Mass-Producing an Efficient Pandemic (Bat Sneezed Pt. 2)

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Klaus Schwab, head of the World Economic Forum posits that there have been four revolutions in the Industrial Age. In his view: [8]

  • "The First Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production,

  • The Second used electrical systems to enable mass production,

  • The Third saw the introduction of electronics and information technology to automate production,

  • The Fourth is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

The following is a brief history of the Second Revolution in the automobile industry, as a prelude to discussing the Fourth.

1920 - 1950: Ford, Sloan, and Mass Production

A century ago, Henry Ford saw inefficiencies in existing automobile manufacture and through mass-production techniques was able to increase worldwide volume from two thousand to two million vehicles per year. Later that decade, GM’s Alfred Sloan improved economic efficiency by measuring corporate success based on a short list of financial metrics; earnings, revenue, inventory, and market share. In the coming decades, nearly all industries adopted these approaches. [9]

The mass-produced automobile was a boon to farming and brought increased food security throughout society; farmers used tractors to grow more crops, and vehicles to ship them to distant markets. During WW II, auto plants manufactured Jeeps and airplanes, and following the war the expanding U.S. economy allowed millions of Americans to move off farms and into cities. As food and conveniences became more available, it provided opportunities to develop new technologies which led to growth in fields like electronics, entertainment and education.

1950-2000: Lean Management

In the 1950’s, Taiichi Ohno developed “Lean” methods at Toyota which, combined with rising labor costs, led corporations to develop supply chains in lower-cost markets around the world. In their 2016 book, The Butterfly Defect Goldin and Mariathasan discuss that: [10]

“Toyota was the first company to recognize that by leaving the production of individual parts to specialty suppliers they could optimize efficiency and operate more cost effectively. This quest for efficiency moved Toyota to open manufacturing facilities worldwide. The firm overcame geographic, linguistic, and cultural barriers to search out the most cost-efficient locations balancing production costs, speed to market, and access to labor. Lean Management has become the ubiquitous driving principle of globalized production.”

Companies, industries, and nations joined the resulting “global value chain”, and world-wide societal value increased. Again per The Butterfly Defect:

“The spreading of new technologies and systems around the world led to immense changes in how human beings interact and what they may achieve. Poor people have benefitted most; no era in human history has seen such a rapid reduction in the number of people in dire poverty, and the chances that the individual born into a poor family can escape poverty and live a long and healthy life are greater than at any point in history.”

But as cities grew, traffic increased to become ‘gridlock’ and city dwellers moved to the suburbs. New houses included two-car attached garages, fast-food restaurants promoted drive-through service, suburban shopping malls and “Big Box” stores provided acres of available parking. Highways widened and lengthened to help suburban dwellers attend city events and drive to other regions. The human footprint expanded, breaking up the wilderness. Fossil fuel consumption increased, and the planet’s atmosphere warmed.

2000-2019: China’s Growth in International Trade

As the Cold War ended, Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping launched an economic revolution, opened his country to world markets, and saw an eight-fold increase in exports from 1999 to 2008. Wuhan, China (right) saw benefits in joining the global value chain. From Wikipedia [11]:

“Prior to the 21st century, Wuhan was largely agricultural, but since 2004 has been a focal in the “Rise of Central China Plan”, which aims to build less-developed inland economies into hubs of advanced manufacturing.

“The automobile industry is dominant in the region. There are 5 car manufacturers, including Dongfeng Honda, Citroen, Shanghai GM, DFM Passenger Vehicle Dongfeng Renault and Dongfeng-Citroen headquartered in the city. By 2016, Wuhan attracted foreign investment from over 80 countries, with nearly 6,000 foreign-invested enterprises in the city injecting $22.45 billion in investment."

The region grew to include 19 million residents, 35 higher educational institutions, an airport serving 20 million passengers, and is a hub in the nationwide high-speed train system. The region expanded to accommodate growth in the automotive value chain, and like every other modern economic hub has transportation systems which allow people (and their infections) to move quickly around the world.

2020 and Beyond: A Systemic Pandemic

Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion is the hypothetical story of a viral pandemic. In one scene, bulldozers knock down trees which scatter some bats, who fly above a pigsty and drop a half-eaten banana. A pig eats the banana, is slaughtered, taken to a hotel kitchen, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s character picks up the virus in a chance encounter with the chef. The following day she flies to Chicago and infects the entire U.S. Early parts of the movie are highly analogous to the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The region of southern China, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos are home to bats which for millions of years have hosted ‘reservoirs’ of coronaviruses, including SARS-Cov-1, which jumped to humans near Guangdong in 2003, and SARS-CoV-2, which jumped in 2019. Hundreds of millions of people are only a thousand kilometers from highly mobile bats, which fly that distance in a year [12]. Bats are particularly suitable hosts for viruses; their ability to fly allows them to control the inflammation which would afflict most mammals. From the standpoint of a virus a bat is a perfect vehicle by which to grow and spread an infection; they are not debilitated by the virus and they travel long distances.

Infected humans on airplanes, however, can outperform bats. In previous centuries viral incursions remained limited to a few thousand kilometers and would die out over time, but inter-continental travel is easily available and viruses can travel around the world in hours. SARS-CoV-2 (the virus which causes the COVID-19 disease) jumped to humans in December 2019 and infected all the world’s ice-free continents by the following March.

Settling the Biomes

In 1700, the one-billion humans living on the planet used only 5% of its ice-free surface, but over the next three centuries the population doubled three times (to eight billion) and leaves only a quarter of the surface as wild. [13] Melting ice caps lead to rising water levels, shrinking the ice-free surface even more; uninhabitable arid regions will increase.

While this post reflects primarily on the impacts of infectious viruses, it is inaccurate to view microscopic pathogens as the only threat. Aligned with the growth in globalization is the transmission of invasive species, such as:

  • The Emerald Ash Borer, an inconsequential insect in its native region of north-eastern Asia has caused over $10B in damage in the U.S. Midwest and continues to spread. They likely arrived via shipping crates to Canton, MI. [14]

  • Zebra Mussels are native to Russia and The Ukraine where they attached to ship anchor chains and have become invasive in the U.S. and Northern Europe. They are believed to be the source of an avian botulism which kills birds in the Great Lakes, responsible for the near extinction of many species, and lead to millions of dollars per year in cost to power plants and other water-consuming facilities. [15]

  • The Spotted Lanternfly is native to China, India, and Vietnam but is now invasive in South Korea and the Delaware Valley of the U.S. It consumes over 70 plant species, including grape vines, fruit trees, and hardwoods like maple and birch. Per the USDA: “If allowed to spread in the United States, this pest could seriously impact the country’s grape, orchard, and logging industries.” [16]

In the century past, which spans the Second Industrial Revolution, humans repurposed the wild to live in ever-closer proximity to viruses and the infections which they bring [17]. Previously, human threats were due to lions, tigers, and bears, but our expansion leads to loss of habitat for these predators who also keep at bay bats, birds, and rodents (and the viruses within). Viruses mutate and evolve, and while thousands are catalogued millions are not. Sea-borne viruses increase oceanic respiration which reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide, meaning that they mitigate climate change. Viruses are both beneficial and detrimental to human existence and more to the point are an innate part of an environment in which humans must exist.

Pandemic frequency is increasing as humans encroach upon viral reservoirs, and we are on the cusp of a change not seen since the introduction of mass production a century ago.

We should expect the 21st century to be a Pandemic Age.

Related Posts:

This and related posts are extracted from a chapter developed for the 2020 Conference Proceedings for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, held in Orlando in January 2020.

  • 1: A Bat Sneezed and the Economy Collapsed (Intro)

  • 2: Mass-producing an Efficient Pandemic ("A Bat Sneezed" Pt. 2) (This Post) Gives a brief history on Mass Production, Lean Management, and "bottom-line efficiency", referred to as Industry 2.0. Originating a century ago these brought unprecedented value to society, but have now reached their limits and create global systemic risks.

  • 3: Systems Thinking and Economic Disruption ("A Bat Sneezed" Pt. 3) Discusses 'Systems Thinking' models, Exponential Growth, Limits to Growth, Shifting the Burden, and Tragedy of the Commons, as means of understanding the systemic nature of the COVID-19 pandemics, and how Industry 2.0 economics will lead to more pandemics.

  • 4: A New Economy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution ("A Bat Sneezed" Conclusion) Discusses how 'Industry 4.0', encompassing both new technologies and new economics of "People, Planet, and Prosperity". Includes impacts of Digital Twins, Automation, Reshoring Supply Chains, and Workforce Development.


[8] K. Schwab, "“The Fourth Industrial Revolution. What It Means and How To Respond.”," 12 December 2015. [Online]. Available:

[9] J. Womack, D. T. Jones and D. Roos, The Machine That Changed the World,, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

[10] I. Goldin and M. Mariathasan, The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks and What To Do About It, Princeton: University Press, 2014.

[11] "Wikipedia entry on Wuhan, China,"

[12] M. Mckenna, "The Virus Hunters," 20 July 2020. [Online]. Available:

[13] E. e. a. Ellis, "Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000," 2010. [Online]. Available:

[14] "Wikipedia: Emerald Ash Borer,"

[15] "Wikipedia: Zebra Mussel,"

[16] "USDA: Spotted Lanternfly,"

[17] L. Thomas, "Human encroachment into forest land caused bat CoV spillover and COVID-19 emergence.," 31 August 2020.

[18] "Wikipedia: Intro to Viruses,"

[19] J. McCarthy, "Greta Thunberg Understands the ‘Carbon Budget’—do you?," 24 September 2019. [Online]. Available:

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