Technology and the Economics of Change

Origins & Ideas IconMartin Rowe

Technological innovation accompanied by market capitalization and efficient, mass-distribution systems can encourage very rapid changes within a society. The explosion of interest and investment in vegan products and cultured meat and dairy is a testament to how dynamic such a sector is. It’s certainly the case that some behaviors and industries that once appeared entrenched and which (it was thought) could only be ameliorated or regulated have been rendered obsolete and the social problems they raised solved because of the rapid adoption of new technology. A case in point is the automobile eliminating horse power in the early twentieth century. Mountains of ordure disappeared from city streets and general hygiene improved, through the development of a technology that was almost entirely unforeseen as a solution. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute talks about this in an interview in Vox magazine:

So in 1894 there were 175,000 horses in New York City. They were laying down 50,000 tons of manure per month. It was a mess: The streets were lined with rotting carcasses, full of manure and flies, traffic accidents from the horse-drawn carriages were constant—it was a nightmare.

In 1908, however, Henry Ford introduces the Model T, and by 1912 there are more cars than horses in the streets of New York City. And remember the ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals? They were formed because of cruelty to horses. But it was technology rather than ethics that relegated horse-drawn carriages to tourist attractions.

So, naturally, a good part of what Vegan America will concentrate on are the opportunities (and disruptions) afforded by technological change and the efficiencies and speed of the market in taking innovation and making it widely available and cheaper. Just as the mayors of big cities in 1908 couldn’t imagine that within two decades the apparently insuperable problems of manure, stabling, removing dead horses from the streets, and so on would largely become irrelevant, so it’s simply impossible to know just what technologies will be developed, which ones will be adopted, and how either or both might transform social behaviors and expectations.

This inability to know the future is, of course, a fundamental flaw with all futurist endeavors, including the Vegan America Project. However, being woefully wrong, naïve, or skeptical doesn’t invalidate the Project’s speculative aims. It’s not unusual to read that inventors were inspired by speculative or fantasy fiction, or futurist ideas—just as I was by Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia. We hope that the Vegan America Project opens up a space within which innovators of all kinds will feel free to play with future possibilities.

The danger/concern that faces technological development is inherent in Friedrich’s second paragraph: technologists’ supreme confidence that their product will be used appropriately and efficiently. Ford’s motorcars could have not relied on the internal combustion engine’s reliance on fossil fuels, which, in turn, would have saved the world a whole load of different troubles with GHG emissions than horse’s manure. I would also contest Friedrich’s comment that assumes that the social pressures applied by animal welfare groups—and by extension efforts to change minds and laws and attitudes—don’t matter. I’m not sure we know for sure that social pressure doesn’t create an environment of awareness that something needs to change or inspire thinking that makes that change possible. It’s true that technological change might come about without the inventor’s awareness that something needed to be fixed; but a desire to fix a perceived wrong might exist among many other motivations—and that wrong might have been highlighted by the animal welfare group. This observation, therefore, brings me to the third driver of change: public policy and governmental leadership.