The Industrial Revolution marked a miraculous turning point in human history that transformed nearly every component of daily life. A cascade of scientific and technological discoveries led to the exploitation of previously unacknowledged energy sources within the Earth. This new ability to light up the world gave humans the opportunity to look at the planet from the outside in, revolving traditional means of production into the faint echoes of history. Essentially, the Industrial Revolution separated humans from nature, giving unique competitive advantages to specific individuals and locations and thus created the modern form of industrial enterprise. In the midst of this unforeseen epoch of development, humankind overcame the limitations of sheer human muscle through a groundswell of innovations. Many of its technological developments both provided solutions, and created new problems for society. This progressive movement spurred an exponential amount of growth that disengaged historical trends of progression and made possible the relative prosperity of modern developed economies.
Up to the 18th century, economies were scattered throughout the world with fragmented geographical pockets that contained merely primitive forms of integration. The similar yet geo-spatially separated economic powers of this era consisted of China, India and Great Britain. However, factors more rational than fate assigned Great Britain as host of the Industrial Revolution’s inception in favor of the other developed regions of the time.
The island nation was geographically blessed with navigable rivers to enhance trade, accessible deposits of coal to harness energy, and surrounding water for economic and infrastructural security. The potential inherent to Great Britain was fueled by its progressive social structure in the post enlightenment era with a large and sophisticated domestic population. Colonial expansionism cracked opened borders, the Enclosure Movement fashioned private ownership in post-feudal Britain, and expensive food prices made imperative the need for innovation. These factors together devised a great degree of synchronicity that ultimately championed the modern capitalistic ideals of self-interest and its entrepreneurial spirit. It was the appropriate formula to spark an Industrial Revolution.
Previous to the Industrial Revolution, the means of supply and demand were localized to a family sphere that was geographically isolated and often lacked any form of private ownership throughout the entire means of production. Humans were dependent upon the direct endowments of nature. The contours of the land were equally important as the weather patterns in the sky. At times, not even the land a family lived on would suffice due to aristocracy’s monopolization of the general majority of wealth and resources.
This lack of meritocracy dampened any sense of competition until the Enclosure Movement promulgated private ownership to the masses. This newfound sense of responsibility placed value upon the means of production and incentivized landowners to enhance the efficacy of their operations. Improved efficiency encouraged alternative methods of manufacturing that led up to the development of machine tools. Before long, a market had formed where it was more valuable for an individual to specialize and trade than produce everything on his own. This commerce spread quickly and created the first large scale production based factories in textile, steel and coal. This concentrated means of specialization prompted the modern business environment to take mold.
The extensive social improvement that manifested from the Industrial Revolution was not without struggle. As the transformation spread into Western Europe and the United States many individuals found themselves in destitute work environments. Machines were made at a low height to accommodate the children that would operate them. The highly unregulated industrialization took many years to develop social accountability and effective governance. A similar phenomenon is transpiring in the modern technological revolution as Internet has quickly become a worldwide anarchy of unregulated territory. Consider the debate on net-neutrality.
These unprecedented events in history have no comparative analysis to monitor their evolution in accordance with the greater good of society. It will take time to sort through trial and error processes of natural evolution until the Internet is properly and effectively regulated as seen with the business environment in the Industrial Revolution. However, many historic lessons have been learned and throughout time the proper safeguards have been arranged to guide this progression to society’s most beneficial advantage. Hence, effective government regulation is crucial to prosperous development.
The Industrial Revolution was the only time in history where there was a simultaneous increase in population and in per capita income. The Malthusian Trap of paralleled population growth and poverty was challenged as innovation superseded the limits of the previous environment. The extensive use of convenience products created “new” forms of capital from previously unconsidered resources. However, as the story advances it has become apparent that consumers have effectively transcended their earthly and biological parameters, choosing convenience over ecological benefits. Industrialization created a facade of infinite reserves for non-renewable resources. Nevertheless, history is currently re-writing itself with a transformative conscious sweeping throughout the developed world — one that is illuminating awareness towards harnessing and enhancing game changing forms of renewable resources.
Dissemination of knowledge uncorked the world’s borders, allowing the consumption of goods produced from regions separated by time and space. The economies where industrialization unfolded formed a wide-ranging middle class as new products flooded the market. These quickly developing nations resulted in robust population growth and an economical affluence that required the extensive use of fossil fuels to energize daily life. These purely economic incentives motivated businesses to exploit natural resources without concern over the externalities it burdened upon the rest of society and the environment.
As the competitive capitalistic playing field developed, very few business owners led their organization with a moral compass. The concentration of wealth created the capitalist brand of self-made aristocracy. Capitalism although largely secular, beheld isolated pockets of religious affiliation where public good was thoroughly integrated. Hence, spirituality through the institution of religion is accountable for producing the first editions of business responsibility. Whether or not the business environment was led by religious affiliation, concentrated greed or secular social developments was largely due to the personal values that business owners reflected in their enterprises.
Amongst the vast advances created by the Industrial Revolution was large and tainted sums of accumulated wealth. This greed and corruption encouraged middle class citizens to push reformation for improved social accountability and an equalized economic environment. Social responsibility in the form of philanthropy began when select business tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie noted the influence of concentrated wealth; these trailblazers invested large sums of money in public institutions such as universities and libraries. Whether or not Carnegie’s actions were driven by spiritual or a secular belief is debatable; however, his devout protestant agenda suggests the former, therefore suggesting the strong spiritual roots of business responsibility.
Around this same time period, environmental conservation entered the human psyche. Previous to this newfound awareness, the main concern was economic development. As necessary levels of economic improvement were achieved, concern for social and environmental values took an increased precedence over further unbalanced market evolution. The large-scale sense that business has a social and environmental responsibility has grown along with the market ever since the economy reached a relatively stable foothold with the Industrial Revolution. As individuals became enlightened on the social and environmental effects of unsustainable business, corporate reputation has increased dramatically in value.
The Industrial Revolution left a new brand of social and environmental liabilities in its wake but it profoundly improved the condition of human life. Collectively, the transformations of the last two centuries have more than doubled human life expectancy around the world, healthcare and nutrition have overwhelmingly increased quality of life, and technological innovation has enabled humans to combat poverty and concentrate their lifetimes on fulfilling activities. Dark memories of social tragedies such as class warfare, slavery, the holocaust, segregation, and women’s and LGBT rights have been met with unprecedented improvements. This new era of social triumph and equality has left the economy with an unrivaled competitive atmosphere.
The private sector holds immense influence over every entity affected by the social and environmental transformations created by the Industrial Revolution. The potential within technological innovations to combat environmental degradation is profound. The key to unlock this potential is present within each entity’s human intellectual capital. Addressing the social and environmental externalities of unjust business practices and irresponsible product life cycles are risk-mitigating incentives for businesses to change their organizational structures to that of value creating enterprises. By collaborating and thinking creatively with game-changing mindsets, business leaders can release the tsunami of entrepreneurial spirit within their workplace to make change for the better. The Industrial Revolution has provided a template to profoundly increase the quality of life for individuals throughout the world and it is the responsibility of business to fill this template with value that will nurture Earth’s resources and human capital for long-term sustainable prosperity.