Volume 5, Number 117
16 Feb 2005

In this issue

The Royal Mail Coach:
Metaphor for a Changing World

by Loren Cobb

The London-to-Worcester Royal Mail Coach

In the year 1800, the Royal Mail Coach could achieve an average speed of eleven miles per hour between cities, if the roads and weather were good. A traveler could make 60 miles in a day, riding the coach. These magnificent machines were the ultimate refinement of the stage coach, itself only invented some seventy years before. The coachmen were liveried in royal scarlet, maroon, and black. The side panels carried the King's personal cypher and the royal coat of arms.

On any given hour of day or night there were hundreds of Royal Mail Coaches dashing headlong over the roads of Britain, with the precious mail in a locked compartment underneath the carriage, an armed guard and VIP passengers on the King's business inside, and less important passengers clinging desperately to their seats on the roof. The departure and arrival of the coaches from the General Post Office on Lombard Street was so dramatic it became something of a spectator pastime.

The world in those days had a population of just 900 million people. The average life-span of a British subject at birth was about 32 years, though those who survived the hazards of infancy could reasonably expect to live another 50 or 60 years. The average annual income of an American was about $1200 in current dollars.

The deadliest instrument of war in that era was the ship of the line. The 100-gun HMS Victory, for example, could fire a broadside of iron cannonballs whose total weight was about half a ton, a devastating blow to any wooden ship it faced. But against cities and urban targets nothing could match the bomb ketch: each of its two bow-mounted mortars could fling a 200-pound shell up to one mile, carrying 32 pounds of explosive charge.

Bomb Ketch in Moonlight, by Charles Brooking
State-of-the-art medicine in 1800 involved the use of leeches to bleed patients until they felt better. Surgery was performed with no anesthesia other than alcohol and with minimal antiseptic hygiene, the germ theory of disease being at the time entirely unknown and unsuspected.

Just 200 years later, an ordinary passenger jet travels 50 times faster than a Royal Mail Coach, and a long-distance traveler can make 12,000 miles in one day. To the traveler who measures distance in terms of travel time, the world of 1800 felt at least 200 times bigger than it does today.

At the same time, the population of the world has grown seven-fold. The average income of Americans is fully 25 times what it was in 1800, in constant dollars, and the rate of infant mortality has fallen by a factor of at least 20. In terms of weaponry, we can now fling a nuclear bomb as far as Mars, 35 million miles away, carrying a billion times the explosive charge of those lethal bomb-ketch mortars.

In short, there are a great many more of us, moving ourselves hundreds of times faster around a world that now seems small, communicating almost instantaneously, armed with weapons that are orders of magnitude more powerful, with far greater income and education and health than ever before seen in the history of humankind.

Shall we take a breather?

One is tempted to ask whether this breakneck pace can continue. Aren't we overdue for a slow-down, a pause to catch our collective breath and assess where this is taking us?

By almost every measure, the rate of increase in technological capability has been increasing along an exponential curve for the last 200 years. For many indicators, e.g. communication bandwidth and cost per million computations, the rate of increase over the last century has itself been increasing, and not steadily either, but at an accelerating rate. This is particularly clear in the case of two crucial indicators, the miniaturization of mechanical devices and the speed with which data can be transmitted. So much for taking a breather!

The rate of growth in labor productivity may have recently begun to show signs of the same phenomenon of increasing acceleration, though there is still some doubt and debate about this. But if productivity is directly enhanced by technology, as most assume, then it should be no surprise that it too has begun to exhibit an acceleration in its rate of growth, taking us into an economic domain only dimly understood. Heavy industry, once the undisputed engine of growth for the economy, is now plunging into insignficance, its place taken by a large and growing service sector. Labor is now flexible and mobile as never before, despite valiant attempts by national authorities to restrict immigration, while jobs, capital, and technology leap national boundaries at a moment's notice.

Under the circumstances, a slight feeling of vertigo would not be inappropriate.

What is really going on here?

Let us return for a moment to the Royal Mail Coach of 1800. England, Wales, Scotland: all of these proud nations were inexorably squeezed ever closer together by the Royal Mail and private coach services, bound into a single economic sphere despite the forces of political nationalism that periodically ripped them apart. Similar forces were at work in continental Europe, where Napoleon's vast empire maintained its cohesion — for a time — by services such as the Messageries Impériales.

Then, in rapid order, came the successors to the Royal Mail Coach: railway lines, the telegraph, the telephone, airplanes, and now the Internet. Each step along the way increased the speed of communication and transportation. As inevitably as the dawn, each step increased the cohesion and integration of the world's markets and political units, in effect shrinking the planet to a tiny fraction of its former size. Even Europe — whose quarreling tribes are among the most warlike of any on the planet — has succumbed to the forces of integration, giving us the peaceful European Union of today.

Most people, and I include myself in this category, tend by nature to view the future as though it will continue the rate of change we see in the world today. A thousand years ago these rates of change were near zero, and we were surprised when any change came along. Two hundred years ago the industrial revolution was displacing people from their village ways of life at a rate that made many people extremely angry — yet today we look back at that time with nostalgia for its placid, measured pace. Today it is dawning upon us that the rate of change is itself accelerating, and that our straight-line expectations of the future may be out-of-date before the very thought is complete. We try to visualize the future engendered by this strange state of affairs, but our minds shy away.

If we do make the effort, if we do try to recognize the extraordinary transformative power of an ever-accelerating pace of development, some contemporary social problems fade into insignificance while others move to the forefront.

From this perspective, for example, it is not at all remarkable that some of the fiercest political battles of today concern free trade and movements of capital, labor, and ideas across national boundaries, and the powers of global institutions such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice and the World Trade Organization. The already furious — and visibly accelerating — pace of technological development virtually guarantees the outcome: just as England, Scotland, and Wales merged into one island kingdom in an earlier era, just as the European Union is coalescing in our own era, so our island planet soon will have functioning organs of world government, jury-rigged on top of existing sovereign nations, and all of our local markets will merge into one global market. Under the inexorable force of accelerating change, all of this will happen in the uncomfortably near future — whether liberals and conservatives and libertarians like it or not. Only the details remain to be filled in.

Only the details... it sounds so simple, but there is only one planet Earth. Systemic mistakes made at this juncture will have planetary consequences. We cannot afford the luxury of incompetence and ignorance. The issues are critical, a time of great decisions is on the horizon, yet even among educated and informed people there is no consensus and little understanding of political economy, free markets, balance of powers, and the rule of law. We are galloping through the mist, only dimly seeing what lies ahead.

As if that were not enough, I wonder if we are simultaneously facing the prospect of a profound split in planetary society, between those who choose to participate in technological development and those who wish simply to opt out. Religious fundamentalism, whether of a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu flavor, seems powered in part by a deep desire to rein in the horses, to slow down or stop the Royal Mail Coach from its vertiginous gallop into the future. The passengers on the roof want to get off. Is this wisdom, or a false simplicity based on ignorance? Shall we let them go? Do we even have a choice?

A History of Wealth & Poverty

The Quaker Economist is the proud publisher of an online eBook entitled A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why Some Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by Jack Powelson.

Originally published in 1994 by the University of Michigan Press as Centuries of Economic Endeavor, this new electronic edition is now available to the public at no cost. Click here to see the Table of Contents.

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As a kindergarten teacher, it is one of my mantras that in addition to reading, writing and arithmetic (all of which are now taught in kindergarten) we must teach children to think. The jobs they will do most likely do not even exist yet, and we probably can not even imagine them. Therefore the skills of critical thinking, questioning, cooperating on projects, time management and choosing thoughtfully are crucial to their future success. When I was in kindergarten, we learned how to write our names and sing songs. That in itself speaks to the accelerated rate of change. Just a little anecdote!

— Virginia Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Trying to slow down innovation is hopeless. But if we could at least focus on the implications to our planet of rapid technological change in terms of ecological degradation and social dislocation, we might have a better chance of avoiding catastrophe.

— Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.

The major flaw as I see it is that you bring in no mention of Peak Oil nor of the finiteness of the energy resources upon which all of the insane growth of the modern "economy" is predicated. The house of cards is due to take a tumble soon, but whether it will be the price of oil or the total collapse of the dollar is anyone's guess.

— Caryl Johnston

The subject of the future of energy will be an entire TQE, sometime in near future. — Loren

One of the purposes of government (whether local, national, regional, or global) is to guide people so that the people get along and, at the same time, not to break the "bank" doing it. The US federal government has done the opposite, particularly in attempting global government. And the price? Many less friends and business relationships and a huge debt. The friends remaining are mostly due to our giving them payola. Drop the payola and the US becomes a hermit. Not good for a gregarious nation. The idea of a larger government because of growth in roads, number of people, etc., is much less important than the caliber of those governing.

— Samuel DiMuzio, St. Augustine (FL) Prince of Peace Church.

Good Letter!  I'll admit it made me a little dizzy — I wonder when economic analysis will catch up! I'm glad to see that there is momentum behind TQE, as well — I was sort of worried when Jack left off, and still miss him, but I'd like to take the opportunity to congratulate Loren on doing a great job. Thanks for the insights!

I have a question about some Quaker terminology I've noticed in recent Letters: what exactly does "unprogrammed" mean? Forgive me if this is a simplistic question, but I'm not a Quaker.

— Amanda O., Portland, Oregon.

Here are two answers:

1. It means that there is no plan for how the meeting will proceed. People speak as they feel led, out of the silence. — Russ Nelson.

2. An "unprogrammed" Friends Meeting has no minister or program of service; the entire meeting is spent in a form of meditative silence, from which individuals may occasionally speak if inspired. Even "programmed" Friends Meetings normally have an extended period of silence. Here is how one source explains it:

"Friends consider that true religion cannot be learned from books or set prayers, words or rituals. ... Friends refuse to make the Bible the final test of right conduct and true doctrine... The same Holy Spirit which has inspired the scriptures in the past can inspire living believers centuries later. Indeed, for the right understanding of the past, the present insight from the same Spirit is essential. Friends believe that, by the Inner Light, God provides everyone with access to spiritual truth for today." — Hans Weening, 1995.

In meditative silence we each look deep within for inspiration and guidance from the Inner Light. We also value logic and science, and yes, once in a while, even economic analysis! — Loren Cobb

There is a techno-phobia loose on the planet. It manifests as a fear of the future. My favorite Zen teacher reminds that in the enlightened state there is only the here and the now. The past is gone, the future not yet arrived. In the here and now we muddle through but we find solutions. I find no reason to believe that we will not continue to resolve our problems until the sun dies. Even the next collision with a comet may be avoidable. In the here and now we might agree with the young Abraham Lincoln who observed that in the worst circumstances human existence is barely tolerable and in the best of circumstances, it is no more than tolerable. To those who want to opt out of the maddening pace I suggest retreating to the nearest desert by a route that follows only the blue highways, carrying only the minimum comforts that fit into a small space, say, 600 cubic feet, severing all ties with the current media save for weather reports and with plenty of reading matter published prior to, say, 1960.

— Bob Davis, Boulder (Economist).

In a way I agree with Caryl Johnson, i.e. that energy depletion is a factor that overrides all others in the "unstoppable technological progress" thesis. But that is negative and I have now experienced a few days in a zero-energy-input village where there are no mains services, petrol stops 20' inside the boundary fence and everything is done by hand or power from scrap wood and a very small wind generator.

There is a positive gain beyond the imagination of working socially with other people and doing things by hand and spending far more time outdoors. A total step change from the technology/cash dominated western life. As an architect I have long wondered why it is necessary to fight against the sheer ugliness, noise and dirt of the built environment of our culture. Now I know; it is ugly from the heart out. Probably beyond marginal correction.

But as human beings in a living cosmos, we still have free will and do not have to accept trends, with however many accelerating tendencies, as inevitable. Especially as Quakers, we have invaluable gifs in our business method to share with other communities founded for co-operative and future values.

— Chris Morton, Ledbury Meeting, Herefordshire & Mid Wales Monthly Meeting, UK.

Further from Chris Morton: I have just read John Woolman's Journal and note that in 1772 on his visit to UK, he decided not to use the Royal Post owing to the long hours and harsh conditions imposed on the post boys and horses, and preferred to wait till someone could take the letter by hand.

Editor's Note: John Woolman (1720–1772) was an early luminary of the Quaker movement. He is remembered as "the Quintessential Quaker," for his tireless work to persuade Friends to oppose slavery, and for the spiritual journal that he kept for 30 years.


Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting.

Editor: Loren Cobb, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.

Editorial Board

  • Chuck Fager, Director, Quaker House, Fayetteville, NC.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Valerie Ireland, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends.
  • Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.
  • William G. Rhoads, Germantown (PA) Monthly Meeting.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • John Spears, Princeton (NJ) Friends Meeting.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board do not necessarily endorse the contents of any issue of The Quaker Economist.

Letters to the Editor

Please write to "tqe-comment" followed by "@quaker.org" to comment on this or any TQE Letter. Use as Subject the number of the Letter to which you refer. Permission to publish your comment is presumed unless you say otherwise. Please keep it short, preferably under 100 words. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.


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Copyright © 2005 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved.
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