Alternatives to good ideas

It seems that the human race is divided into two sections. The first part is composed of people who are always looking for ways to make life better. They are forever coming up with new ideas, plans and dreams, that will improve on the world as we know it. They are optimistic, driven and good fun to be with. The other section of humanity is the people who are determined to always screw things up.

A good example came to light recently. People have been going on about global warming and talking about the fate of the planet. One particular difficulty about the future is that we are told we are rapidly approaching the time when oil supplies will run out. That’s bad news for drivers, transporters and travellers. One alternative is to find other fuels, apart from petrol, gasoline and aviation fuel. A good suggestion seems to be that we could grow crops that we could turn into liquids rich in hydrocarbons rather than have to dig them out of the ground. They’re called ‘biofuels’. A good idea? Can’t go wrong? Don’t underestimate man’s ability to mess up! The news is that farmers in Malaysia and islands in the region are turning to the growing of biofuels as a way of making a living. To do this, they need land. No problem. They’re simply cutting down local forests and planting their crops on the land that’s freed up. They get praise for this, right? No, they get hated. You see, the same people who think it’s a good idea to grow biofuels are also the same people who want to keep the forests of the world alive and diverse. They don’t want them chopped down! Ah, how difficult can you get. These poor farmers are simply trying to earn a living, and growing the ‘new petrol’ certainly seems a good way to earn a crust, and it’s a growth industry, not like oil – which is disappearing. But it gets worse. Because biofuels are now so popular, other – more established – farmers are turning to their cultivation. In so doing, they’re giving up what they do now, like growing food. So, not only are the forests of the region being cut down, but the population is suffering from food shortages, all caused by that spiffing new idea of growing crops for fuel.

Now, this isn’t to say that the original idea wasn’t a good one. No way. If the black stuff is drying up, then what else are we going to do? Apart from switching off the lights for good, and all going back to walking or riding our pushbikes, there seems precious few plans for coping for the lack of good oilfields. Planting things that can be turned into stuff that fills your tank in your local petrol station has got to be a grand plan. But chopping down forests to achieve that? Where did that bright idea come from? This nonsensical proposal came from the first one, the sensible one, so maybe the first thought was wrong? No, it’s just that you have to be as aware of how an idea is put into practise as you are about what it is that is being done. A good example from history is that after the 1870 Education Act in England, it was decided to make inspections of schools to check out that they were all following the letter of the law. These Inspectors came up with a grand plan to ensure that the teachers were teaching and the pupils were learning: they decided to give the kids some simple tests, mainly about reading and writing, just to be sure the new system was working. But – and there’s always a but – when the schools realised how important these tests were, and how their future was dependent on getting good results, they and just instructed the teachers to drop everything else and focus on making sure the kids knew enough to pass the exams. All other training was dropped. The result? A narrow, restricted curriculum, solely based on the need to pass Inspections, not to give the children anything like a good start in life. It wasn’t unique. It isn’t just 1870 when this happened. We had the same result in Britain after 1997 too.

There’s a simple way out, and it involves a test too. The test is: if we’ve arrived at this destination, and we didn’t want to get here, then we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Let’s back up, find out where we went wrong, and fix the problem there. Try that test with the forest scenario and ask yourself the question, did we want people cutting trees down in order to solve the lack of oil? If no, then we need a new plan: how can we make bio-fuel without destroying the forests? There must be an answer to that question, surely. If you find it, you’ll be heaped with plaudits. But in needs to be sensible! Cue the British government. They have an answer, and it speaks for itself. Their logic is this: we don’t want dirty coal-fired power stations, and we don’t want the carbon dioxide that comes from oil-fired power stations. How can we create new, clean power? Well, we can support wind and wave electricity generation, but that may not be enough in itself. Wait, we’ve got it. We’ll build some more nuclear power stations, that’s the answer. Now, you at the back, were you paying attention? Then answer this question. The people who agree that coal and oil are bad things, do you really think that they’re the same people who would vote for nuclear power instead? If you think you know the answer, then you deserve to be in charge of the British government, because our present lot clearly don’t know what makes a ‘good idea’. In this case, they haven’t got one.