Future transport: mules vs donkeys vs horses

02 May 2010

“A mule is entirely nonpartisan about the contents of its load. It will carry as much as three hundred pounds, seven hours a day, twenty days straight, without complaint, strolling along under the huge, heavy cargo as if it were a bag of balloons,” writes Susan Orlean in the New Yorker, in “Riding High: Mules in the military.”

(Sorry, subscription required to read that one.)

So when the U.S. decided to duke it out with the Soviets, using Afghanis as a proxy army, the Americans decided to send a bunch of mules over to help carry in all the weapons they were paying for.

It didn’t work out well, though. The Tennessee-bred mules weren’t trained to start with, and couldn’t adapt to Afghanistan. The Afghani mujahideen—or “freedom fighters,” as they were known in America back then—sent the mules away. Mujahideen commander Walid Majroh told Orlean, “I sometimes wonder if it was a Reagan stimulus package for Tennessee.”

The mule boom during the Afghanistan war might have been just a bubble for the Tennessee mule breeders if it weren’t for an Amish population boom in the 1990s, Orleans writes. They loved the mules. Maybe they were onto something (see: “Did the Amish get it right after all?” on the Energy Bulletin.)

But over here in Pakistan, though, it seems donkeys are best. People use them to pull carts around that carry just about anything—from big bundles of hay or loads of food, to tar-making rigs carrying smoldering coals, to mobile water vendors—with a big metal box filled with a few cubic meters of water, outfitted with a pump, for filling up someone’s rooftop water tank.

Dmitri Orlov, who wrote a fascinating book called Reinventing Collapse about what Russia was like just after the Soviet collapse, gives donkeys two thumbs up.

Orlov thinks America is teetering on the verge of collapse, and offers some tips on how to get by in a talk for the Long Now Foundation, “Social Collapse Best Practices.” Orlov’s site has the transcript of the talk:

One final transportation idea: start breeding donkeys. Horses are finicky and expensive, but donkeys can be very cost-effective and make good pack animals. My grandfather had a donkey while he was living in Tashkent in Central Asia during World War II. There was nothing much for the donkey to eat, but, as a member of the Communist Party, my grandfather had a subscription to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, and so that’s what the donkey ate. Apparently, donkeys can digest any kind of cellulose, even when it’s loaded with communist propaganda. If I had a donkey, I would feed it the Wall Street Journal.

(Watch the video on Fora.tv.)

As someone pointed out in the Q&A after Orlov’s talk, he had also advocated making friends with people with guns:

One interesting observation is that once collapse occurs it becomes possible to rent a policeman, either for a special occasion, or generally just to follow someone around. It is even possible to hire a soldier or two, armed with AK-47s, to help you run various errands. Not only is it possible to do such things, it’s often a very good idea, especially if you happen to have something valuable that you don’t want to part with. If you can’t afford their services, then you should try to be friends with them, and to be helpful to them in various ways. Although their demands might seem exorbitant at times, it is still a good idea to do all you can to keep them on your side. For instance, they might at some point insist that you and your family move out to the garage so that they can live in your house. This may be upsetting at first, but then is it really such a good idea for you to live in a big house all by yourselves, with so many armed men running around. It may make sense to station some of them right in your house, so that they have a base of operations from which to maintain a watch and patrol the neighborhood.

Was this, the audience member wanted to know, really harder than managing horses?

Maybe not, but with donkeys vs horses vs mules, at least you get to take your pick.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »