Sunday, 5 October 2008

Ford T anniversary: the first Engine of Mass Destruction

Oct. 1 marks the 100th birthday of Ford's Model T (Time Magazine, Sept. 24, 2008)
It also marks the beginning of not one, but of a flurry of new industries. In mainly 2 categories, those supporting the new transportation system and those generated by this new freedom . For example: the whole petrol industry from drilling to distribution (and the related chemical industry that was sparkled (so to say) by the gasoline consumption), the building of road, highways and all other necessary infrastructures (tunnels, bridges), and in addition, the development of off-center supermarket and shopping centers changing the whole scheme of goods distribution, the huge extension of the metropolis, a large part of the tourism industry, ... It also started the development of a flock of explosion-engine devices: from large trucks to moped, from caterpillars to chainsaws, from airplane to powered paraglider...

Which part of the GDP growth rate is linked to this innovation
and how many direct and indirect jobs were created during these 100 years, it is difficult to say, but it is certainly tremendous.

So in sympathy with most of the celebrations and together with
Henry Ford's grandson Edsel Ford II we should thank him for his visionary and pioneering dream-comes-true.

"I'm thrilled to be with the keepers of my great-grandfather's legacy,'' Edsel Ford II, referring to company founder Henry Ford, told those attending the opening banquet. His voice breaking with emotion at one point, Ford said it was the spirit of Model T that made the vehicle so successful.

"It was a product that delivered freedom,'' he said. "You are the guardians of the spirit that got the whole thing going. You are the keepers of the flame. As long as we have people who love the Model T, we will never forget what brought us here.'' (see more here)

But 100 years later, dreamland is not quite as expected, what do we have instead ? a world sick of air pollution, of noise and of massive environmental destruction. Wherever we go, in the developed countries, there is no way to escape the view, the sound or the smell of some explosion engine. It is sometime even worse in the developing countries cities, where crossing a street is as risky as walking over the Niagara falls on a thin wire. But even worse, the need for petrol has often contributed to trigger conflicts or wars over the gas rich fields countries.

Beyond questioning Henry Ford's unwillingness or inability to foresee that a device emitting pollutants will pollute the world if massively produced and used, after all, at this time, people and even scientists were not that sensitive to environmental issues, one should ask what about today ? Did we learn from history? Would we reject technologies that can arm the planet and its inhabitants, today, environmental aware as we are ?

I am afraid, the answer is no:
  • car companies want to sell more and more cars at the lowest price (2500$) to open new markets with no consideration to environmental consequences.
  • new so called green energy like hydrogen is blatantly advertised, although we know that the real global energy efficiency is very poor and therefore probably not a solution to the energy crisis if no new discoveries are made.
  • Nuclear energy seen as the most promising solution to the raising energy demand relies on secured waste management although, "So far no country has implemented a high-level, long-lived radioactive waste management option" (see here).
  • Genetically Modified crops are raising serious concerns if extensively used.
  • Nanotechnologies, food processing, ... you name it
Solutions certainly exist, but to find them and to make them commercially available, investment on research is mandatory, now, before proceeding to large scale production.

There was a debate in France (in French a report to the prime minister) on the so called "precautionary principle" which actually became part of the French constitution in February 2005. Some was arguing that the law was too constraining and would hamper innovation (in French "le Principe de Precaution"). But it is simply a reasonable attitude that should prevail on all important decisions embarking the whole humanity for decades and hundreds of decade.

Here again the scientists have a major role to play: to inform the society about the limits of our knowledge, to develop further the basic understanding of the law of nature and, when breakthrough are made, to set up research strategies to solve societal issues.

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