Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Killing renewables is like killing the computer

When the Yongle and Hongxi Emperors grounded the Chinese fleet in the 15th century AD, citing the high cost of exploration, few would have predicted that they were beginning the process which would isolate China from the world for centuries, and impose a technological and political penalty from which it is only now emerging.

Similarly, when the UK civil service decided that commercial satellites and space travel had no future, they condemned the country to be the first in the world to develop, and then give up, an indigenous space launch capacity – technology which would then go on to form the foundation for the French Ariane rocket programme on which much of the world relies.

What these show is that we cannot predict what the outcomes of our actions will be, and that the effects of science and technology will often be beyond what we imagine. We are in a similar situation now in trying to deal with our environmental and economic challenges in the West.

In the UK, and the West in general, I feel there are many on both the left and the right who fail to grasp the position we are in. There are many on the left who feel, like the Chinese Emperors, that we can somehow close ourselves off from the world, that our social and economic policies exist in a vacuum and that we can simply carry on as we have done for the last fifty years. Those who oppose rises in the pension age for example, to my mind, or who believe that deficits do not matter are simply refusing to accept the facts facing them. There are also people who object all aspirational projects, such as space science or ‘Big Physics’ - arguing that every penny should be spent on the health service.

At the same time there are many on the right who are equally blinkered. Those who argue for a purely industrial approach to science, or who do not see that slashing higher education budgets will cripple innovation, for example. The divide on the right is most clearly seen with regard to green technology. In my mind they are in the same mindset as the Emperor or the mandarins who killed the British space rocket. Green tech is the future, and many others are recognising this. Nations that fail to get onboard could be left behind, and short term calculations based on five or ten year projections of cost or production capacity miss the point entirely. If there had been a feed-in tariff for computers in the 1960s you can be sure that someone would have cancelled it, pointing out that we would never have more than five or six, and that at best the PC would be supplying 3% of our computing needs, and if they were such a great idea why did the government need to invest in them in the first place.