Monday, July 14, 2008

Is necessity really the mother of invention?

I was listening to an audio version of The Economist magazine the other day - a special feature on the future of energy (an article called "The Power and the Glory", June 19/08)- and my mind snagged on a comment made early on. I looked it up to be sure to get it right and here it is: "The pressure to innovate has been minimal." The gist of it is that until recently, energy has been pretty cheap so there hasn't been a lot of incentive to innovate. Of course we all know that's changing - at least the part about energy being cheap.

So then I was watching a documentary called Who Killed the Electric Car? - a 2006 film that explores the birth and subsequent "euthanization" of General Motors' electric car called the EV1 - and I got thinking of this popular maxim: necessity is the mother of invention. Hm. IS necessity the mother of invention? Who defines necessity? Who pays for invention? I think sometimes we imagine innovation as being the simple product of a creative or clever mind, imagining what could be and coming up with some innovative solution to a problem, whether big or small. But is that how it really works?

Let's look at necessity. Who decides what's a necessity or what's not? We might theoretically agree that having access to safe and sufficient food and water, adequate shelter and sanitation, basic health care, clothes appropriate for the season, primary school education - these could be considered basic necessities. But what about other things like dental care, secondary and post secondary education, running water, things like telephones, computers, appliances? Or, to notch it up even further, vacations, cars, jewellry, hobbies like golf or tennis or water skiing, extensive wardrobes? It's pretty clear that necessity can wear different hats!

But wouldn't you think that we would ALL agree that everyone on the planet should have those things that really ARE basic necessities? Shouldn't that be the starting point? I'm not so naive as to think that we would agree that everyone really should have equal access to the "stuff" that adds spice (and sometimes a wee bit of stress!) to our lives, but who can really argue that food and water, health care, education, shelter and sanitation should be reserved only for those who can pay? You've seen the stats. Currently there are millions of people on the planet who lack these things. So, by definition, is that not necessity? Is this necessity spawning invention?

I think it is, partly - at least it is sparking the impulse to invention. Many smart people are trying to solve global issues of poverty, hunger, etc. but the challenges prove to be quite significant. There are political issues (for example, should the global community help countries who violate human rights standards?), economic considerations (i.e. who pays for innovation, especially if the innovation is very expensive OR if innovation will have negative economic repercussions for someone higher on the "food chain"?), environmental challenges (can a "solution" to one environmental or ecological problem cause new and maybe even MORE serious problems like using biofuels to take some pressure off our reliance on fossil fuels but then diverting agricultural land away from food production?). When it comes to invention it seems that there may be a number of mitigating factors.

In Who Killed the Electric Car?, the film makers build a pretty compelling case that the production and presumably subsequent improvement of technology for electric cars was short circuited (pun intended!) by unseen forces or interests. Someone REALLY didn't want the EV1 to succeed in providing an alternative to fossil fuel based transportation. Sure, the EV1 had some limitations, but it was a pretty good beginning and - one might reasonably argue - would only improve with further developments and modifications.

I'm not usually a big advocate of conspiracy theories, but it occurs to me that most of us can be easily fooled into thinking that someone is making good and honorable decisions on our behalf and that we are, after all, good guys. We're not like those "other" people - those people from Africa or India or Indonesia or the Middle East or wherever - those people who resort to violence or other criminal behavior when they are hungry or sick or frustrated by political corruption or inaction. We, we like to think, are mild mannered, polite, even generous. And yet, I wonder. Maybe we're kidding ourselves. Maybe we'e like the guy Jesus talked about in Luke 18:10-14 - the Pharisee who was so proud of not being a publican (sinner) because he could boast of all kinds of outwardly spiritual practices.

Sometimes I think we are in a collective state of denial, aided and abetted by financial interests far beyond our conscious level of awareness who have dulled our senses so that we participate in global acts of barbarism without any sense of participation, let alone responsibility. Necessity IS, I think, the mother of invention, but invention can be thwarted by unscrupulous forces.

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