Alternative Energy and the Academy at Lagado

A lot of otherwise sensible people have been calling recently for massive government investment in alternative energy research, arguing that it is the only solution to the risk of global warming that doesn’t involve economic ruin. I can see their point and have often considered it myself. Then I remember Gulliver‘s Travels. Jonathan Swift’s classic work is not a simple fairy tale, as so many children’s adaptations have made it seem, but a biting satire that tells us that certain popular conceits are not new, and we should be wary of falling for them again.

The most relevant passage is in Part III, when Gulliver visits the Academy of Lagado. The Academy is DARPA in all but name, a brain trust where those with great ideas can work on those ideas at will, free from the corrupting demands of the marketplace. The first academic Gulliver meets is working on a new source of energy:

The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect…He has been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers. He told me, he did not doubt, that, in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate: but he complained that his stock was low, and entreated me “to give him something as an encouragement to ingenuity, especially since this had been a very dear season for cucumbers.”

Yes, Gulliver met a solar power researcher. How does this speak to us today? Consider that in Germany, the world leader in solar power, photovoltaic solar panels supply 0.6 percent of the country’s energy, but the total cost to the country’s economy for those modules, which have been installed in the past decade, is likely to reach almost $75 billion. It is always a very dear season for solar power.

Others at the Academy are pursuing equally noble research projects.One, for instance, is trying to figure out how to turn excrement back into food. Another is teaching boys how to write treatises on politics using words generated randomly from a machine.

Yet it is the Academy’s mission and the attitude of Lagado’s citizens to it that speaks most closely to proposals for massive government investment in alternative energy:

In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are fifty times more violently bent upon prosecuting their schemes, driven equally on by hope and despair.

As Swift so ably reminds us, innovation for its own sake comes at a cost, particularly when it is preceded by rejection of the old. Would that the Obama administration had kept that in mind before imposing stricter automobile fuel economy standards without any real idea of how to reach them!

The irony is that Lagado was once a happy and prosperous place, but fifty years before Gulliver’s arrival, some citizens went abroad and, on gaining a smattering of learning elsewhere, “began to dislike the management of every thing below, and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanics, upon a new foot.” Gulliver’s host had not fallen for the new fashion. Instead, he continued to live in an estate run along the old lines. The price he paid was also dear:

[S]ome few other persons of quality and gentry had done the same, but were looked on with an eye of contempt and ill-will, as enemies to art, ignorant, and ill common-wealth’s men, preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.

Apparently, Swift even anticipated the price of being a global warming skeptic.