Friday, November 16, 2012

looking back at a rapid transition, horse collars and assembly lines

I'm intrigued by a question about the economic consequences of a rapid transition.  The question is framed with concern about an economy-wide shift away from fossil fuel.

Although I'm not an economist myself, I come from a family that has included genuine experts.  Versions of the transition question are familiar.  The family had well-honed anecdotes used to kick off a classroom lecture or a Sunday afternoon conversation at home on the subject. My favorite is about horse collars.

In the early 20th century the transition from horse-drawn to motor vehicles was rather abrupt, and not particularly due to a government policy. Some esteemed companies that served horse transportation went through rocky times. One Philadelphia horse collar maker experienced very lean years, and nearly closed its doors. As horse collar sales declined, the owners were in awkward positions with their leather suppliers and their skilled employees. The owners reinvented the company as a manufacturer of leather assembly line belts, a new product at the time, though using the same sources of leather supplies and skilled laborers. It was a difficult period in the company history as the company had to break into the new market of manufacturers that used assembly lines.
The joke ran about the leather factory, They had to tighten their belts so as to tighten their belts.

One of the impetuses to move to cars was that horses were smelly and high-maintenance; as cities became more crowded there were no nearby hayfields left to feed the horses. Similarly cooks initially liked the shift from wood to coal, a fuel that burned hotter and longer than a load of wood, but they hated the coal dust and ashes, and often had little choice as the cost of wood had increased.  How ironic is it that we now realize that cars and coal have nasty downsides, and we yearn for something better still.  The limitations of mining rare-earths for car batteries are in the next round of noticing down-sides.

The social consequences of a rapid shift in energy source were huge in the horse-to-motor phase. Fewer farmers, more factory workers; more public transportation to common destinations like work places or amusement parks, more generic food supplies.  It allowed a deeper socioeconomic ghettoization as the prosperous no longer needed to have staff living nearby in the pattern of rich street and alley. Gone was the need for a stable with a groom living upstairs from the horse; and the cook and maid could come to work by trolley instead of living in the attic.

So in looking ahead, planting ahead, what might occur in a shift away from fossil fuel?

Updated November 19, 2012 Joan Savage

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