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Industrialisation and human rights

Otto Kölbl

The industry has got a bad reputation in our media. Some branches have become scapegoats which are believed to be responsible for all the problems in our society. This is especially true for the car industry, which is considered to be the reason why we want ever more powerful cars. The pharmaceutical industry is accused of causing the recent increase in health care spending. The most frequent target of your media is certainly the Chinese industrialisation of the last decades.

The industry is accused of polluting the environment, destroying our idyllic landscape and dehumanizing the people who work there like robots, producing material goods which do not really make us happy. If you ask Westerners to what extent industrialization has contributed to the respect of human rights, the huge majority of them will answer with great conviction that its contribution is very close to nothing or even zero.

However, this concept of industrialization, built up by a decade-long effort of our cultural elite, has got nothing to do with reality. In fact, the industrialization has allowed our society to dedicate itself to the realization of the human rights as they were defined by the international community within the framework of the UN.
Food supply

The most fundamental right is the right to life. In the texts of the UN, this does not only mean that you have got the right not to be executed by a despotic regime. It also implies the right to food and shelter, to healthcare, education, a fair trial and much more.

The right to sufficient food is sometimes described as a right whose realization was made possible by industrialization. The fact is that mechanized transportation facilities allow us to move surplus food from one region to another region where a bad crop puts the local population into a dire situation.

It is true that the degree of industrialization which we have got in Western countries is not necessary in order to provide the whole population with sufficient food. The West has not experienced any famine for a very long time, and thanks to our production and transport capacity, we are able to guarantee the survival of virtually every person threatened by famine in the whole world.

The right to be in good health

However, other rights are more difficult to implement. Among others, the right to an equal access to health care is much more problematic. In the world, many people die each year, which could be saved if their country was more industrialized.

When we talk about health problems, generally we think about doctors, medicine and hospitals. However, most of the recent progress in life expectancy has no been achieved in the medical field, but in the field of hygiene.

A universal supply with drinking water is absolutely essential. Without this, not antibiotics and other medicine can save you from continuous diarrhoea and other epidemic illnesses as well as worms and parasites which will inevitably colonize our whole body.

This supply requires not only costly water treatment facilities, but also a network of water pipes which reaches each building. If the pipes are in bad condition, the losses become huge if the water pressure is high. On the other side, a low pressure in the pipes will allow polluted water to infiltrate and to contaminate the water. The water pipes and the machines necessary for maintenance are provided by our industry.

An efficient transport infrastructure is also vital to guarantee a good life expectancy. Our media entertain us on a regular basis with stories about babies which were born in remote areas of a Third-World country with a medical condition requiring urgent medical attention, which it got only after having been carried for hours by its parents in order to reach the closest hospital. It is obvious that only happy-end cases will make it into our media. For us Westerners, it is just normal that in case of a medical emergency, we call an ambulance which will arrive within a few minutes, or even a helicopter if the ambulance would loose too much time.

Housing and work places which offer a pleasant temperature are also dependent on our industry. In the industrialized countries, we are used to buildings heated to at least 20° Celsius in winter. I became aware of what this means when in winter I was in the east of China, where most apartments are not heated, despite outdoor temperatures which can remain below freezing point even during the day. Even though I was used to life in Switzerland, for example to winter sports in the mountains, I did not imagine what it means living the whole day in an apartment with a temperature around 5° Celsius. I have never frozen that much in my life!

Further north in China, apartments are heated. However, since they use quite simple technologies, this goes to the detriment of the environment. The energy is generally provided by coal, which emits lots of CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

In the industrialized countries, the technology used is not necessarily more elaborate. Our domestic heating pollutes less than in China because they will usually run on heating fuel. Just imagine what would happen if hundreds of millions of Chinese wanted to heat their houses in the way we do it: There would simply not be enough oil in the world…

Only recently, our engineers developed the necessary technology which allows us to maintain a comfortable temperature inside without any outside energy supply, at least in temperate regions. However, this implies relatively high building costs and requires up-to-date know-how. For this problem too, therefore, the solutions comes from industry.

So far we discussed only relatively low-tech fields. Let us now consider the means necessary to develop our healthcare system. Experts estimate that developing a new medicine costs around one billion dollars. This roughly corresponds to ten thousand highly qualified people working for one year. If we talk about developing new medicines not with well-known methods, but with an entirely new technology like gene-tech, the necessary means are of course much higher.

Therefore we are dependent on our industry for many vital aspects of our industry, and very few people will seriously think about doing without. However, this industry is often described as being a branch of our economy which pollutes, acts without any responsibility and only feeds our "consumer society".

It is quite obvious that some industrial products we buy are "consumed", which means that they are only used for a short time and then thrown away. But only a relatively minor part of an average household budget is dedicated to this useless consumption. Most of it is needed for rent or mortgage payment, food, health insurance and transportation.

In these fields, the contribution of our industry to the realization of the human rights is quite impressive. Life expectancy was less than 40 years before industrialization, and in many Third-World countries, it is still not much higher. Just imagine the number of children who will loose their parents at an age where they most need them, or where they will not even have any memory of them. The traumatism experienced by children under these circumstances are well illustrated by "fairytales" like Cinderella, which tells us about a bad mother-in-law, the biological mother probably died when giving birth.

Non-industrialized societies are also characterized by an extremely high infant mortality. In general, one child out of four dies before it reaches the age of one. Under these conditions, it is humanly impossible to get too much attached to a child which was just born, because this link can be broken at any moment by a sudden death.

As a consequence, even the love for the surviving children will get hurt, as is shown in an impressive way by "fairy tales" like Hansel and Gretel, where parents caught in the claws of misery are forced to abandon their children. The recent events in Haiti following the earthquake show that these situations do not only belong to the past.

The right to education

Such a short life expectancy is also a serious obstacle to the right to education. What use is it to invest into a lengthy education if the time span where the acquired knowledge can be applied is so short? Industrialization also allows us to liberate an important labour force from productive tasks, which in turn provides the necessary capacity to grant to each child a good education. It is also industrialization which allows our children to have a quiet place in their home where they can concentrate on their homework. Just imagine having to study in a family which lives cramped together in a small unheated hut, where lighting it up with a candle is already a luxury which you can afford only from time to time.

Why is there such hostility towards our industry?

What is the reason that our media will always attack our industry? They accuse it of poisoning us, of feeding us badly, of polluting our environment, of forcing us into jobs which alienate our spirit and our human qualities, and of controlling the whole world with their capital. The reasons given here are only speculations, like all the answers given to questions which start with "why".

Most of our reporters graduated in Arts, which means that their studies were not really tough and allowed them a great freedom in the choice of the subjects they were interested in, but they will lead to jobs which are less well paid than if they had graduated in an engineering major (I know what I am talking about, I also graduated in Arts). Is it possible that the attitude of our journalists comes from an inferiority complex in the face of economists and engineers who earn much more?

Another factor, but which is linked to the hypothesis above in some way, might be that people who graduated in Arts try to build up a world which is "ruled by the spirit" and not by material considerations which would be the field of industry. This everlasting quest for the spirit to rule the material world can be found in all the cultures, from the Bible and other religious texts up to a good part of the contemporary cultural production, where all kinds of magical powers play an important role.

However, our cultural elite forgets that for as long as we can trace back the evolution of human mankind, each progress of the spirit was dependent on a certain material development. Let us just remember the invention of writing, which allowed our ancestors to start reflecting their words and led to the invention of logic. Long-range navigation allowed our culture to get in touch with other cultures on other continents. Printing, sound and image recording and last but not least information technology and the Internet were other quantum leaps, each of which led to a new explosion in cultural creativity.

The recent acceptance in the Western countries of the human rights as a basis for our conception of human mankind is not an exception. The intellectual sources of this concept can be traced back thousands of years, but the broadly based acceptance by the population could only be achieved when life did not come and go in a general indifference, because this was considered to be unavoidable, and when the human beings could start to attach themselves to each individual without having to cope too often with a painful break.

An increase in life expectancy and a drop in infant mortality are not just cold figures provided by one or another international organization, they represent as many individual lives, made of happy moments and intense suffering, which made of us what we are: individuals who take the human rights seriously and try to enforce them in the whole world.

It is frightening to see that within the community which boasts doing most to defend the human rights, i.e. our reporters and journalists, hardly anybody tries to understand the conditions which have led to this development. The absence of a balanced food supply, of access to medical care or to education is part neither of our everyday experience nor of our collective memory.

However, I consider that we can expect from our educated elite that they have got a sufficient abstraction faculty in order to look beyond their daily experience, either by reflecting about the mechanisms determining the evolution of our society or by listening to those people who still live in societies where threats against human life are still part of everyday life or are still in the collective memory. For example, many Chinese still know by experience the difference between a non-industrialized society and the  actual situation which is the result of an extremely fast industrialization. They would love to explain their point of view to the correspondents of our media, if the latter were ready to listen to them. Unfortunately, this is expecting too much.