!

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