The Industrial Revolution changed the lives of people in Europe in a most dramatic way.
It brought them from the countryside to the city in search of jobs; it changed their life patterns, created new tastes and recreations.
Most significantly, it saw the organization of production of goods on a scale never known before.
Factories required fuel and raw material. As new industrial townships came up there was huge demand for construction material like bricks, in the manufacture of which large quantities of wood were required. There was also a growing need for good grain to feed the growing urban population.
How did all this impact on nature? In very big way because it was Mother Nature alone that could provide all the materials required for this major change. The most noticeable change was the conversion of wooded or forest lands to cultivable tracts. Millions of hectares of land were brought under cultivation.
The well-known historian E.J. Hobsbawn, in his book tells us that Sweden more than half, Germany and Hungary by about a third. In southern Italy and its islands, about 6000,000 hectares of trees disappeared between 1860 and 1911.
Forests and grasslands, which were teeming with biodiversity, were made to give way to the simplifications of commercial agriculture. This brought about a major Ecological change.
New industrial cities brought unhealthy living and pollution in its wake. In England and later in Europe, writers, poets and painters recoiled at the ugliness of the new urban centers. Some writers like Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell described the squalor in their novels.
This was one of the dilemmas of development. On the one hand there was progress. The 19th and 20th centuries were the centuries of major developments in science and technology. While one branch of science concentrated on uncovering the laws of nature, another was committed to harnessing nature to the needs of capitalist development.
The lives of men and women were being transformed as never before. There were now conveniences to be enjoyed but there were, at the same time, new health hazards and new natural disasters to contend with.
The negative consequences of the new developments were recognized rather early in the day-in fact in the nineteenth century itself. The problem of nature was understood to be a serious one and policy makers had to strike a balance between maintaining the existing natural order and disturbing it. At the same time development could not be compromised, especially at a time when each nation was involved in the race to surpass the other.
Since this was the era of imperialist expansion and colonial exploitation, the dilemmas of development would involve not just Europe but Asia, the Americas and Australia as well.
Given the equation between the imperialist powers and their colonies, it was only to be expected that the ecological changes would be on a much larger scale in the colonies.
Since most of the colonies had been acquired to fulfill the needs industrialization, especially the growing demand for raw materials, the ecosystems of these areas were bound to be affected. All parts of the earth have their own natural ecosystems.
These could be very small, like a simple pond, or an entire rain forest or a desert-it could even be the whole earths-Ecosystems have been compared to machines that run automatically, checking themselves when they get too hot, speeding up when they get too slow and so on.
When they get too hot, speeding up when the equilibrium is affected and the entire system could collapse.
Environmental historians like Donald Worster, in the Ends of the Earth, tell us that for a long time the most dramatic environmental alterations came from the massive conversion of natural ecosystems into croplands. The bio-complexity of these regions was lost. Species of plants and animals began to disappear at an alarming rate.
As Worster puts it: “first it was one species every year, then one every day, soon it will be one every hour, one every half hour, one every 15 minutes.”There were plants on which man had depended for food, for medicines, for building materials and so much else for centuries. They now disappeared without a trace. Not only was the natural process of evolution suspended, it was even reversed.