Whatever Sheryl Crow says, we’re not convinced change will do us good. When something we rely on disappears, it prompts emotions ranging from anger to panic. But when change is forced on us, our societies and economies are actually surprisingly resilient.
In the pandemic, firms that had never heard of Zoom were operating entirely remotely in days. A tube strike in 2014 (ie back when workers went nuts if they weren’t able to commute, rather than because they’d been asked to again) closed stations, forcing people to try alternative travel plans. When stations reopened, what happened? Those who’d been disrupted were more likely to switch to new, better commuting patterns. By forcing experimentation, the strike made us more efficient.
Today, the challenge is imagining living without Russian gas. Overnight bans on imports would have big economic effects, but economists have turned to history to show that disaster is by no means inevitable.
In 2010, China banned exports to Japan of key industrial inputs: rare earth materials. China was the sole supplier, so you might have thought this would cripple the Japanese economy. But it didn’t, because rising costs pushed firms to adapt production radically: using rare earths more efficiently (glassmakers recycled polish that relied on a rare earth mineral) or finding alternatives.
War always triggers big supply-and-demand shocks, but also shows how radically we can adapt. During the Second World War, US military planners were told their goal of producing 50,000 aircraft was impossible, before changes to assembly lines and workforce management saw almost 100,000 planes built in 1944 alone. Germany, meanwhile, suffering from petrol shortages, converted half-a-million vehicles to run by burning wood. Humans, and capitalism, are more flexible than we think.