So much of history hangs on the wall in the manner of a dusty old canvas with a gold-plated upper case title like THE NAPOLEONIC WARS, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, THE MING DYNASTY, THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION. There’s another kind of history, the lower case kind, that’s humbler, much less stately, though no less informative.
An example is staring us in the face right now. As our coal-loving President withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Harlan Country, Kentucky, is switching to solar power. Owned by the Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, the museum is making the move to lower its energy bills by installing 80 solar panels on its roof. It expects to save as much as $10,000 a year. The museum’s level-headed albeit ironic decision attracted attention from CNN, The Washington Post, the New York Times and even, via Twitter, Al Gore. It’s not clear whether the President is aware of this collision of realities.
The Writing on the Wall
For another striking example of a lower case moment we thank Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, a brilliant book about the impact of digital media on society. Shirky observes that since social effects lag far behind technological ones, “real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B. Rather,” he says, “they go from A through a long period of chaos” before reaching B.
Case in point: the effect of movable type on the scribes who labored in cold stone monasteries by the light of dripping candles to hand-make copies of age-old manuscripts. With Gutenberg’s technology, it was suddenly possible, for the first time in history, to create a book in a fraction of the time it took to read, let alone copy, one. In 1492, the Abbot of Sponheim in Western Germany saw with alarm that the great scribal tradition was facing a serious threat. So he pulled his quill from its scabbard, grabbed an inkwell, and wrote De Laude Scriptorum (in praise of scribes) in its defense.
There was no time to lose; the Abbot needed to get his message out quickly and widely. This of course is something the scribes could not help him do. So he had his treatise printed. “The content of the Abbot’s book praised the scribes,” Shirky notes, “while its printed form damned them.”
Shades of the mining museum!
Make Mules Great Again
History is full of these lower case clashes, especially during times of rapid change. People used candles for illumination long after electricity was available to light their homes. The ice trade continued long after the development of electric refrigerators. Despite the President’s determination to restore the coal industry to its former glory, automation has already taken over the miner’s job. Indeed, the museum in coal country may have had some concern about how much longer coal would be available. According to the Department of Energy, there are more than 6 times as many Americans working in solar power today than working in the mine, and that trend is on a one-way trip. Even King Canute knew he could not reverse the tide.
But wait: a silver lining. The New York Times reports that electrical transformers and turbines, Navy sonar equipment, colossal beer brewing tanks and other items too massive to move by rail or road are floating once again on the Erie Canal. The Times cites New York State officials who say they expect “more than 200,000 tons of shipping on the canal system in 2017, a milestone not reached since 1993.” No sign of any mules yet, but surely President Trump won’t leave them behind.
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