Skip to main content

The Five Horsemen of Environmental Change

Just as railroads fundamentally changed the country and the world in the 19th century, five even more power technologies are already among us, making it all the more imperative that we examine them from their potential environmental impacts.

Imagine a United States where the national ideal is not money, but rather living together in small communities; where most food is grown and consumed locally; where you buy only from neighborhood businesses; where nature is an integral part of your daily life; where the ideal is not some slick financier, but the honest and hardworking farmer. A vision of sustainability, writ on nature's own landscape. Now imagine that America destroyed forever (I speak of America because it's an obvious example, but many countries reflect similar dynamics). Welcome to history.

The vision, of course, was early 1800's America, characterized by villages and towns, and an industrial structure that was by-and-large local. And it was flattened, destroyed forever, not by malign spirits, but by an impersonal, inexorable juggernaut -- the railroad. Today, the railroad is a common, almost banal technology, which makes it almost impossible to realize the profound changes it catalyzed.

Before the railroad, even time was local: each community kept its own time, which frequently differed among neighboring villages. At one point, London's clocks were four minutes ahead of Reading's, and 14 minutes ahead of Bridgewater. Real-time communication was of necessity also local: information between regions and countries reflected the time cycles of transportation technology -- mail by coach and sailing ship. Indeed, communication often meant personal physical travel.

But a complex network like the railroads requires a common time across the system (just like your computer needs its internal clock time to keep its information networks, tiny as they are, coordinated), and it requires information technology in real time that is co-extensive with its physical network -- the telegraph. And railroads were big, much bigger than the individual factories that characterized early capitalism. Their demand for capital created new financial instruments and capital markets -- in short, modern financial capitalism.

To keep themselves organized, railroad firms had to develop modern hierarchical management systems, and to drive specialization of labor from the pin factory of Adam Smith to the legions of lawyers, accountants, and human resource specialists that prowl modern corporate halls. And as railroads built national networks, so the new capitalists followed them, merging, acquiring, or stamping out local firms, which were unable to compete with the financial muscle and economies of scale of the new trusts -- Rockefeller's Standard Oil, Carnegie Steel, American Tobacco, the sugar trusts. Truly national economies emerged.

But even more fundamentally, the railroads changed America's self-image forever. Swept aside was the ideal of Jeffersonian agrarianism; in its place, American exceptionalism, America as technological optimist, the glittering New Jerusalem -- the America of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, a technological sublime captured by Katherine Lee Bates' vision in "America the Beautiful": "Thine alabaster cities gleam / undimmed by human tears."

So is the point that we had sustainability and blew it? No -- pre-Civil War America was no utopia (just ask the slaves that supported the Southern economy, or the thousands that died every year from preventable diseases). There is no golden age, except in our ideological fantasies. Is it that environmentalism is still in some sense fighting the worldview that rode in on the railroad? Well, yes, that's interesting, but it's not the point.

The point is that a foundational technology, railroads, changed the United States, and indeed the world, forever -- and that those changes were completely unanticipated and unpredicted by those who looked up in surprise as the first trains rumbled by them. Many people tried to stop railroads; they failed, just as those who have tried to stop agricultural genetically modified organisms, or to ban nanotech, have failed. Technology systems like the railroads give those who adopt them substantial competitive advantage -- as the American South found out, fighting not just the men, but the logistics prowess of the North, based in substantial part on a much more developed rail network. China knows that. India knows that. The United States knows that. Russia knows that. The European Union knows that.

So. We now have five fundamental technology systems rolling down on us -- nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, information and communication technology, and cognitive science. Railroads changed the world; the Five Horsemen of emerging technology are likely more potent still. And yet there is virtually no environmental or sustainability dialog on emerging technologies. Sure, we're beginning to think about what protective equipment titanium oxide nanomaterials require. But it is an indictment of the sustainability and environmental movements, our imagination, and our claim to sentience, that we are so willfully blind to the technologies emerging around us.

More on this topic

More by This Author