I’m writing this on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. As we navigate the Covid-19 pandemic the images of nature reclaiming the planet are flying around social media. Air travel has plummeted, roads are free from traffic jams, and fewer products and materials are being shipped. Families that would, quite recently, have been happy to sit at home with each on their own personal electronic devices are now itching to go out and enjoy green spaces, mountains and shorelines.
No one in their right might would have wished for this kind of disaster just so Mother Nature could get a little respite, but as we search for any positives in this mess some are taking succor from the possibility of mankind emerging from its chrysalis and floating in a more benevolent trajectory. What are the chances? Optimists and pessimists will instinctively line up on opposing sides of the debate.
What have we done in the past when faced with massive disruption and opportunity? And and more to the point, can we improve on the way we’ve conducted ourselves in the past?
Towards the end of the 19th century steam engines were powering factories as second industrial revolution commenced; a single, giant, coal-powered beast could power a shaft running the length of a factory. Long, taut, leather belts would run from this shaft to power the many machines arrayed through the building.
The incandescent light bulb and electric motor arrived at the same time, threatening to disrupt the natural order of things, but steam had a tight grip and it took another generation before we were realizing electricity’s productivity benefits. Why did it take so long to move from something so heavy and dirty, to something so nimble and clean? The answers are debated by scholars of the productivity paradox and I want to touch on just three.
Steam engines were big and costly. When something new comes along are you going to throw all your investment away for something unproven? We want to get our money’s worth, otherwise we feel like a chump. It’s hard to rise above the sunk cost fallacy. And even without the biases inherent in our wiring the comfort we derive from the familiar is alluring.
Even if we can move past our own preference to preserve the status quo, pushing for something new is a tall order when you’re confronted with the weight of global processes, systems and networks designed to hold it all in place. Take the simple illustration of just how many trades relied on steam power: miners pulling coal from the ground, railroad workers transporting it, hunters felling bison for their tough hide, tanners to treat the leather so factories would have the belts needed to drive the machines… The number of people whose livelihoods relied on steam was myriad. Swapping in electricity couldn’t be an overnight event.
Assuming we’re galvanized for change, and assuming we could disrupt the global systems sufficiently, then all we then need to do is think differently; easier said than done. Electricity’s potential is evident to us because we’ve lived with it for so long, but imagine you have only ever lived with steam.
Imagine someone telling a steam era version of you that it was possible to get rid of the shaft running the length of the building and all the leather belts driving the machines. Imagine relying not on one powerful engine but several much smaller devices. Imagine those new machines being fueled not by something dirty that you needed to shovel, but by something invisible that arrives via flexible cables. Now look at the way the steam factory is laid out, look at its arrangement, and throw all you have known out of the window. How quickly would you realize you can totally reconfigure the space according not according to the needs of the steam power distribution system but instead according to the needs of the product? It would take a leap.
How are these three points – personal biases, interdependence, and thinking differently – relate to the coronavirus we face today?
Disciplines have developed around behavioral economics and change managment that give us better odds of navigating our personal biases. We remain as interdependent as ever but this pandemic may well lead to countries and businesses prioritizing resilience and self-sufficiency over profit, at least for a time. However, it’s the final point – thinking differently – where we have a head start. When we were called on to consider what electricity might mean for us we were beginning with a blank sheet of paper; with Covid-19 we’ve already been living a possibility of the future.
Gig workers in coffee shops have long understood how technology allows us to disconnect the tasks we perform from where we perform them. More people than ever before now have personal experience of this. Businesses have expanded their remote working infrastructure to support a distributed workforce, and having made the investment will they want to give that up? Will sunk cost fallacy now work in our favor and prevent us from slipping back? Will we see our green spaces in a different light, appreciating them more?
Trying to predict the future is a fun game but who really knows? Personal self-interest will prevent us from maximizing all the opportunities arising from this awful event. The pandemic has reminded us that as a species we do things when we need, and not when we can. Our interconnectedness means we will debate and horse trade our way into the future and end up with something that is least unacceptable to most, in much the same way that a horse is a camel designed by a committee.
The saving grace is that we are also guided powerfully by our own experiences. Living with less reliance on oil, with cleaner skies, and pining to get outside and enjoy nature, all of these things will remain with us for a while. Although we won’t make the most of the opportunity I would lean towards the optimists rather than the pessimists when considering any silver linings in this miserable cloud.