Pushing The Envelope


The news, even our little corner of aviation news, can seem all too bleak sometimes — airplane crashes that shouldn’t happen, an economy that won’t quite rebound, bureaucracies that won’t get out of the way, fuels that won’t work — but hey, it’s summer, and with the sun shining and a cool breeze blowing, I’m wondering if we can find a little hope.Technology, after all, and human ingenuity are wondrous things. Just over 100 years ago, cars and airplanes were just barely functional. The precious oil that fueled the lights of civilized homes came from rendering the fat of whales. One of the biggest problems in the world’s cities was what to do with all the horse manure that piled up in the streets. Plenty of brainpower was applied to addressing that problem, but few would have guessed the problem would go away by itself as horse-drawn taxis became obsolete.Back in the early 1800s, Thomas Malthus popularized the idea that catastrophe is inevitable, since population increases geometrically — two parents have two children, who each have two children, etc. — while food supplies increase arithmetically — painstakingly adding to the total food production acre by acre, one at a time. Too many people, not enough food, famine and chaos. But less well known is the opposing model proposed by Ester Boserup, a Danish economist. Boserup theorized that as resources become more scarce, the pressure to innovate increases, and voila — instead of starving, humans invent high-yield grains and intensive agricultural methods, so the yield per acre increases geometrically after all.Well, voila may be over-simplifying it. But time after time, the innovation model has proved true. When the pressure is on, new ideas multiply. It’s hard to predict how the challenges we face today — how to replace 100LL, for example — will play out in the future. While we’re busily trying to clear that manure pile, an unexpected new innovation might take us by surprise. At least, with the sun shining and a cool breeze blowing, it’s nice to hope so.