Man, Mansion, and Motion (I) A Forward History of Homesteading and Horsepowering
Known as one of the economic foundations, human action, as stated by Ludwig von Mises, refers to action as any process which is based on a certain purpose and conscious behaviour. In order for the action to be done, people employ particular means, mechanisms, tools or other helpful implements. However, those tools are not necessary for men to act. Action can be exercised with or without additional equipment. David Gordon further details the action axiom in An Introduction to Economic Reasoning and outlines that actions are not necessarily linked to physical movement. The process of acting can be done either with mobility and motility (a case in which examples are more than obvious) or with no physical movement on the part of the subject. An action can be performed without physical movement if it passes the self-consciousness filter and aims towards an increase in utility. For example, being in a waiting room, a seated man can stand up (which is an action realized through movement) or can stay down (which is also an action as staying is done deliberately and consciously in order to rest his feet). As long as voluntarily not moving involves further consequences, the action still takes place.
In a larger context, the relation between action and movement has applicability in the dualities of transport/mobility & house/stability. As the action axiom is a foundation in economics and homes and transportation are foundations of human life, the human action principle is applicable to the above stated dualism. This statement is based on the assumption that economics and human life have a strong contact and relationship.
The first facet
According to Oxford Dictionary, transportation is defined as the action of transporting someone or something or the process of being transported or a system or means of transporting people or goods. Fair enough, at the beginning men needed a way to transport themselves from point A to point B: action through mobility using exclusively one’s own body. No additional help was needed. Then, a new necessity emerged: apart from their body, people started to move objects from a place to another. Again, fair enough as long as things could be carried with bare hands. But the weight of the transported goods was very limited.
Residing at the top of the food chain, man was ingenious enough to realize that some animals are more powerful and some can even be domesticated. However, before using animals in the process of transportation people had to develop an adequate structure to be used as a platform for carrying heavy objects. The sledge is thought to have first been conceived somewhere between 7000 and 4000 BC. Its performance is strongly linked to weather conditions. Therefore, only Nordic or Arctic people could benefit from it. With or without dogs, small sledges were easy to be pulled even by humans as long as snow diminished the force of friction.
The next big step in transportation is represented by the invention of the wheel and the usage of animals, such as mules and horses, in order to pull the load placed on wheels. Technical advancements were accompanied by the domestication and selective breeding of animals specifically for carrying capacity. Around 3500 BC, the wheel was invented in what is now part of Iraq. The first wheels were made of wood and had a circular form. Later on, people invented spokes. Slowly but surely, people moved from powering themselves over short distances and with limited carrying capacity to moving across larger distances with heavier goods and less effort by using animal power and wheels. These seem trivial matters today, but were revolutionary millennia ago, when new ways of transportation facilitated the development of human society: new lands to discover and to exploit, new social interactions, the enlargements of communities and of the practicable borders of polities, new dynamisms due to exposure to new cultures and so on. This is the culminating point when mobility influences man’s evolution from a social perspective.
Future developments wove a predictable path, tackling each time the next easiest challenge, with incremental advances.
The next barrier to be overcome in transportation methods, which enabled a great leap forward in efficiency and mobility, was the advancement from land transport to water transport. Recognizable ships were conceived in Egypt during the same period when the Roman Empire started to build roads. Transport continued to be improved both on land and on water until the 19th century. Wagons were a common way of travelling on longer distances and boats were upgraded. The Chinese people are considered the first inventors of the compass, before Europeans. Transport became the essential ties for wide ranging polities and became interlinked with the evolution of human life and society.
Travels were meant to satisfy needs such as: trade, procurement of food and necessary living materials, socialisation, cultural exchange and even cultural mixing which lead to new commonalities, but also developments. Probably the most important application of transport capabilities since before recorded history is in facilitating trade. Today we speak about international trade, but, at its very beginning, transport could be considered the spark that enlightened the idea of doing trade (initially in the form of barter). People’s ability to move from a geographical point to another contributed to the development of the fundamental theorem of exchange. Of course, the theorem is legitimate even without people moving from a place to another: see the case in which two people living under the same roof (which is again an action even though there is no mobility involved, but stability under the concept of home/house) have different needs. Take into consideration a man and a woman: if the man possesses a skewer and the woman owns an axe, then it is obvious that the axe is more important for the man than for the woman and vice versa. The exchange takes place voluntarily and is mutually beneficial. Still, the evolution of transport helped the possibilities of exchange to expand as people from different areas were specialised in different skills and owned different goods, some specific to culture and land. Furthermore, Adam Smith’s absolute advantage is valid, but within some limits without the transport and its evolution. Even more, Ricardo’s comparative advantage is more helpful with the existence of transport, as the specialization theory can be applied on a larger scale.
We discussed some of the implications that transport had in the evolution of the society, the degree of complexity that mobility has and the impact on some basic economic theorems and also on one of today’s basic economic concepts: trade (which is an action not only because it requires physical effort, but because is it based on analysed and conscious decisions that are performed in order to achieve a degree of utility).
While numerous civilizations exploited man-made canals, England was the first to marry canals and mass transport with the Industrial Revolution, in the 18th century. Another major innovation of the time involved the development of railways. The first major railway was opened between Liverpool and Manchester. Steam power opened up extraordinary new possibilities also for maritime transport. Underground railways and electric trains were created in the dawn of the 20th century.
Internal combustion engines became a representative source of motive power for transport methods, embodied by the rise of the personal automobile. But the beginning of the 20th century represented also the beginning of a new era, that of human flight. The invention of airplanes took transport methods to a new level.
Ever in motion
Today, people travel, goods and commodities are transported by a process which has become natural and familiar regardless of method, as well as critical to the survival of our civilization. Gasoline engines, the most common today, were a real success. Even though the first electric cars were built in the 19th century, their technological limitations and the advent of the oil economy which peaked later in the 20th century relegated them to the dustbin. With so many oil reserves discovered, fossil fuels conquered the world and dominated the transport energy mix until the very end of 1990s. That is when the hybrid cars came to light in Toyota and Honda factories. But the real revolution in the automobile industry began after 2006 when Tesla’s products gained mass attention and brought owning an electric automobile into the mainstream of public consciousness. The trend developed by Elon Musk’s company initially impacted the home country of the company, but today governments from all over the world are preoccupied by the degree of air pollution and by other environmental issues. Being one of the potential solutions to reduce it, electric cars seem to be the new trend in an auto industry starved for added value and innovation. According to CNBC, Tesla’s market capitalization surpassed General Motor’s in 2017, despite the enormous disparity in sales, confirming at least the incredible interest in it, if not providing a realistic valuation of the company. Now, all the other auto makers are moving their attention in the trend’s direction, while Tesla seems poised to begin supplying them with the key ingredients of an electric car, extending its reach beyond its own production model cars. This seems to be the starting point of a new era after the many false starts and niche applications of electricity-based transport. France announced the intention to end internal sales of internal combustion engines cars by 2040 just a day after Volvo declared the end of production starting with 2019 (focusing exclusively on hybrid and electric cars). Norway targets 2025 as the first year of selling only electric and hybrid cars. Other interested countries in this matter are the Netherland (targets 2025) and Germany. The Indian government is also interested in stopping the sales of diesel and petrol cars from 2030 onwards.
The transport and its evolution (as presented above) are the first facet of the dualism transport/mobility & house/stability. Transport has expanded tremendously throughout man’s history. Man is the creator and the orchestrator of this development, which grew from the basic use of the human body for transport to the increasingly complex systems of transportation based on breeding, tools, machines, technology, know-how, innovations and bravery. With electric cars as the new trend setter in terms of transport, this moving chapter ends by leaving an open door to its stable pair.