Material Transitions

The birth of the industrial economy


Sweeping changes have characterised the development of human society over the past 250 years. Revolutions in agriculture, industrial technology, transport systems, and communications have been accompanied by massive changes in the material base of the emerging system. Transformations of the material base have brought changed environmental burdens: a vast increase in the extent and the range of material impacts imposed by human activities on the environment.

In the late twentieth century, we tend to take most of these changes for granted. We generally suppose that industrialisation was and is the most obvious goal of human development. We assume that economic growth achieved through industrialisation is a sign of progress. If asked to define what we mean by progress, we would probably point to rising living standards, improved material comfort, better health, reduced manual labour and increased life expectancy. And generally speaking, we conveniently omit from our deliberations the uncomfortable environmental and social costs which this kind of progress has brought with it. Nor do we usually question whether the same development paradigm is appropriate—or even accessible—for global consumption. We assume that it is.

It is natural enough, of course, to take for granted the basic elements of the culture into which we are born: the philosophies which guide it, the creeds which govern it, and the institutions which embody it. As participants in a particular culture we are often conveniently blind to the fact that culture is relative.

In another world or in another culture, this blindness might not matter. Another culture might automatically have built environmental protection into its lifestyle, for instance, through strict codes of conduct governing material transactions.1 Equally, in a world without physical constraints, our own lack of constraint might not matter. In a world without the second law of thermodynamics, for instance, materials would never run out, energy would be unlimited, and we could effortlessly contain our material profligacy. Consequently, there would be no material or environmental limit to the global extension of the culture.

Ironically, this is almost precisely how the culture in which we are now embedded has behaved: as if there were no second law of thermodynamics. This shortsightedness becomes more comprehensible when we learn that the second law was not really formulated until Carnot's work in the early nineteenth century. And by that time, the conditions for the development of modern industrial society were already more or less in place. The emergence of the market economy had already occurred. The industrial revolution was in the throes of transforming life in Britain, and was soon to transform life in the other northern European countries and in America.

Since the history of this process is fascinating in its own right, and since a cursory knowledge of it is the least we need to understand our own position in the industrial economy, this chapter is dedicated to a brief history of the material transitions which have taken place in the last 250 years.

A reader who is already familiar with this history or who has absolutely no interest in it could skip to Chapter 3 without losing the main technological thread of the argument. On the other hand, there are aspects of the present chapter—particularly those concerned with the ideological underpinnings of the modern economy—which are crucial to a proper understanding of the latter part of the book.


The industrial economy was born in one particular country—Britain—in the period which is usually referred to as the industrial revolution: loosely, between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century. The time period is approximate. Considerable industrialisation occurred after 1850, and the period before 1750 was characterised by what has been called proto-industrialisation:2 the development of technical, economic and demographic conditions which prepared the way for industrialisation. Nevertheless, the period between the mid-eighteenth century and the mid-nineteenth century—the period when Britain became the 'workshop of the world'—provided the foundations for one of the most remarkable technical, economic and social transformations in recorded history.

What characterised this transformation? What exactly was the industrial revolution? Historians have tended to accord three slightly different meanings to the term,3 each of which captures something of the extraordinary metamorphosis that was taking place.

Most narrowly, the term is used to describe the very rapid growth of certain manufacturing sectors in a certain country—primarily the cotton industry in Britain—over a relatively short time interval: between about 1760 and 1840. The technological dimension of this phase of industrialisation was relatively simple. Simple technologies—some of which had been around for a while, and mostly using conventional energy sources and materials—were introduced into the textiles industry. Rapid deployment led to massive increases in output over a very short period of time.

Secondly, it is used to refer to a very specific structural shift which occurred in the British economy over a slightly longer time period. This structural shift was essentially a change from an economy based predominantly on local craftsmanship and agriculture, using simple technologies and renewable resources, to an economy based predominantly on factory-based, manufacturing industry whose raw material basis was increasingly supplied by mineral resources.

Finally, the revolution is sometimes denoted as one in which the entire British economy—and subsequently the economies of Britain's European neighbours—broke away from a system of more or less steady-state national income to a system characterised by continued growth in the national income. This economic revolution was really the emergence of what has become known as capitalism: the systematic pursuit of profit through accumulation of private investment capital in a market economy.4

The time-scale over which this aspect of the revolution is supposed to have occurred is longer than those of the previous two characterisations. The foundations for the pursuit of private profit were laid well before the middle of the eighteenth century. It was evident, for instance, in Britain's massive expansion in naval power from the middle ages onwards. It was evident in the enclosure movement, in which large areas of land, previously considered common property, were enclosed by private landlords. And it was reflected in an immense body of Western thought stretching (at least) from Adam Smith5 and John Stuart Mill6 to Alfred Marshall in the early twentieth century.7

Whichever characterisation of the industrial revolution we choose to adopt, the truth of the matter is that all of these changes and more took place during what is a remarkably short period of human history. And in their wake, the simple, material basis of predominantly agricultural human settlement was completely overturned. A few statistics will help to illustrate this startling transition.


The population of Britain had remained relatively stable during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and even during the early part of the eighteenth century. It is estimated to have just about doubled from 3 million to 6 million in the 250 years prior to 1750. But from 1750 onwards it rose dramatically, doubling in the fifty or sixty years following 1780, and doubling again in the sixty years from 1840 to 1900. The population of Britain in the last years of the twentieth century is more than ten times its pre-industrial level. Similar trends occurred in other industrialising nations.

Although population rates are now stabilising in most industrial countries, worldwide population already stands at just under 6 billion and is projected to reach 10 billion people before the middle of the twenty-first century. The cumulative effect of this population increase on the environment is obvious.

One of the most commonly held views about industrialisation is that it improves the quality of life, and increases life expectancy. In reality, little of the early population increase is believed to have been the result of reduced mortality from improved conditions. Basic health services lagged some considerable time behind the increase in industrial output. And in many industrial towns and villages in Britain, living conditions were considerably harsher than they had ever been before. Life expectancy in Dudley, Worcestershire, in the middle of the nineteenth century, for instance, was just eighteen and a half years.

It is more likely that the early increases in population resulted from a rise in the birth rate. And this birth rate increase was influenced by several factors. Higher incomes meant that more people could afford to have bigger families. But in addition, there was an economic incentive to increase the family size: more children meant more opportunity to take advantage of the increased requirements for industrial labour that the revolution provided. Industry was expanding so fast that its new factories produced a massive demand for labour.


Increases in production output were spearheaded by the textiles industry. Between 1760 and 1787, the output of the cotton industry had increased almost tenfold from just over 1,000 tonnes to around 10,000 tonnes and had jumped to well over 150,000 tonnes by 1840.8 But the fortunes of the cotton industry quickly affected the rest of the British economy. The application of the steam engine in 1779 to the textiles industry stimulated both the coal industry and the iron industry.

The coal industry was on a relatively stable footing even prior to the industrial revolution. Coal production had increased following drastic fuelwood shortages during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and to meet the demand from Britain's expanding overseas trade. When the population began to escalate in the late eighteenth century, the market expanded further. And once the steam engine and the coking process had revolutionised British industry, the demand for coal soared. From an output of around 3 million tonnes prior to the industrial revolution coal production had increased to 11 million tonnes by the last decade in the eighteenth century and to 36 million tonnes by 1830. At this time Britain more or less completely dominated the world coal market, producing 70 per cent of the total world coal production of around 50 million tonnes.9

Cheap transport was one of the reasons for the success of the British coal industry both at home and abroad. International trade was facilitated by Britain's immense naval resources. Domestic trade was also initially dependent on water transport (port-to-port shipping and the extensive canal system). Later, of course, the railways took over from waterways as the dominant transport medium for industrial products. So the development of rail transport both relied on and contributed to the development of the coal industry.

By the end of the ninteenth century British production had reached almost 250 million tonnes of coal, although its domination of the world market (700 million tonnes) had declined. During the twentieth century the dominance of coal as an energy source began to be eroded, first by oil; later, although to a lesser extent, by gas. Domestic consumption of coal in Britain peaked in the mid-1950s at around 220 million tonnes and has since fallen to around 100 million tonnes. But total energy consumption has continued to rise. The UK now consumes an amount of energy equivalent to 350 million tonnes of coal every year. Worldwide annual consumption of primary fuels now stands at around 12.5 billion tonnes of coal equivalent.10 And this total has more than doubled in the fifty years since the end of the Second World War.

These statistics portray a massive increase in the energy intensity11 of human society over pre-industrial levels. Even once the increase in population has been taken into account (Figure 5), per capita energy consumption in Britain increased by a factor of about 20 between 1700 and 1990.

1700 1800 1820 1840 1860 1880 1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000

Figure 5 Energy consumption per capita in Britain 1700-1990

1700 1800 1820 1840 1860 1880 1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000

Figure 5 Energy consumption per capita in Britain 1700-1990


From a thermodynamic viewpoint, the rapid expansion in the use of fossil fuels has allowed us to escape from the 'struggle for existence' (see Chapter 1) which characterised previous agricultural societies and still characterises the development of almost every other species on the planet.12 A simple calculation of the energy 'surplus' available through the employment of fossil resources is informative.

In the late eighteenth century a miner could extract around 500 pounds of coal a day, that is, a little under a quarter of a tonne. This quarter tonne of coal could provide around 3,000 times the energy the average miner expended to produce the coal. Even if this thermal energy was converted into useful work with a very limited efficiency, say 1 per cent, it was still 30 times more energy than the miner could provide by carrying out the work of the machines manually. As technical conversion efficiencies improved, this equation swung even more in favour of the new energy system.

It was really this immense new source of available energy which fuelled the continuing process of industrialisation. The early innovations in cotton manufacture were principally simple technologies often driven by water power, rather than coal. But as time went on the energetic advantages of fossil fuels became increasingly important to the industrial economy. Coal provided thermal comfort to the increasing population. But it also provided a more mobile and adaptable source of energy for the vast new factories and industrial towns which were springing up. It facilitated (and also depended on) the massive revolution in transport which industrialisation was spawning. And it provided the energy needed to access an enormous material base of mineral resources: iron initially.

By the end of the nineteenth century the production of pig iron in Britain had increased 200-fold from a pre-industrial level of 50,000 tonnes per year to something approaching 10 million tonnes per year, approximately a quarter of the global production of 40 million tonnes.13 Today the world consumes over twenty times this amount, and the long-term trend is still increasing.14 Moreover, the industrialised world now consumes vast quantities of other mineral resources: non-ferrous metals like copper, lead, zinc and aluminium, non-metallic minerals such as

Figure 6 Consumption of raw materials by type in the US (excluding food and fuels): 1900-89

Figure 6 Consumption of raw materials by type in the US (excluding food and fuels): 1900-89

stone, clay and sand, and petroleum. Only a few of these minerals have witnessed any decrease in consumption levels over the last twenty years.

In general terms, both the volume and the variety of materials consumed in the industrial economy are still increasing. And the relative changes in the composition of the resource base indicate that, increasingly, these materials are drawn from finite (non-renewable) sources.

Figure 6 illustrates some of the qualitative changes which have taken place in the material basis of the industrial economy since the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1900, even after 150 years of industrialisation, over half of the total materials in use (excluding those used for fuels and for foods) were still provided by agricultural, wildlife and forestry products. By 1989, the proportion of such materials had dropped to less than 30 per cent. Over 70 per cent of the materials basis is now provided by non-renewable resources: metals, minerals and petroleum-based products.


Some of this change is attributable to the emergence of one particular industry. The chemicals industry is supposed to have been born during the industrial revolution as a result of a suggestion made by Berthelot to James Watt in 1786 that chlorine could be used for bleaching. But the emergence of the chemical industry might equally well be attributed to the demand for soda ash—used mainly to make glass, soaps and cleaning products. The Leblanc process for soda ash production was patented in 1773, a quarter of a century before the first chlorine patent (for the Deacon process in 1799). At any rate a flourishing chemicals industry had emerged in Scotland by 1800, and has expanded almost continually ever since. The most dramatic impacts have been seen in this century, particularly since the Second World War.

The chemicals industry in the United States, for example, has expanded more than tenfold in the last forty years. Approaching 100,000 industrial chemicals are now in commercial use worldwide, and this figure is increasing at the rate of between 500 and 1,000 new chemicals each year. This increase has been driven in part by the availability of petroleum-derived by-products of an expanding oil industry, and in part by the increased role for new and complex chemicals in new and expanding technological contexts: agriculture, metal purification and metal plating, electronics, textiles and the food industry.

Some of these chemicals are known to be toxic to humans. But scientific information about the toxicological and environmental impacts of many other chemicals is simply inadequate. The US National Academy of Science has estimated that there is insufficient information even for a partial health assessment for roughly 90 per cent of them.

A global assessment of the total toxic emissions into the environment from manufacturing industry (Figure 7) reveals that almost 40 per cent of this burden comes directly from the chemicals industry—the single biggest source of toxic emissions.15 The second biggest category is the metals industry, accounting for 26 per cent of total emissions. But the burden of toxic releases from other industrial sectors should also be accounted as indirect effects of the chemicals industry. Many of its toxic products are destined for consumption in other industrial sectors, and a large proportion of them will be emitted elsewhere in the economy, either as process emissions from other manufacturing sectors, or through product use and disposal.

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Total estimated emissions: 19.9 million lonnes

Figure 7 Global toxic emissions from manufacturing by sector (1990)

The new materials which are now being developed are no less problematic. For instance, the new generation of materials used for semiconductors and superconductors increasingly uses rare metals, on which very little research on health effects or environmental impacts exists. New composite materials which combine polymers with glass or metal fibres offer high occupational hazards during manufacture and pose serious waste problems after use. Perhaps the most worrying concerns come from new developments in the biological sciences. These developments in what is now known as biotechnology present many of the most troubling characteristics of environmental concern: novel and inherently uncertain ways of manipulating biological resources; proposed application in an open and complex environmental system; and an inherent lack of control over released materials and processes.

The environmental impacts of the new industrial age were felt within a relatively short space of time after the industrial revolution, and have


gradually gathered an insidious momentum. Early problems were mainly confined to air pollution from the burning of coal and the smelting of ores, and water pollution from foundries and metal-works. In addition, the social restructuring and urbanisation of the industrial society gave rise to some local sewage-related problems.

The twentieth century has seen a ballooning of other, less manageable forms of pollution: the emission of greenhouse gases (such as methane and carbon dioxide) which threaten to warm up the global atmosphere; the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halogenated16 chemicals which threaten to destroy the ozone layer; the release of toxic, synthetic chemicals such as dioxins, and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which are harmful to human health in very small quantities; the emission of gases like sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide which combine with water in the atmosphere and lead to the acidification of soil and water supplies; the generation of hazardous and toxic industrial wastes which are emitted into the atmosphere, or discharged into rivers and lakes; the accumulation of industrial and household wastes in landfill sites designed for the disposal of products; and a sophisticated cocktail of transport-related pollutants giving rise to dangerous photochemical smogs in large cities. There is now plenty of literature which deals in detail with these various forms of pollution from the industrial economy,17 so I do not intend to dwell on them here. Rather I want to stress again the link between environmental pollution and the dissipative nature of economic activity. Without being simplistic, we could say that almost all the environmental problems of the industrial economy arise from the dissipation of materials through the economic system.

We know from the second law of thermodynamics (described in the previous chapter) that this dissipation is inevitable. The same inevitability holds for natural ecosystems. The difference between the economic system and the ecosystem is that material dissipation in the economy is independent of the complex balance of natural material cycles which reorganise degraded materials into high-quality resources again. And the dissipation of energy is largely independent of the powerful solar flux which preserves order in the global ecosystem. By contrast, the dissipation of materials by the industrial system proceeds without inherent limitations or regulations. Accessing huge reserves of available energy has propelled human civilisation into a new industrial era. But environmental pollution has followed that trajectory, as the inevitable shadow of our material progress.


These remarks serve to illustrate why the technological and material transitions which have taken place since the industrial revolution carry such profound environmental implications. But whatever the industrial revolution was, it was certainly something more than simply technological change. And although rapid demographic changes occurred over a period which seems perilously short by geological timescales, these quantitative changes were matched by equally startling qualitative changes in the way in which people lived and made their living.

In 1750, even though the wealth of the country was certainly no longer tied to agriculture, the population of Britain was still predominantly rural. Perhaps 80 per cent of its population lived in the country.18 London had a population approaching three-quarters of a million people, which was enormous by the standards of the day and twice the size of its nearest rival, Paris. But no other town had a population greater than 50,000 inhabitants. Even in 1800, with the industrial revolution well advanced, the rural population comprised about 70 per cent of the total. By 1950, the rural population had fallen to less than 20 per cent of the total. And rural populations have continued to decline.

This change was a direct consequence of the industrial revolution. The needs of the new mechanised industries were for cheap, plentiful labour, capable of being organised in such a way as to maximise the returns on capital investment. This inevitably led to the emergence of new industrial towns centred around the new factories where human labour could be concentrated and organised. Above almost every other characterisation of the industrial revolution rises the image of the new urban factories. To some this image was a positive vision, promising a new prosperity and providing a new, vibrant social environment. The reality was less than Utopian. Poorly paid, overworked labourers, often women and children, eked out a meagre existence in appalling working conditions. In those early days, environmental management did not even extend to humane working conditions.

One of the criticisms levelled most often against this new form of social organisation was that it destroyed the independence and the creativity of the rural artisans: spinners, weavers, potters, carpenters, ironmongers and tanners. It was in fact this flourishing artisanal community which had provided the domestic basis for the early period of commercial proto-industrialisation. Contemporary accounts of Britain in the early eighteenth century portray the rural villages as prosperous, well-organised environments, flourishing in the improved commercial situation. Ironically, it was precisely the success of this new commercial basis which was eventually to rob the artisans of their employment.

In any case, the emerging reorganisation of labour certainly created a completely new social environment for the vast majority of the population. People flocked to the new industrial towns and cities in their thousands. Agriculture benefited from the new industrialisation. Better ploughshares, improved transport, new energy sources for irrigation, and new crop rotation techniques: all these contributed initially to significant improvements in agricultural productivity. And these improvements themselves contributed to industrialisation by freeing labour from farms for the new industrial factories.

The urbanisation of populations and the centralisation of production created new infrastructures with new material demands. Different institutional structures emerged. Different economies of scale applied. Amongst the most fundamental changes were those which applied to transport. Transport systems underwent several radical revolutions as they strove to meet the demands of centralised production and concentrated populations. But the new transport systems had their own impacts on the environment. The automobile may have become a symbol of personal freedom in the late twentieth century, almost in itself an icon of modern society. But it is also one of the biggest sources of environmental concern in almost every industrialised nation in the world.

Equally importantly, the new urban demography had some profound and far-reaching impacts on the social behaviour of the industrial economy People were no longer in daily contact with their natural environment. They no longer perceived the importance of the changing of the seasons, or the climate, or the quality of soils and rivers. They became gradually more and more isolated from the source of their own survival. And this in its turn allowed a social evolution almost entirely divorced from any awareness of natural, physical constraints. Even television, the omnipresent provider of diffuse information in the late twentieth century, has been unable to replace our close, experiential knowledge of nature. Today, barely a fraction of the population possesses skills relevant to their own survival as animals in a natural environment. And only a few more have anything other than a cursory understanding of environmental constraints.

These social aspects of industrialisation are important to our investigation for several reasons. Social repercussions contribute to the environmental burden in various material ways. Social trends have subtracted from our environmental proficiency, even in its most basic sense. And finally, we have to be able to understand the driving forces behind the industrial economy if we are to address its environmental problems. If we are to hope to reorient its progress towards a sustainable future, we need to get inside the industrial machine and uncover the driving mechanism, the principles and philosophies which have forged the new material society.


Above all else these principles and philosophies were those encapsulated in the new economics: the pursuit of profit, the accumulation of wealth, the employment of capital resources to improve labour productivity, and the transition from a steady-state economy to one predicated on continued growth.

We can trace these ideas back to well before the industrial revolution. Many authors point to a poem entitled The Fable of the Bees, published in 1705 by a Dutch doctor living in London, Bernard de Mandeville, in which he compared the social behaviour of the emerging market economy to the operation of a beehive:

Vast numbers thronged the fruitful hive; Yet those vast numbers made 'em thrive; Millions endeavouring to supply Each others' lust and vanity Thus every part was full of vice Yet the whole mass a paradise.19

Essentially, the poem was a satirical attack on the moralists who deplored what they saw as the rise of greed and vanity in late seventeenth-century England. De Mandeville's thesis was that it was precisely these vices of self-interest which ensured progress, and supported civilisation.

Ironically, it was Adam Smith—the 'father of economics'—who first protested against this characterisation of self-interest as the motor of progress. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments published in 1759, he described de Mandeville's thesis as 'holy [sic] pernicious' and 'in almost every respect erroneous'. This response is most notable for its appearance in the same book in which Smith first proposed his famous doctrine of the 'invisible hand'. In this early work, however, the invisible hand is synonymous with a kind of divine providence, a guiding force moderating the 'vain and insatiable desires of the rich'.

By the time, he wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776, Smith had quietly succumbed to the logic of de Mandeville's satire. In the later work, Smith argued that each economic agent is led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always worst for society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

This doctrine has been handed down to us today in the familiar guise of market economics: the self-interested, rational economic actor pursuing his own profit motive in an open market offers the best way of allocating economic goods; government is necessary only to ensure that the market is working efficiently.

Irrespective of this intellectual underpinning, there is good evidence that the new economic system was operating well before the industrial revolution. The system of enclosures, under which common land became increasingly concentrated in the hands of rich and powerful landlords, was in evidence from the early eighteenth century. England's prosperous, proto-industrial society was already operating on the foundations of a commercial market economy. Britain's extensive overseas power provided the expanding demand base on which industrialisation itself was built. The foundations for a global dependency on economic growth as the basis for prosperity were already laid.

There was opposition of course. The Luddites were the best known opponents of the new industrialisation. They deplored the destruction of local workmanship and the displacement of labour which the guilds had striven for so long to protect. The fiercest criticism was reserved for the impacts of mechanisation. This is reflected in the commentary of William Cobbett after a visit to Withington in the Cotswolds in 1826.

Here in this once populous village you see all the indubitable marks of most melancholy decay. ...A part, and perhaps a considerable part, of the decay and misery of this place is owing to the use of machinery and to the monopolizing in the manufacture of blankets of which fabric the town of Witney was the centre and from which town the wool used to be sent round to and the yarn, or warp, back from, all these Cotswold villages and quite a part of Wiltshire. This work is all now gone.. There were, only a few years ago, above thirty blanket manufacturers at Witney: twenty-five of these have been swallowed up by the five that now have all the manufacture in their hands. And all this has been done by that system of fictitious money which has conveyed property from the hands of the many into the hands of the few.20

But industrialisation proceeded in spite of criticism. Its foundations were in the event far too strong to be swayed by local criticism, and even the trenchant, intellectual critiques of economists such as Karl Marx and Jean-Charles Sismondi failed to modify the continued pursuit of profit in a capitalist economy. Appalled by the effect which industrialisation was having on the English way of life in the early nineteenth century, Sismondi rejected the idea that the 'invisible hand' could be relied on to provide the best for people and called on the government to intervene. He advocated a return to independent, local production and agriculture.

But at the end of the day, the dislocations of the labour pool were localised effects. In general terms, employment opportunities in the UK increased for at least a century, in spite of mechanisation. And by then, the new economic and social system was completely entrenched. Mechanisation increased output, which increased profit, and allowed for increased investment. Today, the pursuit of economic growth is the goal of almost every government in the world.

Figure 8 Growth in GNP in three industrialised nations 1950-90 (GNP is set at 100 in 1950 and subsequent years are indexed relative to the base year.)

Figure 8 Growth in GNP in three industrialised nations 1950-90 (GNP is set at 100 in 1950 and subsequent years are indexed relative to the base year.)

Figure 8 shows the increase in gross national product (GNP) in three industrialised nations over a forty-year period between 1950 and 1990. GNP is a measure both of national production output and, simultaneously, of national consumption, and so provides a proxy for economic development. The pursuit of rising GNP is now common to almost every nation in the world, developed or developing. More than 200 years after the birth of the industrial age, GNP in Britain still increased by 230 per cent over a forty-year period.21


In the space of a couple of centuries, industrialisation has revolutionised not only the material basis of human society but its demographic underpinnings, its economic structure, its cultural inheritance, its social patterns, and its knowledge base.

For the purposes of the investigation in this book, it is the material transition which is of principal concern. And this transition has been absolutely fundamental. From a society dependent mostly on local supplies of natural, renewable resources, we have become a society dependent increasingly on global patterns of consumption based on limited resources, and the utilisation of exotic, often toxic materials, many of which were completely unknown in the natural environment less than a century ago. In this context, the task of environmental management is not just vital to our survival. It is also frighteningly complex. Nevertheless, it is this task which we must now face.

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