AGAINST THE GREAT RESET: 'Green Energy and the Future of Transportation'
For the next four weeks, The Pipeline is presenting the remaining excerpts from each of the essays contained in Against the Great Reset: 18 Theses Contra the New World Order, which was published on October 18 by Bombardier Books and distributed by Simon and Schuster, and available now at the links.
Part V: THE PRACTICAL
Excerpt from "Green Energy and the Future of Transportation" by Salvatore Babones
At Railworld Wildlife Haven in Peterborough, a two-hour drive north of London, you can find the last remaining RTV 31 Tracked Hovercraft, Britain’s 1973 concept for the railroad of the future. The RTV 31 was supposed to revolutionize train travel by levitating trains on a frictionless cushion of air. Propulsion was to be supplied by a then-revolutionary linear induction motor. But Britain was not alone in the race to the future. Nipping at its heels, France proffered the hovering Aérotrain, powered by a giant rear propeller. The United States countered with its own hovertrain prototype driven by no fewer than three jet aircraft engines—American exceptionalism in a nutshell.
The British project was managed by the National Physical Laboratory, the French one by an aircraft engineering company, and the American entry (inevitably) by a defense contractor. That explains the three different propulsion systems. But only one thing explains the near-contemporaneous explosion of interest in hovertrain technology across all three countries: government funding. The German, Italian, and Brazilian governments also had plans to sponsor their own national champion hovertrains before the bubble burst. But burst it did, and by the mid-1970s, the hovertrain was history.
Not all government-backed technology projects turn into boondoggles, and certainly examples can be found where governments have made sound investments in new technologies that turned out to be transformative. The hovertrain craze may now sound as silly as the gravity-negating “cavorite,” that propels H. G. Wells’s astronauts to the moon, but there is a legitimate role for government to play in twenty-first century technology development. When multiple governments invest in different approaches to meeting the same social needs, the result can even be something like a competitive marketplace. And when democratic governments make full use of the myriad talents of their own citizens through openly competitive processes, innovation flourishes.
But the more distant technology planning is from the ground level of individual people dealing with the daily challenge of economic survival, the more likely it is that out-of-touch government bureaucrats (often working in collusion with self- interested corporate leaders) will deliver economically impractical solutions. When a single technological approach is imposed by government fiat, catastrophic failure is almost assured. We live in a world of profound uncertainty even about the present, never mind the future. Without a crystal ball to tell us which technologies ultimately will succeed and which will fail, diversity in experimentation is the key to discovering the technologies of the future.
As Charles Darwin recognized decades before Friedrich Hayek was born, natural selection is a much more powerful mechanism for adaptation to an uncertain world than intelligent design. At any point in time, the number of possible technological futures is infinite, and those infinite possibilities only compound as time moves forward. Even the most intelligent, dedicated, well-informed planner can only guess which future to plan for, and the probability that such a planner will hit on just the right future is essentially zero. The same is true for planning by private individuals, but when several billion private individuals plan for the same future, some of them are bound to get it right.
Although most individuals may underperform professional planners, the scattershot approach leaves society as a whole better prepared to engage with whatever future emerges. This is not so much the wisdom of crowds as the luck of the draw. To see it in action, open your bottom drawer or check your top shelves to count how many disused electronic devices you own. At every stage of technological development, many more prototypes are developed, many more products are discontinued, than the small number of successful models that continue to evolve past their first iterations. Like the fossil record, technology development is a scrap heap of evolutionary dead ends.
Transportation technology is no exception to this general rule. Bicycles, trains, automobiles, and airplanes all emerged out of cutthroat evolutionary competition. Look at early history of any of these transportation systems, and you see a wild cacophony of competing designs. The public infrastructure and regulatory environment for each of them lagged far behind product development. Cyclists called forth paved roads; railroad operators called forth rights of way; car owners called forth traffic rules; airlines called forth airports. To the planning mentality, it seems irrational to allow people to fly before building airports for them to fly from and to, but in reality, the flights came first and the airports followed.
It’s the same situation today with autonomous (self-driving) cars. In 2021, there are already a million of so autonomous vehicles (AVs) driving with some degree of self-driving capacity, whether the planners are ready for them or not. Nearly all of them are battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), so in effect there are a million high-capacity batteries capable of driving themselves, among roughly ten million BEVs total. Both figures are growing rapidly, well in advance of government programs to equip roads for automation or even provide charging points.
Like other transportation technologies before them, AVs and other BEVs are calling into existence a whole new technological ecosystem, or technosystem, to serve the needs of their users. Those needs can’t be known in advance with any degree of certainty, but some general features seem inevitable. The AV-BEV technosystem will be decentralized and distributed like the internet, not centrally administered and controlled like high-speed rail. It will be capital light, not capital intensive. It will reconfigure the electrical grid even more than it reshapes the road network. It will have profound environmental implications. It will be almost entirely unplanned. And we must ensure that it remains free from technocratic control.
If there’s one organization that wants to plan our collective future, it’s the WEF. The WEF describes itself as “the” (not “an”) “International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.” Founded in 1971 by the engineer turned economist Klaus Schwab, it has developed into a statist behemoth dedicated to the promotion of its own brand of “stakeholder capitalism,” and its reports are written from the viewpoint of a very narrow class of capitalist stakeholders: management consultants, investment bankers, professional directors, and the serving politicians who aspire to join them when they leave office. Notably absent from the WEF’s vision of stakeholder capitalism are entrepreneurs, small businesses, the self-employed, and ordinary consumers.
Famous for attracting some three thousand CEOs, heads of government, and celebrity intellectuals to its annual January conference in Davos, Switzerland, the WEF likes to think big. Schwab’s 2020 book COVID-19: The Great Reset (coauthored with WEF alumnus Thierry Malleret) describes even the “micro” level of stakeholder capitalism as consisting of industries and companies, rather than families and individuals. When Schwab does consider human beings, he focuses on their personal morality and mental health without so much as an inkling that individuals could actually possess economic initiative...
Next week: an excerpt from "The Anti-Industrial Revolution," by Martin Hutchinson.