November 16, 2017

Source: Bigstock

This is why China will probably surpass us sometime this century. China thinks not in terms of quarters, or decades, but centuries. China thinks that the period 1850 to 1950, for example, was a Century of Humiliation interrupting what was otherwise its rightful position as the center of the universe. Since 1973 they’ve been gathering information, doing research about just how they want to interact with the non-Chinese parts of the world, and now that they’re approaching the fifty-year mark on that project, they’re ready to reassert themselves. They’re starting by making friends with every nation in the world, regardless of whether that nation is free or authoritarian, socialist, atheist, or religious, regardless of whether that nation has anything to offer China. They have a 100-year plan that involves the economy, international relations, business, engineering, science, and yes, outer space—but they’re not that concerned about who gets to Mars first. Simultaneously they’re starting to crack down on cowboy capitalists. They don’t like flashy businessmen focused on short-term wealth or individual glory.

I once met an American who thought like this. Back in the ’80s I embarked on a project of mapping the precise roadbed of the original Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Santa Monica. (Highway officials were opposed at the time to any historic designation for the highway, since it would require new signage and other hassles.) In the course of my investigation I kept passing the little town of Funk’s Grove, Illinois, which sits in a dense forest isolated on a vast open prairie. One day I decided to pull over and find the mayor and get a little background on the place.

There’s nothing like the first time you walk into a syrup house—it’s like breathing hot molasses, and it’s a little scary as your body starts to sweat and your sinuses fill up with steamy unprocessed sap aroma. There was no mayor in Funk’s Grove, just a Mr. Funk, who was the direct descendant of Isaac Funk, who had tended the first oaks and maples in the area back in 1824. Maple syrup had been the family business for 160 years, and Mr. Funk emerged from somewhere deep in the syrup house and was happy to tell me all about it.

As it happened, I had arrived in a year when they were planting new maple trees on a few acres they had just acquired. The saplings were tiny, but Mr. Funk proudly pointed them out and told me about the combination picnic/local fair they had for the planting ceremony. I asked him if this would allow him to increase syrup production, and he gave a little laugh. A fifty-year-old maple tree can sometimes handle a single tap, but the trees wouldn’t be fully mature and producing commercial quantities for seventy to eighty years.

“These trees are for the grandchildren of my grandchildren,” he said.

I tell this story when people complain about the price of maple syrup. Maple syrup production will never be attractive to agribusiness because there aren’t any CEOs willing to invest today in a crop that can’t be harvested until 2070.

The only guy I know of who ended up living at the North Pole was the Frankenstein monster, and he went there to die. (It’s the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s novel, so you may not recall that the story starts and ends with an ill-fated voyage to the Arctic.)

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars quickly because Elon Musk is 46 years old. The grandchildren of his grandchildren can find their own planet. Get those interplanetary grapple hooks ready. They’re probably manufacturing them now—in China.


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