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Limits to Economic Growth?

Brian Davey

During the 17th and 18th centuries the rise of mercantile power, colonialism and a slave economy was associated with the development of the idea that “improvement” meant production growth and was an indicator of a new idea of progress. This was a core idea in Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations. In it Smith described the production increase at the early stages of the industrial revolution as being the result of an increasing division of labour and specialisation – his famous example being the pin factory.

However what really enabled the industrial revolution to take off was not just that production was being broken down into simplified specialised processes in factories but that this specialisation enabled mechanisation. Machines were being applied to production on a greater scale and these machines were powered. Their energy source was fossil fuels – coal fired steam engines began to overtake wind and water mills, sails, wood and the muscles of humans and work animals as the main energy and power sources.