Industrialization is the consequence of the development of industry, defined or conceived as the sum of processes and activities related to the production of consumer goods (the transformation of raw materials into manufactured products) and mainly utilizing mechanized systems in the operational part of the production process. At least two conceptualizations of industrialization can be derived from the phenomenon: one operational and the other socio-historical. On one hand, industrialization is a mechanical process of producing goods. It began around 1774 in England with the development and use of the steam engine in production processes by the Scottish mechanical engineer James Watt. This technological development marked an inflection point that would later be recognized as the first great Industrial Revolution.

From a socio-economic and historical point of view, industrialization refers to the economic, political and social repercussions that have appeared and continue to appear today, as well as the new perspective or worldview of the society and the world itself as a result of the transition from a mainly agrarian society to an industrial one. The use of machinery in the production process meant an increase in the capacity for production of consumer goods in the era and catapulted the economy to the world level, particularly in countries that are described today as economically developed. This new form of production also brought with it new paradigms in social, economic and political structures. It led to the development of a societal dichotomy between a minority consisting of the owners of capital and the means of production, on one hand, and on the other the rest of the population, the laborers, and working class. These changes represented a rupture and a deep social and political transformation that erupted into many wars and conflicts, both at the national as well as international levels, and, in turn, led to the development of new forms of political and socio-economic organization.

This so-called Industrial Revolution also unleashed other significant changes, such as the demographic explosion and the secondary agricultural and medical revolutions. In demographic terms, changes in agricultural techniques meant, on one hand, an unprecedented abundance of food that, at least theoretically, could support the majority of the population without the pressures and difficulties of previous eras. The mechanization of agriculture, however, meant greater poverty among the population, mostly rural, due to the massive displacement of laborers, who had to move to the cities. The cities of the era, particularly in Europe, did not have the infrastructure and ability to absorb the demographic inundation, leading to problems of overcrowding and public health in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in Europe. At the same time, this process led to advances in both research and techniques for treating medical conditions (some that are now considered benign) that extended life expectancy and reduced mortality in practically all parts of the globe.

Both then and now, however, industrialization has also led to mass exploitation of natural resources to meet the energy needs of the mechanized systems of production, as well as the needs of the market itself for producing consumer goods, transportation, housing, etc. While industrialization represents a historic success in the material progress of society at a global level, it has also created an inflection point in terms of historic levels of environmental degradation that have come to the planet along with it over approximately the last 300 years. The voracity with which industry (in general) has consumed natural resources, mostly non-renewable resources — such as, for example, fossil fuels — is one of the most important causes of contemporary environmental conditions and has become more relevant and important because of its serious and troubling effects. Global warming, and the resulting climate change at the global level is not only a potential phenomenon but one that is already being seen and experienced. Among the elements of industrial processes that have most impacted environmental resources is the unchecked increase in toxic and solid wastes, which have a direct, negative and even fatal effect on the health of the environment and, above all, on human beings. Atmospheric pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels (which are still the main source of energy for industrial processes) increase both acid rain and the greenhouse effect that leads to increasing warming of the plant and eventually alters climactic patterns everywhere. These two phenomena influence both the frequency and the intensity of atmospheric and climactic natural risks, such as storms (hurricanes, tropical storms, etc.), floods and extreme droughts, with their many social and economic effects.

In Puerto Rico, the industrialization process began with the partial mechanization of agriculture, particularly in the massive monoculture of sugar cane during the middle and latter 19th century. It was the needlework industry (manufacturing of clothing), tobacco and rum — during the 1930s and 1940s — that began the industrialization of the island’s economy and geography, however. This process peaked in the 1950s and 1960s with the massive industrialization process throughout the island under a strategy or policy of economic growth (not necessarily economic development) of investment by invitation to foreign capital that was called “Operation Bootstrap.” This process meant a major transformation both of society and its political and economic organizational components, as well as the physical and human geography of Puerto Rico. For one thing, the massive displacement of the rural population due to the increasing mechanization of agricultural production launched the first great migratory wave from the country to the city, which transformed the island’s demographics and regional geography. There was a disproportionate increase in the urban population and international migration by a substantial percentage of the population during this period. This expatriate migratory pattern was seen mostly in migration to the eastern United States, with the goal of finding jobs in urban manufacturing industries or in agriculture in those states that needed low-cost labor.

Depopulation allowed for the expropriation of large agricultural areas by the state for the eventual suburbanization of the island (the construction of roads and highways, residential developments, shopping centers and industrial complexes), transformed and impacted both its physical and environmental geography. Huge movements of earth, the destruction of the “mogote” hills, the paving of extensive areas of the karst zone (particularly in the northern part of the island), the extreme densification of the coastal zone, uncontrolled urban growth, the contamination of surface and subterranean bodies of water, marked deforestation in critical areas, and degradation of ecosystems, both in the interior and the coastal plains of the island, are among some of the direct and indirect effects of the industrialization process that have been experienced in Puerto Rico. Today, the environmental status of the majority of ecosystems on the island ranges from moderately to highly threatened, due in large part to the impacts of industrialization. A new model or way of using environmental resources, from a perspective of sustainability, is not only necessary,but also fundamental to the development of a new economic model for the island.

Author: Harrison Flores Ortiz
Published: February 23, 2016.

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