Salt's Mill, a former textile mill at Saltaire, near Leeds. User:Jalo/Wikimedia

Industrialization brought economic growth, but unchecked pollution had real costs that are still relevant today.

By now, a particular image of cities during the industrial revolution’s peak is settled in the popular mind. It’s a bustling Victorian metropolis, sooty and poverty-stricken, where pollution was an ever-present but necessary evil. City-dwellers may have coughed up black phlegm at every turn as they battled their way through constant coal smoke, but these poor conditions laid the groundwork for the prosperity and better conditions we enjoy today.

That picture of the filth is accurate enough, but the unchecked pollution had a bigger negative economic impact than many realize, according to a new study from the U.K.’s National Bureau of Economic Research. Instead of being a necessary byproduct of wealth creation in the industrial era, that pollution actually stood in the way of economic development.

Heavy pollution caused by unregulated, inefficient coal burning probably hindered the growth of the most polluted cities, slowing down the pace of urban development as poor air quality both discouraged people from settling in cities and reduced productivity among ailing workers. Even more than a century later, where the Victorian factory town still forms a template for urbanism in new industrial superpowers like China and India, this is highly significant.

Victorian Britons were well aware of how unpleasant polluted cities were to live in, even if the full health consequences were less clear than they are today. As the Times of London (referenced in the report) commented in 1882:

“There was nothing more irritating than the unburnt carbon floating in the air; it fell on the air tubes of the human system, and formed a dark expectoration which was so injurious to the constitution; it gathered on the lungs and there accumulated.”

Britain’s capital was far from the worst in terms of airborne soot. Despite some industry and reliance on coal for heating, London’s reliance on commerce and trade meant its air wasn’t as bad as that of Sheffield and Birmingham, whose specialization in metal production required the highest volumes of coal burning.

By 1911, Britain’s annual coal consumption had reached 4.3 tons per person. And while most homes were heated by coal fires, between 60 and 65 percent of that tonnage was burned by industries. So universally sooty was the air in Britain’s cities that it even changed the pigmentation of some insects. Bernard Kettlewell’s celebrated 1955 study on Britain’s peppered moths noted that, in the industrial city of Birmingham, darker-colored moths had taken over from previously more common white ones because their pigmentation made them less visible to birds against the pervasive urban grime.

It’s not that Victorian Britons didn’t care about this airborne filth. An 1871 Coal Commission report, referenced in the NBER paper, investigated the problem and recommended a series of measures for making coal burning more efficient, thus reducing the volumes burned and the attendant pollution. The problem wasn’t a failure to recognize the issue: it was implementation. No meaningful enforcement following the report and manufacturers had little incentive to clean up their act. Domestically mined coal remained cheap and the costs of pollution in health fell upon government rather than the polluters themselves.

So what effect did this filth have on growth? In the absence of data on wages and other factors, the NBER’s paper uses a series of complex formulas to hypothesize how cities might have grown had their coal use been more efficient and less polluting. Its broad conclusion is that cities with a per capita coal use above the national average experienced 21 to 26 percent less growth in industrial jobs. While industries with especially high coal use grew, they did so at a weaker rate than they would have if this fuel had been used more efficiently and cleanly.

These hypotheses are borne out by experiences today. As the paper notes, contemporary studies have pointed out that in Mexico City, productivity drops when pollution levels rise. In agricultural work, meanwhile, increased ozone levels have been linked to shorter working hours and lower yields.

Given that the way we imagine rapid development today still derives largely from the great industrial shocks of the Victorian era, the observations are significant. Consuming fuel may remain an integral part of heavy industrial production, but manufacturing might just work better and develop faster with cleaner, healthier conditions. There may be money in muck, but it seems that cleaning up after yourself may have always been the more profitable option.

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