Monday, May 23, 2005


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy

A few months ago, Daniel wrote this account of how transportation revolutions take place in order to better come to grips with our energy needs and challenges.
It was picked up by a professor at the University of Washington and posted on the Internet.
I am reposting it here for your review and comments:


by Daniel Sweeney


The technologies considered in this issue are supposed to bring about a revolution in transportation, replacing and displacing older energy sources and energy conversion techniques, and presumably bringing new economic entities into play. In addition, it is to be hoped, they will provide the benefits of mass rapid transportation to all of the inhabitants of the globe without the heavy costs in environmental degradation associated with traditional fossil fuels and the legacy transportation systems they underlie.

As may be seen in the other articles in this issue which deal with specific new energy technologies, the path toward a sustainable energy future in transportation is uncertain and will almost certainly prove difficult. And in attempting to see past these uncertainties to the business opportunities that surely await entrepreneurs and investors, it might be well for us to consider the transportation revolutions of the past to determine if any clue to the future of mechanized transportation might be divined from the ways in which human populations confronted, resisted, and ultimately embraced what were then fundamentally new modes of travel.

Comes a Horseman

The first transportation revolution occurred so very long ago that all memory of it is lost to history, and that it occurred at all can only be gleaned from the archaeological record 4500 BC or perhaps slightly earlier: a bit over five thousand years following the last retreat of the glaciers and the end of the Ice Age. The place was the steppes of Russia which was then home to vast herds of antelope and wild horses.

Humans lived on the fringes of the steppes, stalking the herds with bow and arrow, killing occasional stragglers, but unable to live by hunting alone. Already these communities had taken up agricultural pursuits and only hunted when the seasonal migrations of the herds brought them into close proximity with human settlements.

How it happened, one can only speculate. Perhaps it was a ritual, a game, a rite of passage or a feat of valor, but someone captured a horse—perhaps with lassos or snares—and brought it bound but unhurt into an encampment. The horse was then mounted by some intrepid youth who sought to maintain his seat for as long as possible. At some point a horse was broken and induced to accept a human rider and horses were ridden thereafter for ceremonial reasons for some period of time. But at some further point, still well before 4,000 BC, bits and bridles were invented in Southern Russia and whole populations suddenly became mounted and began to follow the herds and to live off them.

Shortly after the first appearance of bridles in the archaeological record, the towns of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the lands to the immediate south of the Russian steppes, began to acquire walls. Some have suspected that raiding parties from the steppes necessitated those walls. It may be that the first transportation revolution occasioned one of the first social revolutions, the coming of endemic warfare involving whole populations.

That this all happened rather suddenly we can infer from the experience of the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World who began riding horses almost from the moment of the first Spanish settlement. One day a tribe was afoot and settled, the next day its members were mounted nomads—a transportation revolution as rapid as any that has occurred in modern times. In most cases in the transition of a tribe from sedentary agriculture to a nomadism based on hunting, that same tribe would become increasingly warlike, and would regard settled populations much as it did the herds of herbivores on which it fed. As in the case of the inhabitants of the Eurasian steppes, horseback riding and the arts of war developed in parallel.

This first transportation from pedestrian to equestrian proved as momentous as any that followed, perhaps more momentous. The equestrian acquired new means of making a livelihood, a new access to resources natural and manmade, and, equally important, a new outlook. A man on horseback is traditionally an aristocrat and never a slave or an underling. In many cases he is also a warrior. At the end of the New Stone Age a man who could annihilate distance could also with considerable ease annihilate his fellow man.

Even this earliest example of a transportation revolution indicates several salient characteristics of all such revolutions. First of all, they inevitably have a social dimension. New technology always has transformational effects upon society. Second, they tend to be rapid. And third, in many cases they are viral, spreading spontaneously through a susceptible social grouping.


ALSO: To see how article is quoted in a major newspaper, please go to:

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