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How Technological Progress Has Powered Migration
And how the lack of cheap energy is delaying the next big leap.
Today is Mother’s Day in Sweden. It’s my first without mom. She passed away April 24 after a short illness at the respectable age of 91. After moving to the U.S. in 1994, I normally remembered her on American Mother’s Day as it was impossible to miss with TV commercials, internet ads and all; the Swedish equivalent, some 5,000 miles away, was easy to forget. Mom didn’t mind at all—she liked having two Mother’s Days a year.
While in Sweden during her last days and for the memorial service, Maria and I visited Utvandrarnas Hus (The Emigrants’ House) in the town of Växjö (pronunciation here if you like tongue twisters), a museum dedicated to the history of Swedish emigration to the United States. For a modern-day emigrant like me, the visit deepened my admiration and appreciation for those who came before, and the obstacles they had to overcome. The period between 1865 and 1890 saw emigration at its peak, when the accumulated numbers went from 65,000 to 800,000. Emigration continued at a lower but still significant pace until the Great Depression. In total, about 1.1 million Swedes emigrated to the U.S in this 65-year span. The absolute numbers pale in comparison to Italian, Polish, German and Irish immigrant flows, but as a percentage of the population it was significant. For example, in 1900, Sweden had only about 5 million inhabitants, so 1.1 million of the often brightest and most ambitious leaving the country amounted to a severe brain-drain.
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For the early pioneers—those first 65,000—emigrating was almost certainly a one-way ticket. Securing passage across the Atlantic on sailing ships at significant cost virtually guaranteed they would never see Sweden again. And contact with the old country was for the most part severed as postage cost a fortune and letters took months to arrive, limiting communication to an absolute minimum. Leaving the home-country back then was not for the faint of heart.
This started to change in the 1860s with the advent of steamships which dramatically drove down the cost of passage and was in no small measure responsible for the surge of emigrants the following 25 years. The drop in ticket price also gave rise to a flourishing business of recruiting immigrants to the United States where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and in dire need of labor. Steamship and American railroad companies had networks of agents throughout Sweden (and other European countries) promising inexpensive land and endless opportunities in The New World. The explosion in steamship traffic and the ensuing competition also reduced mailing costs and delivery times, allowing for more frequent and less expensive contact with far-away relatives. And as the telegraph and later the telephone revolutionized communication, it became easier and easier to stay in touch.
Thanks to the rapid technological progress during the Gilded Age, emigrating was no longer irreversible. Many took the plunge, knowing they could return if the United States didn’t live up to its promise, or if longing for family and friends grew too strong. In fact, during the early decades of the 20th century, some 20% of emigrants returned to Sweden at some point, either for extended visits, or to stay home for good.
Technological progress has continued to facilitate emigration after the waves of Swedish and other European immigrants subsided. Emigration streams from Asia have benefitted from affordable commercial aviation, both in terms of coming here in the first place and, at least occasionally, making the trek back “home.” And in the last couple of decades, the internet and digital revolutions have brought us closer than we could have imagined only 25 years ago. When I arrived in the U.S. in 1994, frequent phone calls to Maria back in Europe (who joined me nine months later) was a significant budget line item (but, oh, was it worth it). Nowadays, Facetime, WhatsApp and Skype allow for basically no-cost video calling to anybody with a smartphone or other internet enabled device—which in a not-too-distant future will be all of us. Moving halfway across the globe was always a big step, but technological progress has undoubtedly eased the pain.
Yet, the world could be so much more connected. The West has seen a significant slow-down in economic growth over the past 50 years. Excepting information and digital technology, the type of ground-breaking innovations that powered the great European immigration to the United States has slowed to a trickle. Nowhere is this more evident than in energy usage per capita which has flatlined since the early 1970’s:
The main cause is individual rights violating regulations and taxation promoted by the Anti Human Flourishing Complex (AHFC), which has robbed us of abundant, cheap nuclear and fossil fuel based energy. Cheap energy is a prerequisite for much innovation. The lack of it, along with stifling regulation, is delaying the next big leap in communication. It has pushed out supersonic and hypersonic air travel by decades, and has not brought down the cost of regular commercial flights as quickly as could have been. And, it obviously thwarted my plans for visiting mom in my own flying car (or at least for taking me to the nearest supersonic air travel hub, from where I would be with her in a couple of hours). Transporters, the ultimate travel tool, are admittedly a long way away, but with scientists and innovators having access to unlimited cheap energy, and being free of Kafkaesque regulatory interference, their days will come.
This past year as mom’s dementia slowly progressed, she and I settled into a daily routine of spending 10-15 minutes on a WhatsApp videocall; she could still manage her smartphone although she sometimes confused it with the TV remote. It was pretty much the same script every day. We talked about the weather and what’s for dinner, about the friends she had met or talked to, about how much she still missed dad twelve years after his passing, and of course about her—and my—sadness over her slowly losing her mind. No, WhatsApp wasn’t the same as being with her in person, being able to give her a hug, or just providing the comfort of having someone near. But in some ways, despite being 5,000 miles apart, we grew closer this past year than perhaps ever before thanks to the availability of this marvelous technology. For that I’m thankful to the innovators, entrepreneurs and businessmen who have made long-distance communication virtually free less than 200 years after my Swedish forebears left their country behind with little hope of ever returning or seeing their loved ones again. Hopefully, as the AHFC is beaten back by the growing number of champions of human progress, a new wave of cheap-energy-powered innovation will make physical contact as easy as connecting on your smart phone—and allow for visiting mom on both Mother’s Days each year.