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The big picture

Stand by for a new industrial revolution

A steam hammer in Manchester in 1832. Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty

“Economists are obsessed with the industrial revolution,” says Ed Conway on Substack. Rightly so – no other period has had as profound and lasting an impact on wealth, life expectancy, food availability, everything. But this shift was about much more than the “clichéd Dickensian vision” of coal-burning factories. It was really a “panoply of different revolutions”, involving “some of the most incredible technological leaps the human race has ever achieved”. It was a chemical revolution – we learned how to convert salt into soda ash, which we then used to make soaps, paper and glass. It was a sanitary revolution, with cleaning products and sewers that “saved hundreds of millions of lives”. It was about the invention of concrete, and of aluminium, and of much else besides.

Here’s the thing, though. Every one of these world-changing processes “entails the creation of greenhouse gases”. Carbon dioxide is produced in the manufacture of cement, steel, glass and aluminium; in the making of most chemicals and fertilisers; in the refining of metals, the minting of silicon chips, the making of lithium batteries. So to get to a truly zero carbon world, “we don’t just have to replace power stations”. We have to reimagine all of these processes so that they don’t churn out carbon. “We have to re-do the industrial revolution”, only this time in decades, not centuries. That’s an almost unimaginably daunting task. But it’s one that fills me with hope. Undertaking it will require “one hell of an effort” – and that could be just what the developed world needs to escape its current productivity rut. Here’s hoping.