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Jewish World Review
Feb. 7, 2008
/ 1 Adar I 5768
Where Industry Has Failed Us
Although international business is fond of boasting of all the marvels it has created in the public service, no one draws attention to the opportunities that have been missed. They are many and important.
For instance, what happened to supersonic air travel? It's been more than a quarter-century since Concorde inaugurated trans- atlantic supersonic jet service. For all practical purposes the big commercial aircraft manufacturers Boeing and its European competitor, Airbus have abandoned supersonic jet travel. Passengers still have to endure long hours in the air transatlantic, transpacific, transasiatic that could have been cut in half by aircraft flying at twice or three times the speed of sound.
Boeing and its followers have instead concentrated on producing huge subsonic aircraft that carry large numbers of passengers at low cost. The result has been an enormous increase in the volume of airline travel, with the consequent increases in discomfort, chaos and delays. Air travel has now become so disliked a form of transportation that some cruise lines, such as Cunard, are making a point to advertise particular cruises as involving no travel by air. "Port to port" has become a term of approval.
Certain large airports, of which London's Heathrow is a prime example, have become targets of bitter criticism for overcrowding, delays, lost luggage and other horrors. Heathrow is the busiest international airport in the world, which is the prime reason for its iniquities. Moreover, those who live within 20 to 30 miles of these large airports have become loud and insistent in their complaints about the noise generated by jets requiring long runways for takeoffs and landings. This has generated organized protests that have prevented such airports from modernizing through the expansion and laying down of new runways, which in turn has intensified the hell on earth that such airports have become.
What, you may ask, has become of the plan to have commercial planes capable of vertical takeoffs and landings, something much talked about in the mid-20th century? You may well ask. This type of aircraft would have solved the problems of airport noise and construction costs, giving air travel a new lease in popularity. But the manufacturers abandoned those plans. Why? For the obvious reasons of technical difficulty and expense. Boeing & Co. took the easy way out and built bigger conventional airplanes.
Taking the easy way out seems to be the current motto of many giant corporations, such as General Motors and Ford. Why haven't more brainpower, skills and capital been invested in producing and mass-marketing an efficient electric automobile? Toyota and Honda make hybrids that are becoming hugely popular in London, for instance, because their low consumption of fuel exempts them from the congestion charge levied on all private autos entering the center of the city. Why has the U.S. over the last half- century lost its lead in producing new types of cars? Hybrids are cheaper to run, quieter to drive and have less deleterious effects on the environment than do conventional autos. We all ought to be driving them. Such a change would have vastly lessened the sting of rising oil prices, as well as the ability of the producing areas, such as Russia, the Middle East and Venezuela, to blackmail the world especially the West. Once again Big Business has let us down.
A similar charge can, in general, be levied against technologists, scientists and, indeed, governments for failing to take full advantage of the possibilities of nuclear energy production. I vividly remember being 16 at the time when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and how the horror of these weapons was mitigated by assurances that this new power would usher in an era of cheap energy for the entire world. We believed it, and it could have become true.
Nuclear power stations were designed, built and, on the whole, functioned cheaply and with great efficiency. However, they always aroused the anxieties of the few yet noisy flat-earthers and antiprogress agitators who inhabit every society. There were rare but alarming accidents, which fueled the agitation. Unwilling to take on the opposition and worried about the greatly exaggerated costs of decommissioning, many governments virtually abandoned the nuclear option. And the media played an ignoble role in increasing the cowardice of those in power. Hence, the unease over the world's shortage in conventional sources of energy and the inevitable steep rise in their costs something a rapid and overwhelming proliferation in nuclear-power states could so easily and completely have prevented.
The second half of the 20th century was, in some key respects, a time of stagnation. Have we learned any lessons from the failure of industry (and governments)? We could be enjoying universal supersonic jet travel, with aircraft capable of vertical takeoffs and landings; electric cars; and cheap nuclear power. Instead, we've been deprived of these things by timidity and cowardice in high places, by a lack of vision and initiative and by a failing of the energetic, entrepreneurial spirit of technical adventure that dominated the West from 1750 to 1950.
We ought to ponder these failures, examining carefully what went wrong, and determine that the West shall take a more ambitious and, if need be, riskier road in the 21st century.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson