Industrial literacy

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I’ve said before that understanding where our modern standard of living comes from, at a basic level, is a responsibility of every citizen in an industrial civilization. Let’s call it “industrial literacy.”

Industrial literacy is understanding…

  • That the food you eat is grown using synthetic fertilizers, and that this is needed for agricultural productivity, because all soil loses its fertility naturally over time if it is not deliberately replenished. That before we had modern agriculture, more than half the workforce had to labor on farms, just to feed the other half. That if synthetic fertilizer was suddenly lost, a mass famine would ensue and billions would starve.

  • That those same crops would not be able to feed us if they were not also protected from pests, who will ravage entire fields if given a chance. That whole regions used to see seasons where they would lose large swaths of their produce to swarms of insects, such as boll weevils attacking cotton plants in the American South, or the phylloxera devouring grapes in the vineyards of France. That before synthetic pesticides, farmers were forced to rely on much more toxic substances, such as compounds of arsenic.

  • That before we had electricity and clean natural gas, people burned unrefined solid fuels in their homes—wood, coal, even dung (!)—to cook their food and to keep from freezing in winter. That these primitive fuels, dirty with contaminants, created toxic smoke: indoor air pollution. That indoor air pollution remains a problem today for 40% of the world population, who still rely on pre-industrial fuels.

  • That before twentieth-century appliances, housework was a full-time job, which invariably fell on women. That each household would spend almost 60 hours a week on manual labor: hauling water from the well for drinking and cooking, and then carrying the dirty water outside again; sewing clothes by hand, since store-bought ones were too expensive for most families; laundering clothes in a basin, scrubbing laboriously by hand, then hanging them up to dry; cooking every meal from scratch. That the washing machine, clothes dryer, dishwasher, vacuum cleaner, and microwave are the equivalent of a full-time mechanical servant for every household.

  • That plastics are produced in enormous quantities because, for so many purposes—from food containers to electrical wire coatings to children’s toys—we need a material that is cheap, light, flexible, waterproof, and insulating, and that can easily be made in any shape and color (including transparent!) That before plastic, many of these applications used animal parts, such as ivory tusks, tortoise shells, or whale bone. That in such a world, those products were a luxury for a wealthy elite, instead of a commodity for the masses, and the animals that provided them were hunted to near extinction.

  • That automobiles are a lifeline to people who live in rural areas (almost 20% in the US alone), and who were deeply isolated in the era before the car and the telephone. That in a world without automobiles, we relied on millions of horses, which in New York City around 1900 dumped a hundred thousand gallons of urine and millions of pounds of manure on the streets daily.

  • That half of everyone you know over the age of five is alive today only because of antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitizing chemicals in our water supply. That before these innovations, infant mortality (in the first year of life) was as high as 20%.

When you know these facts of history—which many schools do not teach—you understand what “industrial civilization” is and why it is the benefactor of everyone who is lucky enough to live in it. You understand that the electric generator, the automobile, the chemical plant, the cargo container ship, and the microprocessor are essential to our health and happiness.

This doesn’t require a deep or specialized knowledge. It only requires knowing the basics, the same way every citizen should know the outlines of history and the essentials of how government works.

Industrial literacy means understanding that the components of the global economy are not arbitrary. Each one is there for a reason—often a matter of life and death. The reasons are the immutable facts of what it takes to survive and prosper: the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and economics that govern our daily existence.

With industrial literacy, you can see the economy as a set of solutions to problems. Then, and only then, are you informed enough to have an opinion on how those solutions might be improved.

A lack of industrial literacy (among other factors) is turning what ought to be economic discussions about how best to improve human health and prosperity into political debates fueled by misinformation and scare tactics. We see this on climate change, plastic recycling, automation and job loss, even vaccines. Without knowing the basics, industrial civilization is one big Chesterton’s Fence to some people: they propose tearing it down, because they don’t see the use of it.

Let’s recognize the value of industrial literacy and commit to improving it—starting with ourselves.