Saturday, June 19, 2010

Needed: A powerful idea

Being in the wrong place, without a television and with a wonky internet connection, I did not get to watch Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation on the BP oil spill in the Gulf. By all accounts, it was something of a damp squib, a sadly wasted opportunity to rouse the nation to something worthy of a resourceful and forward-looking people.

Over here, across the sea, a new book by William Rosen addresses the question of how within a century – a generation, really -- Britain went from being just another European agricultural country to a techno-industrial powerhouse that for a century dominated the world. The book is called The Most Powerful Idea In the World: The Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. It is Rosen’s thesis that what drove Britain’s Industrial Revolution was an educated class of tinkerers, a host of “onetime wheelwrights and carpenters,” ingenious handymen who saw the possibility of turning a better piston or mechanical linkage into a modest fortune.

They were looking for alternate energy resources. England’s forests had been depleted for fuel and charcoal. Coal mines went ever deeper, requiring better pumps to drain them. One thing led to another and a perfect storm of innovation was ignited.

And so here we are today, drilling holes two-miles deep into the sea floor a mile beneath the surface of the sea. It is clearly time for another alternate, sustainable energy revolution -- wind, tide, geothermal, photovoltaics -- and the country or countries that rise to the challenge will prosper the way Britain did in the 19th century.

What can government do? It can establish policies of taxation and subsidies that will insure that innovation is amply rewarded, then get out of the way. And, of course, inspire us to greatness, not to power and conquest, but to quality of life. Which is what we might have hoped for from Mr. Obama.