What Really Propels the Global Economy?

The great management consultant and author, Peter Drucker, wrote somewhere that one way to predict the future is to take full account of things that have already happened. For example, Drucker wrote that it should have been clear by 1908 that Henry Ford had changed the public’s image of the automobile from rich man’s toy to a new mode of transportation desired by virtually everyone. Nevertheless, buggy makers and blacksmiths felt blindsided. William C. Durant did not. He saw the road ahead and created the Chevrolet brand, and founded the first multi-line car company, General Motors.

Many people today see “green technology” as the thing that has already happened (or will happen soon) to change the world economy. Before you buy into that idea, I think you should read Vaclav Smil’s new book. In Prime Movers of Globalization, Smil offers a history of two key technical developments that have driven globalization, and should continue to power the world economy.

You may be surprised to learn that those two technologies have nothing to do with either the Internet or wind power. Instead, Smil points to the high-compression non-sparking internal combustion engines invented by Rudolf Diesel in the 1890s and the gas turbines designed by Frank Whittle and Hans-Joachim Pabst von Ohain in the 1930s. Smil says that the massive diesel engines that power cargo ships and the gas turbines that propel jet engines are more important to the global economy than any corporate structure or international trade agreement.

The lengthy processes of development, commercialization, and diffusion throughout the world that the diesel engine and the gas turbine went through, Smil argues, provide perfect examples of gradual technical advances that receive little attention, but have resulted in epochal shifts in global affairs and the global economy. One might say that Smil is the Peter Drucker of energy.

Vaclav Smil is currently a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He is the author of (or contributor to) more than two dozen books on energy and energy related matters, including Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, and Prospects, published by Praeger in May of this year. Prime Movers of Globalization is published by MIT Press and was released August 10th. You can order both at Amazon now.