Rudolf Diesel: Thoughts about Idealism, Despair, Progress, Politics and Hope

Standard

Diesel powers the world economy.  I never considered the extent to which that is true until watching a documentary (click here to view it) about this type of internal combustion engine.  It is named after the inventor, a French-German mechanical engineer, Rudolf Diesel, and is the reason why global trade is possible to the extent it is.

Early Diesel design, circa 1897

In considering the story of Diesel, his brilliant invention and the results, I could not help but see the pattern all too common with innovators.  Diesel’s life turned tragic, he was found floating in the North Sea, dead of an apparent suicide, and likely a result of his despair over the unintended consequences of his own design.

According to biographical accounts, Diesel was a utopian idealist who had hopes that his invention would be a catalyst for social change, free the common man and break corporate monopolies.  Unfortunately, while a revolution for transportation, Diesel power did not achieve the lofty social vision. 

Worse, the Diesel engine found use as a part in an efficient killing machine, the German U-boat, and this no doubt grieved the pacifist inventor.

Here are some observations…

#1) What is intended for good can often be used for evil.

Diesel had never intended his invention be used as a means of terrorizing North Atlantic shipping lanes.  And, likewise, many scientists and inventors had regrets related to their greatest contribution to the world.

German U-boat, the original stealth weapon 

There are lists from K-cups to A-bombs online and many others.  For example, Henry Ford seemed to dislike the vast social changes and consumerist mindset made possible by his manufacturing revolution that helped automobiles become a fixture of American life.  Even this media, the internet, once thought to be the beginnings of an information age, has become a cesspool of pornography and ill-founded claims.

I worry about this as a blogger.  Once my thoughts are out there they cannot be contained again.  Will someone pick up my words and run with them in a direction I never intended?  It is a potential outcome that could scare a sensitive soul into silence and is at least a reason for me to be prayerful in what I post here.

I believe there are many people who do not thoroughly think through the potential unintended consequences of the ideas they promote.  There are many government programs and social movements intended for good that might actually be creating more problems than the one that they were intended to solve.

Which takes me to a second point…

#2) Yesterday’s revolution is today’s loathed source of inequality and evil.

It is ironic that the invention that did actually outcompete coal for market supremacy is now enemy #1 for many.  The internal combustion engine won in the marketplace because it was by far the cheapest most efficient means to power transportation and still remains. 

Given there are no steam powered cars, tractors, trains and ships anymore, it is clear that internal combustion is the best bang for the buck and remains to be rivaled.  Diesel powered locomotives and ocean going container ships are extremely powerful while being very economical.    

109,000-horsepower Wärtsilä-Sulzer RTA96-C

Diesel power still outperforms hybrid technology—A loaded Diesel powered class 8 truck is more efficient pound for pound than a Prius.

Think about it: It takes one gallon of fuel to move an 80,000lb truck five to seven miles.  A 2016 Prius, by comparison, carries a weight of around 4000lbs can go anywhere from 50 to 58 miles on a gallon of fuel.  It may seem the Toyota is greener until you consider that it is moving twenty times less weight.  Twenty Prius cars combined together, after dividing their individual consumption by twenty, would consume 2.5 to 2.9 gallons of fuel.  Now, obviously, combining Diesel and hybrid technology on the scale of class 8 truck would undoubtedly yield even greater results if fuel economy were the only concern, but the point remains that Diesel power is extremely efficient and effective—and only more so the larger the application.

So what’s the problem?

Well, the current popular perception is that the petroleum industry “big oil” is the enemy and conspires to hold back technology that would dramatically increase efficiency.  Worse than that, we are told that petroleum power is a source of global climate change and a threat to the global ecology.  Poor Diesel would be driven even further into despair if half this is true.  We fight over oil.

 #3) Progressive aims of our time are at odds with each other or self-contradictory.

Globalism, higher standard of living for more people and environmentalist ‘green’ movements are at odds with each other.  Pushing one direction will almost invariably come at the cost of the others. 

Progressive politicians may tout an idea of a ‘green economy’ as a jobs creator, but the reality has been that wind and solar energy can only remain competitive through heavy use of government subsidies.  Beyond that, even with the help, domestic ‘green’ manufacturing is unsustainable against foreign competition.  At best we will merely replace jobs lost by the heavy regulations placed on fossil fuels and raise costs of living across the board.

Furthermore, it was the progressive policies of the past century that have created the current conditions.  Government policies like the Rural Electrification Act, the Interstate highway system and trade agreements have actually moved us away from a more sustainable less polluting lifestyle.  Our cheap and easy movement from place to place has harmed community and local markets.

Rural Electrification Act propaganda poster.

It is hard to know how the current landscape would look had the progressives of yesterday had not literally paved the way for suburban sprawl, the trucking industry (that currently employs me) and driven us to embrace a coal powered grid.  But I do suspect more of our food would be locally grown, more of our products locally produced and solar energy far more the norm in places utilities would be to costly to maintain unless mandated by law.

In final analysis things might not be as dismal as they seem.

It is easy to focus on the negative without considering the good.  The means of today are likely as unsustainable as the means of yesterday and therefore the progress of the past century might not be the end of us after all.  The only consistent reality in the past two centuries has been that markets constantly change.

Canal boats an all the infrastructure to support them were soon replaced by steam power and railroads.  In Pennsylvania the lumber industry rose in prominence before a rapid decline after the states wooded mountains were reduced to stubble.  The coal industry once put food on the table for boat loads of immigrants before cheap efficient oil and a multitude other factors conspired against it.

Bay State Mills, Lawrence, built 1845.

Manufacturing, from the once mighty water powered textile mills of the New England states to the formerly unstoppable domestic steel industry, has also migrated following cheaper labor and energy.  Each time promoting deep consternation and fear.  But so far the Luddites have yet to have the last laugh and a new balance is eventually found that usually benefits everyone.

Certainly the overconfidence and optimism about today’s new solution may become the big disappointment of tomorrow.  Yet, do we really wish to go back to a time when a transatlantic voyage was only something a religious zealot or crazy Viking explorer would do?  Would we really rather spend most of our time scrounging for just enough to eat as to avoid the possibility of mechanized warfare?

Nobody knows for certain why Diesel died... 

However, what is certain is that his invention changed the world and provided a means for interstate commerce and global trade that never existed before.  The pacifying effect of global trade, economic benefits of an expanded market place and inexpensive power are largely unappreciated.  But we probably do have Diesel to thank for helping create the long peace and prosperity of our time.

Maersk, Triple-E design, Diesel powered, container ship

In an age of information overload, where we know about beheadings in the Middle East before the people the next town over would have heard a century ago, it is difficult for our finite minds to contextualize and easy to become overwhelmed.  This, with an accompanying loss of faith, could be why middle-aged American white males are committing suicide (supposedly the most privileged in the world) and at an alarmingly increasing rate. 

Diesel’s pessimism about the future in retrospect seems to have been premature and his nightmarish perception of reality overstated.  In like manner many of our modern fears and despair inducing thoughts about the future could be negativity bias and nothing more.  Every generation seems to believe that the world is falling apart and still here we are.

Whatever the case, ignore the fear-mongering propaganda of the punditry and politicians.  Embrace temperance, a spiritual quality developed through faith, over mindless reaction and fearful impulse.  Trust God to secure the future, we can only live one day at a time and never ever lose hope!  If you are depressed about events in the world today, I invite you to see the higher perspective:

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Perhaps the greater of two evils will be elected come November and drive the nation to complete ruin.  

Who knows besides God?

We may all die tomorrow, we will all die eventually, our work blown away in the wind of time and forgotten.  Everything comes to pass, nothing will remain as we know it today, but there is hope beyond all hope found in an eternal perspective.  So look up, because the sun is still shining and the future remains bright!

Do you see the light and feel the warmth of hope eternal?

If not, my prayer is for the blind to see…

Advertisements

Will the Luddites have the last laugh?

Standard

​Technological advancement has always come at the expense of jobs.  

Today one farmer (with machinery and modern practices) is able to do the work that would have taken a hundred people to do a century ago. 

Did this mean ninety-nine people are now out of work?

No.

For every person who lost a job in farming there was opportunity gained to do something else.  Because of technology one farmer can feed 155 people and these 155 are now free to produce other things.

The progress of the past century would never have been possible without the layers upon layers of technological innovations that cost jobs and created opportunities for people to employ themselves elsewhere.

At each step of the way there were Luddites (those who resist labor saving technologies and innovation that might cost them their current job) and thankfully they could not hold back the march of progress or we might all still be subsidence farmers barely able to feed ourselves.

Those who lost employment due to technological advancement found other profitable work.  Not only did we gain the added production of the machines that replaced human labor, we also gained through freeing people (who once did the work the machines took) to do other profitable things.  

The result has been exponential economic growth and an era of prosperity unprecedented in recorded human history.  Automation may temporarily cost jobs, but the long-term result is greater productivity and with that greater wealth overall.  We have tremendous opportunity over our ancestors because of technological advancements.

Despite this, like the meme above, modern Luddites still resist technology trying to protect jobs.  They do not understand how jobs lost to machines leads to new opportunities and greater productivity that benefits them.  

They would rather do like New Jersey did to protect jobs by making self-serving gas stations illegal.  It is quite literally a counterproductive economic policy because it keeps people tied down to jobs that can easily eliminated without much loss.

Innovations like vending machines, ATM’s and Redbox dispensers have added convenience.  No longer do we need to bank during banking hours or wait until Blockbuster opens to rent and return a movie.  

Sure, in each case there was a potential job opportunity lost, but with each lost opportunity is an opportunity gained to do something else and a chance to add more value to the economy than would otherwise be possible.

The result is quite obviously good in overall terms…

This is not to say there hasn’t been pain for some along the way.  Technological advancements (like globalization and trade) benefits the whole economy, but it also can cause suffering for those who are unemployable because they are unable to adapt and take advantage of the created opportunity.

Not every factory worker who had their job replaced with a machine (or outsourced) is intelligent or skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunity to do something else.  Sure, they do benefit from the lower prices, but also might not earn the wages they once did and can come out on the losing end. 

However, most people, and certainly the economy as a whole, benefit from the greater production, the lower cost for goods and the opportunities created.  Few would actually wish to return to a time before the Industrial Revolution and our age of technological advancement.

For every job eliminated there has always been new opportunities created for more skilled labor and professional work.  That is how things have gone until this point and one might assume this is how it would continue ad infinitum.

But do all good things come to an end?

Up until now machines have been useful for eliminating back breaking and repetitive physical tasks.  As a result more people have been freed to do mental or creative work rather than manual labor.

Technology has now advanced to where we might soon reach a tipping point where all human work can be replaced.

According to the analysis of some (please watch this: Humans Need Not Apply) we are nearing a point when even the most skilled professionals and best of creative minds will be outclassed by technology…

What then?

What happens when there is zero opportunity to do something that can’t be done cheaper, more efficiently and better in every way by machines?

What happens when all human labor is worth next to nothing and only capital like land, mineral resources or machines have value?

Our future seems a paradoxical combination of utopia and hell…

On one hand, in this future we will have the capability to produce more than ever with great ease, innovation and efficiency will reach levels humanly unachievable.  This will mean more wealth than ever before and theoretically we could all eventually go on a permanent vacation.

On the other hand, most people (unless they already own land and machines with productive value) will have little to offer in economic terms and no way to advance.  The price of goods would drop, but wages would drop faster and followed to conclusion we would all be unemployed, unemployable and most of us would have nothing at all.

But it would likely never get to that point.  The real tipping point would be when a critical mass of people become unemployed, know they are unable to compete with those (who by good fortune or superior intelligence) who already are established. 

There would be a revolt against the establishment.  Capital of production (machines and land) would almost need to become the property of all people.  Goods and services created would need to be distributed evenly amongst the people.

At this point, once the revolution is over, assuming the machines don’t rise up against us, all we would have left to do is contemplate our existence in a world where all other work is done.  We would spend our time exploring, being entertained by our machines, building relationships and reproducing—there would nothing else left for us to do.

That will not happen overnight.  But, with self-driving vehicles right around the corner, my current occupation (transportation) will be the first in line to go the way of the horse.  So, at very least, I need to think of what my next move will be…

Your thoughts?