Because of governmental barriers to new development and industry, we have become used to living in a society where most of the exciting advancements are in microtechnology–computer chips, smart phones, etc–rather than in macrotechnology: new forms of nuclear power, mass-desalination of water, and, of course the ever-elusive flying car.
But what about the flying plane?
A year and a half ago, my friend Blake Scholl, an entrepreneur and pilot, pointed out to me that airplanes are actually getting slower–despite the fact that the technology needed to make them faster, quieter, and more affordable than ever existed.
Take a look at this graph of passenger airplane speeds.
The story this tells is one of a society that used to aggressively, successfully pursue faster travel–and then gave up.
The early story of speed is inspiring. In 1869, the revolutionary technology of the transcontinental railroad made a trip from New York to California in 83 hours–52 times faster than the covered wagon did.
In 1933, just 30 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, a trip from New York to California took 20 hours.
In 1959, that trip took five hours with the transcontinental passenger jet.
Pause on that: a trip from New York to California takes the same amount of time today that it did in 1959. In what other field do we accept 50s-level performance?
In the 50s and 60s, they didn’t accept it. In 1976, the supersonic Concorde, flying at twice the speed of sound, could fly almost anywhere in the world in under eight hours, making it possible to go from New York to Paris in under 3.5 hours.
Unfortunately, that was not the beginning of the supersonic revolution but a lone attempt at greatness before decades of airline mediocrity.
Since I fly on some 100 planes a year, this is particularly upsetting–but not surprising. Given today’s regulatory gauntlet for new macrotechnology, who would want to try to build a fundamentally superior plane?
Well, as it turns out, Blake Scholl. On Monday, his company, Boom, announced that it is building the fastest passenger airplane ever. It promises to match today’s business class prices at more than twice the speed. I’ve been following the project behind the scenes for the last year as not only a friend and, full disclosure, an angel investor, but most importantly as an enthusiast for progress.
It is exciting and inspiring to see a company take on an epic engineering and business challenge that would save me thousands of hours over my career–a challenge that no one is taking on.
But while we should admire those who do take on such challenges, we should also be 100% clear on why so many people don’t try to create radical innovation in transportation. It is because we have a politically powerful movement, the environmentalist movement, that does everything it can to obstruct new development and new technology in the name of minimizing our footprint on nature.
That movement virtually destroyed nuclear power–it makes it hard to build anything, from a road to a building–and it will surely find dozens of reasons to oppose a faster plane. Indeed, one of the movement’s heroes, Bill McKibben has condemned all air travel because airplane fuel emits CO2: “jet travel can’t be our salvation…so the kind of trip you can take with the click of a mouse will have to substitute.”
I want the opposite kind of world–the world where I can find amazing places with the click of a mouse, hop on a supersonic plane, and enjoy the heck out of them.
That’s why I am not an environmentalist. I don’t want to minimize my footprint on nature. I’m a humanist. I want to maximize my well-being, which includes a lot of improving nature.
If we want the world of the future, we’re going to need a lot more humanists.