Thursday, January 30, 2014

In defense of industrialization

When I wrote Elegant Technology, the working title was The Industrial-Environmental Solution.  I soon discovered that even though most of the world's populations wanted a piece of the wonders that came from the industrial impulse, the hippy versions of environmentalism had rendered the world "industrialization" as positively toxic.  Of course, the environmentalists had a point. Industrialization is a major, if not the sole, cause of many of our most serious environmental dilemmas.  But the hippies soon discovered that the vast majority had no intention of giving up the better life brought about the industrial contributions to medicine, transportation, communications, etc.  Unfortunately, the resulting impasse has meant that most environmental groups have not accomplished much in the past 45 years of hectoring and trying to raise consciousnesses.  I thought the obvious answer to this impasse was to upgrade industrial thinking so it could become an engine for environmental renewal.  Industrial-Environmentalism—what could be more obvious?

After a few encounters where where it was clear my listener thought I was crazy, I (sort of) resigned myself to the idea that intellectually at least, "industrialization" had become a description of evil.  Most people treat the gifts of industrialization as a fact of life so rarely even think about what sorts of operations were necessary to produce the car in their driveway, or whatever.  And because it requires several days to explain all the steps that exist between iron ore and an automobile, most conversations about industrialization usually end right there.

Because it is so rare to hear someone explain the essential nature of industrialization, the following TED talk about the social implications of the "humble" clothes washer is a pure treat for me.  The TED talk itself is embedded at the end.  If you have the eight minutes and the connection, just watch that. Ms. Sterbenz' summation of the talk isn't bad but the real thing is better.

Why The Washing Machine Was The Greatest Invention Of The Industrial Revolution

JAN. 29, 2014

"I was only four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the first time ever. That was a great day for my mother," Hans Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet, said in one of his many TED talks.

Unfortunately, about five billion people around the world still heat water and scrub their clothes by hand. And because of growing energy concerns, some (the few with washing machines) don't mind the inequality.

Rosling, however, believes washing machines foster education and democracy. He doesn't think the "haves" should tell the "have-nots" how to spend their days either.

To prove his point, Rosling split the world population into categories, as seen below.

Two billion people live below the poverty line — spending less than $2 a day. The richest one billion live above what Rosling calls the "air line," so named because they make enough for airplane travel. This group spends more than $80 a day.

With seven billion people on the planet, the remaining four billion live somewhere between these two distinctions.

Yes, they have electricity, but only one billion of them have washing machines, according to Rosling.

That means two billion people have access to washing machines. The remaining five billion wash their clothes (or often get women to wash their clothes) like this:

"It's hard, time-consuming labor, which they have to do for hours every week ... How can we tell these women that they can't have a washing machine?" Rosling said.

This image shows energy consumption based on the economic distinctions Rosling made earlier. Each blue figure represents one billion people, while the black blocks show an energy unit of fossil fuel, like oil, coal, or gas.

Rosling broke down the stats to imagine that the entire world uses 12 units. The richest one billion consume six — meaning one-seventh of the population uses half of the world's energy — while the poorest two billion consume only two units.

Now, this image shows how Rosling thinks (and hopes) industrialization will continue to change the globe:

Those above the "wash line" will hop the fence to the "air line," creating a chain reaction. Those formerly limited to just electricity will now own washing machines. And because of the population growth, the poorest group will double in size and transfer to the category with electricity, leaving no one living on less than $2 a day. With these changes also comes an increase in energy consumption by 10 fossil fuel units, reaching 22 units total.

While this will present a problem, Rosling says the wealthy should worry about their own energy consumption because in the new paradigm, the wealthiest two billion people would consume more than 50% of global energy.

"Until they [the richest people] have the same energy consumption per person, they shouldn't give advice to others what to do and what not to do," Rosling said.

Rosling also referenced how the former minister of energy in Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, became the country's first female president.

"If you have democracy, people will vote for washing machines. They love them!" Rosling said.

Rosling's mother pointed out the final evidence of the washing machine's power. Since she didn't have to wash the family's clothes by hand, she had time to go to the library. She had time to read to Rosling. His mother also borrowed books for herself. She learned English.

"Thank you, industrialization. Thank you, steel mill. And thank you, chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books," Rosling said.

And for the record, here's what he believes the rich should do to start leveling-off their energy consumption: reduce and implement green energy. more

Watch Rosling's full talk here:

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