On Wednesday, I went to the Lunar Society‘s annual Boulton and Watt lecture. Members of the original Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton and James Watt formed one of history’s greatest partnerships, created something marvellous, and left a different, better world behind them. Over 200 years later, they are still remembered – soon to grace the front of the new £50 note, among other things. I think Boulton, the man who bragged that he had what everyone wanted to buy, would have liked that.
Ambitious, pioneering and visionary as they were, I think Boulton and Watt would have struggled to imagine the world today. The quality of life of millions has been lifted beyond imagining by human innovation, but it would surely puzzle them that the quality of life of millions more is still at 1775 levels. This said, I think they would have been astounded, delighted with the fruits of human innovation, and thirsty to learn about all the better ways of doing things.
After the lecture (Hydrogen, magnets, sustainability and the Birmingham connection), a discussion ensued as to the willingness (the thirst) of the establishment (specifically the banking sector and the government) to commit to the development and production of innovations associated with of hydrogen and rare earth magnets. The possibilities for low-carbon industrial processes, energy storage, all with less exposure to the political and economic volatility of oil (or indeed sunlight), had excited us all. Where you have water, you can have hydrogen.
This got me thinking about the relationship between politics and innovation – particularly in the context of a larger political problem. Resource depletion is one such problem – the work of people like Professor Rex Harris, who delivered the lecture, could help us to fix it.
Sadly, that relationship seems to be fairly uneasy at the best of times. This is at least partly the fault of the political class, who are unwilling to put long-term, sometimes slow-burn developments over quick and sexy wins. There are too few votes in it. Furthermore, the interests of the establishment are strong, and politicians have shown time and time again just how difficult they find it to resist its lure. It’s also about the round numbers, the regular, pleasing patterns – all of which are very human. Reducing a structural deficit are you? 50% in five years, natch. Iterative, unpredictable processes, however promising, rarely fit into parliamentary terms.
And the reduced allocations for research probably won’t have helped.
Beyond the government, even the most well-developed ideas will struggle to access investment at the moment. But the government could use its influence to further develop the cultural exchange that has started to occur between universities and businesses, consider how beneficial regulation might assist the development of hydrogen in industry, and, if possible, look into beneficial taxation for innovations associated with weaning us off oil.
Making innovation in this area anything like a priority is not going to be easy – times are difficult now, and they’ll probably get harder still. But it will be nothing compared to what we will go through when we’ve run out of affordable oil. Delaying a serious problem 20 years down the line will make it harder (and more expensive) to deal with then. Even if we remove climate change from the equation completely, we’re running out of the fuels that run the only world we’ve ever known, which is a fairly substantive motivation for changing how we do things. Except in reality, it isn’t, and we’re getting dangerously close to the point where we run out of affordable oil before we learn how to live without it. We shouldn’t have to make such a stark choice.
Boulton and Watt would have had no idea how quickly the people of the future would consume the fuel that drove their creation. Maybe it would have been too far off to concern them at all. But every fuel bill we receive should remind us of how little we have left, and why innovative alternatives should be a priority.