By Johan Galtung
A century ago humanity, particularly in the West, was at the beginning of a major revolution, from horse culture to car culture. Today there are still (FAO-UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2008) 59 million horses, but (2010) more than 1 billion cars (in 1986 only half of that). In other parts of the world, like Japan and China, there was a revolution to cars, but from bicycles–Beijing went from 6 million bicycles to 4 million cars over a period of 20 years, only from 1990. Japan had an intermediate scooter stage–like in India, Southeast Asia–less so in China.
Imagine 19th century in the West: horses everywhere. A fantastic animal: domestic-able, reproducible–by putting two horses together, cars cannot do that–life expectancy 25-30 years, far beyond cars, ideal for transport of persons and goods, and as tractors for plows, and so on. People knew how to ride horses like today they drive cars. And the horses complied, walking at about 6 Km/h, trotting at 13-19 Km/h, and galloping at 40-48 Km/h. For limited periods of time, for sure; but replacements were waiting, for instance for mail expresses.
Horses, highly vulnerable, could even serve humans as war horses. When two handfuls of brutal Spaniards conquered the Aztec and Inca empires guns were one factor, horses–the Incas had llamas only–another, as pointed out by Jared Diamond in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel, bringing geography into history (see Chapter 18).
Further more, horses could also serve class by coming in various brands and levels; full blood for blue blood people, etc. They fed on water and hay like cars on gas and oil. They needed some polishing Sunday mornings, like cars. The mental step from cart to car was short and the step to put the horse inside the car, for power, not much longer; we still measure the power of a car in “horse-power” (1 hp=746 watts).
A whole nature-culture based on four legs leaving the stage, a new techno-culture based on four wheels entering. For better? For worse? And why?
Horses manured the fields they plowed; cars pollute the air we breathe. Horses are self-reproducing; cars need enormous industries, factories and garages, with debris and pollution.
But cars are immensely versatile and practical. Few if anybody had planned this automobile–self-moving–revolution, but jumped on it: Benz and Daimler, Mr. Olds with his Oldsmobile, and Mr. Ford with his T. Like horses, cars can be used for sport, leisure and pleasure; and that which horses can do but cars can’t, people do inside them; adding a sexual revolution.
The whole revolution was technology-driven. There certainly were genius inventors but “technology” is a system with human and non-human components, including capital, and tremendous power to produce change.
And that makes us ask a simple question: horses were replaced by cars; how long will cars be around, what technology will replace them?
Answer: it is happening. We have globalization and localization: more local production, less transportation. But is it possible with the unequal resource endowment in the world? Yes. Technology can be transferred for any resource profile. What about traction for plowing and harvesting, turning nature into a factory with furs as assembly lines, at enormous costs in pests and pesticides, pollution and depletion? Agriculture in partnership with nature, more labor-intensive, may also be coming with less traction.
And people? We want to move about. Yes, but the telephone gave us voice synchronicity over large distances and SKYPE adds visual synchronicity. Conferences go teleconferences. Movies, TV give us space synchronicity; we are where we see. True, there is no touching-feeling but one day that may come too. Less physical movement based on combustion or electric engines and more image movements based on electronics, and we are far into that revolution
Prediction: the number of cars will peak, even soon; they take too much space, pollute and deplete too much. Besides, they are too dangerous: killing people, ‘killing’ other cars; wounding/damaging both. Horses did none of that; there was recognition and friendship in their eyes.
“Carmakers aim to take drivers out of the equation” (International Herald Tribune, 12/13-01-2013)–”an array of optical and radar sensors now monitor the surroundings of a growing number of cars traveling U.S. highways” and “slows or stops the car”. Why? Probably less to save drivers and pedestrians than to save cars and car industries from alternatives like bicycles–and horses. It is better to have drivers on auto-pilot than safe, cheap and slower Tivoli-cars, polstered, with caoutchouc belts.
Human rights get the upper hand over car rights in streets for pedestrians only, and cars are driven underground for parking. But there are few or no calls for horses; where are you when we need you?
Because Western change is technology-driven, a technology can only yield to another technology; always on the lookout for a technical solution. They base war on technology with ever new weapons. Had peace had a technology the West would have been on the lead; they use war technology instead, calling it “security”. A non-starter.
As often pointed out, temperate-zones nature forced hunter-gatherers to domesticate plants and animals thus making them specialists on nature, science and technology. Tropical-zones nature was so good for hunter-gatherers that they developed increasingly complex societies; ultra-stable like in India (caste), or dynamic like in China (dynasties). So perhaps they became specialists on the transcendental and the social instead, owing to complex worldviews (Buddhism, Daoism) as opposed to the simplicity of Abrahamism, with even the mystery of the Christ changed into salvation-technology by the churches?
From 1970 to 2010 the US share of world college enrollment dropped from 26 to 12 percent whereas the Chinese share went up from 0 to 18 percent. China teaches Western technology, but does the USA teach Chinese culture?
We are at a crossroads. The Western technology trick is greedily amassed all over. Oriental wisdom is not; may even be in decline. At the same time, humans are transformed from riders to drivers to viewers. Any way out?
Originally published at Transcend Media Service