The health costs of initial urbanization and industrialization

In Extra Life: A Short History of Living Longer, Steven Johnson briefly summarizes how the development of big cities around the world in roughly the last two centuries often came at a high cost regarding health. After discussing the first life tables developed in England:

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How could any economy that was creating more wealth than any other place on earth produce such devastating health outcomes? The answer that Farr proposed with epidemiological data was similar to the one Marx and Engels were forming at the same time using political science: the mortality rates were plunging because the defining characteristic of being “Advanced” at that moment in history was industrialization, and industrialization seems to come with an unusually high body count in its initial decades, wherever it happens to arrive. The twentieth century would go on to show the same trends happening around the world whenever people left their agrarian lifestyle and crowded into factories and urban slums, even in economies where communist planners were driving the shift to an industrial economy…

The data told an incontrovertible story: industrial cities were killing people at an unprecedented rate. (73-74)

As Johnson goes on to note, this trend did not necessarily last as many cities and the millions living there became healthier over time. But, that transition period in Liverpool and other industrializing cities, whether in the 1800s or in more recent decades with the development of megacities around the globe, comes at a significant cost.

Even though I have not emphasized the health aspects of this in the past, this is part of the reason that I link the beginnings of sociology, urbanization, and industrialization in my courses. The population shift to big cities plus a new economic and production structure are noteworthy enough. But, these are connected to seismic shifts in societal structures and relations. People had lived in relatively small communities for thousands of years and this was shifting to significantly different kinds of communities, governments, and interaction. Sociology as a discipline emerges at this time to help explain and understand these changes. As noted above, Marx was seeing all of this happen and expressedt his concerns of what it all meant.

And all of this affected the human body in significant ways. This shift required poor health and death for many. We may look now and think it turned out okay – and life expectancy around the globe has increased dramatically – but it influenced bodies and social structures in profound ways.

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