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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Yes, We Can

Responding to the ‘It’s impossible’ crowd

The tradition of backyard tinkering is not dead. This invention, a one-wheeled vehicle called the RIOT wheel, was built in San Francisco and deployed at the Burning Man festival in Nevada. For more information, visit

After Henry Ford perfected the automobile assembly line, U.S. industry experienced several decades of explosive growth. Although industrial expansion was interrupted for a decade during the 1930s, it roared back during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. Historians have proposed several explanations for these decades of growing productivity, including the country’s high rate of immigration and access to cheap energy and natural resources.

Another possible factor is especially intriguing: Our large farming population produced several generations of skilled tinkerers who excelled at mechanical innovation. According to this theory, rural American teenagers in the 20s, ’30s, and ’40s spent hours in the barn tinkering with tractors, hay balers, and wind generators. These farm mechanics could make and fix just about anything using a variety of parts from broken-down equipment and the local dump. Many of these self-taught tinkerers later became engineers and industrial innovators.

“Our industry will be crippled”

The decades of increasing U.S. productivity might be called the “Can Do” era. Sometime around 1970, however, the tide shifted. At the risk of oversimplification, it’s tempting to say that U.S. industry made a transition to a new era — the “It’s Impossible” era.

Among the leaders of the “it’s impossible” camp are U.S. automakers. For decades, automakers sent an army of lobbyists to testify before Congress that auto safety, efficiency, and clean-air mandates would cripple the industry and make cars unaffordable. Among the innovations that these lobbyists resisted were mandatory airbags, catalytic converters, and improved gas- mileage standards.

Once Congress finally got the courage to increase safety, mileage, and clean-air standards, guess what happened? The cost of the innovations quickly dropped.

Appliance manufacturers imitated automakers by hiring lobbyists who claimed that proposed refrigerator-efficiency standards were burdensome and unaffordable. Once new efficiency standards were enacted, however, manufacturers…

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  1. Milan Jara | | #1

    Yes, we can!
    You are so right. All I hear is, this economy and global warming. How about we all work on clean energy and transition from oil to something clean and shoot me if I am wrong we have work for everyone.

    I think the bigest problem is that is not about the others but is always about us.

    What happened to the idea of burning water?

  2. Glenn | | #2

    Yes, we can!
    I remember very well the '60's muscle cars running around while I was a teen, then the horrible cars of the '70's, that followed with the excuse that this is what the government made us do kind of thing. Take a look at the new cars with direct fuel injection, turbos and all other sorts of advanced technology and you'll see cars producing horsepower in the racecar range from the '60's that stil get very respectable mileage. The Corvette ZR-1 is a great example.
    We moved to Michigan from New York 17 years ago. The building codes in NY mandated much stricter insulation/ energy efficiency than MI does even now, and the climates are similar. Why? I think that MI really needs to say yes we can, and get on the stick. Gov. Granholm talks big about the greening of MI's economy. Let's see the walk with the talk! Yes, we can!

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