January 5, 2014

History teaches wisdom of planning ahead

In 1376, Oxford University built its New College with oak beams for the ceiling that spanned 45 feet and were upwards of two feet thick. Oak trees of a size and straightness necessary to mill such beams are rare. They were so rare that the college forester identified some oak groves seven centuries ago in anticipation that the beams would need to be replaced someday.

When that day came, the Oxford architects first scoured their sources for suitable timber, to no avail. Then by chance they asked the college forester. He responded that they had wondered when the college might need some of the old oak trees they had saved for centuries. The foresters knew that beetles would eventually eat the old beams.

Such long-term planning is almost completely unknown nowadays. Our time horizon has shrunk to the attention span of an Internet-dependent citizenry. Electronic devices seem to break down within weeks of the expiration of their warranty. Repair is now often more expensive than replacement. We live in the age of immediacy and planned obsolescence.

What is different now than a millennium ago or even a decade ago?

Northern Europe thrived following the Dark Ages precisely because it suffered harsh winters. Those hardy enough to survive the challenging climate did so only if they had the foresight to plan for the future. While their ancestors who lived in warmer climates were never more than a few months away from another bountiful crop, Northern Europeans and Northern Americans had to harvest in the summer and fall and make their stocks last over six long and cold months.

With the necessity of saving and with the planning for surpluses of one season to tide them over for the others, all kinds of innovations occurred. With surpluses came specialization of labor, global trade and economic diversity. Economies flourished and civilization vaulted forward during this economic and cultural Renaissance.

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