On the trail in the bright of an LED beam on Wednesday night, it dawned that the old ways in Alaska don’t just die.
They are murdered by technology.
On an individual level, those possessed of significant willpower and a sense of self-sacrifice might be able to hang on to all traditions. On a societal level, most of the old ways are destined to be buried under an evolutionary avalanche that cannot be stopped.
Nature is a powerful force for change. Nobody is dipnetting salmon from the Kenai River anymore with a net woven of spruce roots. The construction is too time-consuming.
People did that when they had to do it. They no longer have to do it, and thus it goes against nature which dictates all animals want to get fat, humans included. This is evolution’s prime directive.
Fat animals (at least until humans altered the game in some ways) always had better chances of survival than skinny animals. Biology, meanwhile, dictates all animals want to survive to pass on their genes.
And there are only two ways to get fat: Consume more calories or burn fewer calories.
Humans have taken over the world thanks to their ability to do both. All of which comes back to technological advances of all sorts.
A well-fed world
Starvation was supposed to have visited a plague on us a generation ago, but it didn’t.
“….Throughout the postwar era, except in sub-Saharan Africa, global food production has expanded faster than the human population, averting the mass starvations that were widely predicted — for example, in the 1967 best seller Famine — 1975! The form of agriculture that (the late Norman) Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths,” Gregg Easterbrook wrote in The Atlantic way back in 1997.
A winner of a Nobel Prize, Borlaug was a key player in the Green Revolution. He helped develop the high-yield, low-pesticide dwarf wheat upon which a substantial portion of the world’s population now depends for sustenance.
A killer of old ways, the wheat and its methods were not immediately welcome in many places.
“To Borlaug, the argument for high-yield cereal crops, inorganic fertilizers, and irrigation became irrefutable when the global population began to take off after the Second World War,” Easterbrook wrote. “But many governments of developing nations were suspicious, partly for reasons of tradition (wheat was then a foreign substance in India) and partly because contact between Western technical experts and peasant farmers might shake up feudal cultures to the discomfort of the elite classes. Meanwhile, some commentators were suggesting that it would be wrong to increase the food supply in the developing world: better to let nature do the dirty work of restraining the human population.”
But what best defines successful new technology is what works, and it is all but impossible to contain changes that make life easier or better. India today produces more wheat than it can consume.
Record production is expected in the country in 2020, Reuters reported only days ago, and “that higher production would add to India’s already swelling inventories, potentially forcing the world’s second-biggest wheat producer to ramp up procurement of the grain from farmers and provide incentives for overseas sales to support local prices.”
Seeing the light
What does wheat in India have to do with a black Alaska night lit up by technology? Everything and nothing.
Nothing in that the technology of modern agriculture is wholly different from the electronic technology driving a revolution in LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and lithium-ion batteries.
Everything in that if you design it, and if it works, change will come.
And then it will accelerate.
If you live in Alaska, where the dark season settles in this time of year and runs through February, you note this sort of change most in the evolution of lights – bike lights, head lamps, even high-efficiency indoor lighting that can shrink your electric bill.
Particularly in the outdoors, the tech shifts are noticeable because of the gap caused by those summers of the midnight sun when lights aren’t needed.
This makes lights different from, say, the iPhone which creeps forward with incremental changes that make evolution less obvious. The original iPhone is now a Model-T compared to the iPhone 11, 12, 79, 402 or whatever number it is up to now, but nobody notices.
It’s still just an iPhone.
Lights in Alaska make you notice. When an inch and a half long by inch square, two-ounce chunk of technology on your forehead turns the night of old into day, it’s hard to ignore.
When you figure that light cost less than $25 and will run for a couple hours on a single 18650 lithium-ion cell about half the size and weight of an old D-cell alkaline battery, it’s even harder to ignore.
Cheaper and better
And when you are old enough to remember lights with incandescent bulbs prone to sudden burnouts powered by heavy, four-D-cell battery backs all of which collectively cost more than four times as much as this little LED of today in 1980 or 1990 dollars, the change gets downright amazing.
Throw in the short-lived fad of HID (high-intensity-discharge) now hard to find, and it only underlines how much things have changed. MTBR.com – a website for mountain bikers – in December 2008 raved about a $429, 2-pound, 3-ounce, state-of-the-art HID light capable of throwing 1,850 lumens of light.
Flash forward to the present when the inflation-corrected cost of this light would be $513 in 2019 dollars. Today, for a about a third of that price, you can buy a NiteRider Lumina Duel 1800 of almost the same brightness and a quarter of the bulk.
For just a few dollars more ($550 to $570), you can buy a NiteRider Pro Duel 4200 more than twice as powerful and still only about 80 percent of the weight of that old HID. The light is named for its 4,200 lumens of light output.
For comparison sake, standard, 55W car/truck bulbs have been shown to produce 850 to 1,260 lumens on high beam. Two of them would thus produce 1,700 to 2,520 lumens or 40 to 60 percent as much light as that NiteRider.
Of course, as you might have noticed, some car lights are now brighter than those old standards, but the standards do provide a good reference point.
The cheap, Chinese headlight I was wearing while snowshoeing Wednesday night claimed a rating of 1,000 lumens. It is hard to tell how accurate that claim, but the light appeared at least as bright as the standard low beams on the family cars and truck.
Low beams have been generally measured around 900 to 1,200 lumens.
With snow brightening the trail, there was no need for the high beam on the LED, and the low beam was significantly brighter than that of any of the headlights in which considerably more money was invested back in the day.
A bunch of them were delivered to the Salvation Army last week. There is not much use for old, bulky, heavy, alkaline-battery powered lights when you have a rack of far more efficient LEDS, let alone for the carbide lamps that powered the first headlamps.
This is the way the world works, the way the world has always worked. No one wants to continue stumbling around in the dark when they have seen the light.
Times change. Technology kills the old ways. And we all – generally and barring disaster – live a little easier day by day.
It’s easy to worry about the loss of the old ways. There are cultural values to the past, and it is good to hang onto some of those. They are the foundation of our evolution. But to think many of us can stand still in time is foolishness because we can’t do it.
We are hostages to our own success. What makes us human, all of us – black, white, Asian, Native – is the desire to make tomorrow better and easier than today, to make what works now work even better a year from now, to move relentlessly forever into the future.
To chase that bright beam always probing the dark, and it is that very thing that is destined to always kill the old ways.