Dean Swift’s foresight – Energy in the 21st century

Guest essay by William York

None of these projects are yet brought to perfection

The chaos surrounding the management of this nation’s electricity supply had been anticipated back in the eighteenth century by Dean Jonathan Swift.

How did he do it? Swift writing Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 made a long range forecast of such incredible accuracy that it would be the envy of any climate modeler. In this forecast you glimpse Prime Ministers, Premiers, politicians, universities, the academies and many practical men who may bring doom and destruction to Australia.

You may recall that on one of Lemuel Gulliver’s voyages he is rescued from a desolate rock by a rope dropped from a maneuverable island that floats in the air. It is the kingdom of Laputa, a small island no more than a few miles wide that can be steered over a country called Balnibarbi. The king of Laputa rules Balnibarbi and if the citizens below prove troublesome then Laputa can bring perpetual night to a rebellious town by keeping it in permanent darkness or at least until the citizens mend their ways.

There is an interesting resonance with our present rulers in Canberra, with a city that, to many, appears to float disconnected and threatening darkness on us all.

But Swift’s insights are much deeper. The ruler and courtiers of Laputa are devoted to the study of science and music to the exclusion of most other activities. In fact Gulliver is regarded by the court as of little interest since he can make no contribution to their activities. The structure of Canberra, its bureaucracies, universities and academies but little industry looks to be the modern realization of the realm of Laputa. The king of Laputa would understand the language of Canberra with its “detailed programmatic specificity”. The problems of government require endless enquiries, initiatives and meetings with few decisions except to have further enquiries, initiatives and meetings. This might befuddle most citizens but it would resonate with king of Laputa… In fact Swift was satirizing the Royal Society with its endless meetings and discussions while the society itself appeared to bring no general benefit to the community.

Gulliver is befriended by a practical noble who is despised by his peers for his common sense and understanding. Gulliver is given leave by the king to depart and descend to the country of Balnibarbi, to be guided by his noble friend. He is amazed on descending to see what looks like a ruined country with its capital Lagado in a sorry state. His host, whose estates are the complete opposite, explains: “That, about forty years ago, certain persons went up to Laputa, either upon business or diversion; and after five months continuance, came back with a very little smattering in mathematicks, but full of volatile spirits, acquired in that airy region. That, these persons upon their return, began to dislike the management of every thing below; and fell into schemes of putting all arts, sciences, languages, and mechanicks upon a new foot. To this end, they procured a royal patent, for erecting an academy of projectors in Lagado and, the humour prevailed so strongly among the people, that there is not a town of any consequence in the kingdom, without such an academy. 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 chuse, and encrease an 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 cloaths: 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: that, as for himself, being not of an enterprizing spirit, he was content to go on in the old forms; to live in the houses his ancestors had built, and act as they did in every part of life without innovation: that, some 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 commonwealths- men; preferring their own ease and sloth before the general improvement of their country.”

Here we can see the forerunner of the contemporary politics of energy. The courtiers like Garnaut and the government’s mandarins and scientists analyze and report on the future assuming that energy technologies of the “politically correct” sort will arise to take the place of the old and despised uses of fossil fuels or the satanic uranium nucleus. As in Balnibarbi, much contemporary politics has been bi-partisan. The present Prime Minister banned incandescent light bulbs when he was Minister for the Environment and at present is interested in batteries and is planning an adventure in the Snowy Mountains. Indeed the description of Balnibarbi is a foretaste of the future for South Australia, foreswearing the use of coal, unable to harness a steady wind and not being able to draw enough electrical energy from its neighboring state of Victoria to keep the lights on.

The state Premiers and rent-seekers who have visited Canberra return to their home states with a vision for the future and government financial support, either directly or by regulation fortifying this vision. The academy of “projectors”, the old term for promoters, has its modern realization in alternative energy and climate change institutes to be found in universities while the professors devise new schemes, write letters advising business to change its ways and attend conferences of like minded persons in agreeable cities of the world.

We have not yet got to the State of Balnibarbi but Dean Swift has told us what to expect.

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78 thoughts on “Dean Swift’s foresight – Energy in the 21st century

  1. If you want to take the prophect further, Swift actually placed Lilliput, at least, pretty much in S Australia (but thought it was ocean). However, I don’t think you can rely on him for insights into the electricity market.

    • Some critics have thought that Swift meant NW, ie in the Pacific, rather than NW of Tasmania. But Australia wasn’t well surveyed in 1726, so the good Dean may well not have known that land lay in the Indian Ocean region in which he located Lilliput.

    • “However, I don’t think you can rely on him for insights into the electricity market.”

      No more than I would rely on you for insights, Nick !

      • Wrong thinking, there. Nick is one of those you can absolutely rely on. Whatever he thinks, reality will always be the exact opposite.

        Such a touchstone is a pearl beyond price…

  2. Damn! I now have to buy a unedited copy of Gullivers Travels to review, as I have not read it as an adult, or an unexpurgated copy ever. The really nasty screed by Swift that some greens seem to be trying to put into place, though, is ” A Modest Proposal”.

    • According to Swift impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food for the rich ………..”A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”

      Just a smidgen of satire there

      • Even Swift could not imagine that infants at “minus a month old” could be carved into pieces and sold to Laputo for “research”.

  3. Laputa gained renewed notoriety thanks to Dr. Strangelove, in which that’s the name of the Soviet ICBM complex targeted by MJR Kong. Of course it also enjoys sexual connotations.

  4. The Australian Energy Market Operator predicts an unprecedented 72 days of possible power supply shortfalls over the next two years following the shutdown of the Hazelwood plant (in Victoria) next week. The utilisation of Victoria’s gas fired power stations is 5%.
    Nobody agrees with anyone else about what to do. Obviously not. It’s Australia.

    • I can only hope that we here in NSW shut off our southern interstate connectors and leave VIC, SA and TAS to their own demises.

    • notice the insane supposed costs to keep hazelwood going or add some cleanups?
      yet it was ok to flog to OS interests to make money off of for years?
      if they could run as is
      then govt should just take it over and keep it going
      if they plan to shut then theyd not have made income so why the hell pay them for what the state actually paid for decades ago?
      oh be fair i guess
      landprice ONLY

    • I heard about the “adventure in the Snowy Mountains” today, so I looked it up. It seems the idea for the electric hydro project was first conceived in 1946, refined to its present concept in 1949 and finally approved by the states of Australia in 1959. So it only took 10 years to agree on what to do. Then the building of the system began. So the good people of Australia can expect 2000 MW of green power sometime after 2027. North Korea, here we come!

  5. I remembered Swift from high school and I have often thought about Laputa and Balnibari in the context of todays circus. Swift would have recognised it immediately.

    • It’s not prescient, he making a satirical criticism of society of his time. Sadly, that works just as well over 200 years later.

      • What do you mean ‘It seems”? Human nature is what it is, and humans, themselves, can’t change it. The marvel is that there is a means for humans to change their nature, but they’d rather reject it, given the implications.

  6. “The state Premiers and rent-seekers who have visited Canberra return to their home states with a vision for the future and government financial support, either directly or by regulation fortifying this vision.”

    Who are only interested in maintaining their portfolios, and rorting their “allowances”.

    • yeah 170+k for a country home for a city dweller
      and no payback and a bad attitude
      mongrel needs to not only repay but be fired

      • I would agree.
        Out of a canon, into a brick wall out front of the Parliament building.
        Leave the stain as a warning to the others.

  7. The eco-power orchestration of SA inevitably precedes the terminal orcastration of the rent-seekers.
    ‘Tis the Law of Diminishing Returns.

  8. Are there any sane people left in Australia? What is happening is just not funny any longer. These people should be prosecuted in a class action suit.!

    • I my opinion very few, and those who are still left, would like to find a way to leave if they could. I left 14 years ago.

  9. South Australia perhaps proves the dictum that above levels of 25% or so, renewable or more precisely, unreliable sources of energy will destabilize the grid. SA is currently at 40%.
    That being said, no politician or AGW zealot will accept fact as truth. They work off rhetoric. Unfortunately, they can’t be swayed by rhetoric either as that’s their bread and butter and they know it contains no real meaning or truths.
    Our only hope is to allow, even encourage isolated areas to fail miserably. Let them freeze in the dark and their children die in pain. Kind of hard on decent folk but they can always vote with their feet.
    Mr. Swift was indeed a visionary.

    • Happily, Tasmania is back to 100% renewable energy after a few terrible months needing imported diesel plant to make up a shortfall. The shortfall was caused by excessive rundown of the state’s dams in order to sell as much of Tasmania’s renewable energy at a premium to the mainland as possible.
      Oddly enough, the push to non-dispatchable renewables has led to my farming friends irrigating with diesel power in Queensland as that’s now 2/3 the cost of using electricity.
      Green energy initiatives lead to increased diesel fuel sales. Whoda thunkit?

  10. Unfortunately, the cartoon is wrong. It depicts one state – South Australia – with the lights out. Unfortunately Victoria is working to get there in the next few months. Queensland, a massive coal exporter, has slightly longer term plans, but export industries dependent on low electricity prices are already leaving. Western Australia is expected to follow in the next few months.
    And Canberra supports all this, albeit going a little slower.
    It’s typical fingers in the ears failure to listen stuff. I would like to leave, but it’s home, and my wife and I have all our family here. At least I copied Anthony, our main residence will be “off grid”

    • Canberra is just a dot of empty blue. Hardly worthwhile mentioning

      And no, they are not building any wind turbines in the ACT that I know of.

      Or any solar farms.

      • AndyG55 is technically correct that the ACT government is not building wind turbines and solar farms in the ACT. But green taxpayer dollars are being advanced to private operators to set up elsewhere in Australia and feed the power into the National grid. The target is 100% renewable energy by 2020.

        The ‘Canberra Times’ of 29.04.16 has a report which includes the following details:

        “To date, the government has signed contracts for:

        200MW capacity of wind energy at Hornsdale (the first to begin operating in 2017, the second in 2018)
        80.5MW of wind energy at Ararat (2017)
        19.4MW of wind at Coonooer Bridge, Bendigo
        100MW of wind at Sapphire (2018)
        20MW of solar capacity at Royalla
        13MW of solar at Mugga Lane (this year)
        10MW of solar at Williamsdale (this year)
        Only the Royalla solar farm near Tuggeranong and the Coonooer Bridge wind farm near Bendigo are operating.”

        http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/act-commits-to-100-per-cent-renewable-energy-target-by-2020-simon-corbell-20160428-goh1l9.html

      • Maybe not building them but they are there, I counted about 30 from the air while flying in to Canberra last year, and most did seem to be turning.

      • Well ok, it was my first trip to Canberra, so yes, what I saw was indeed in NSW. Too funny. But there is the Kiata Wind Farm project being run out of Canberra to build a wind farm in Victoria. So our leaders in our capitol enjoy the benefits of reliable fossil fuel power, and the rest of us have to eat renewables.

        So they are not only rorting taxpayers with their “allowances”, they are sending the country to ruin.

      • Canberra has a wind farm setback condition of at least 50 kms — which means they are all in the surrounding state of NSW or further away.

        Since all Canberra’s power comes through the NSW grid, we now need to pressure the NSW government to allow Canberra to take from the grid only what their paid-for wind farms are inputting elsewhere and Canberra will be able to enjoy the true benefits of being 100% renewable.

    • Stay where you are. Aus will be one of the best countries in the world to live, when the idiots get it right

    • Peter. Several years ago a city in Washington State had a sign on a highway out of town that said last person out please turn out the lights. I guess a sign for SA would have to say, last person out please turn the lights on.

    • Off grid may not be a solution. As more and more people opt out the politicians will simply point an accusatory finger, “These people who refused to participate in the proper scheme of things are the reason for our current difficulties.” It’ll be all your fault, you see. It won’t matter that it’s not true. If the veracity of your politicians had been a criteria for their election they’d never have risen past the post of assistant dog catcher. I’ve often thought that the reinstallation of gas street lamps that required the services of a lamplighter would greatly improve governance. Each one of the poles for those lights had a stout horizontal extension that in normal times would support the lamplighter’s ladder. In exceptional times they could support the suspended weight of even an exceptionally obese politico. As an added bonus they’d reduce the demand on the electric grid.

  11. Swift could make accurate predictions because he knew human nature, and he knew that it is the same in all places and at all times.

    Human nature has no history. That is the fundamental truth on which conservatism based.

  12. Dean Swift on energy from renewable sources:

    “The first man I saw was of a meagre aspect, with sooty hands and face, his hair and beard long, ragged, and singed in several places. His clothes, shirt, and skin, were all of the same colour. 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.” I made him a small present, for my lord had furnished me with money on purpose, because he knew their practice of begging from all who go to see them.”

    • ” extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers” , brilliant, why has no one thought of doing this with modern technology? Tesla could make the phials !

    • This is MY favourite extract from Gulliver’s Travels. It is a brilliant summary of the state of modern Climate “Science”. But I’m sure that even Swift would have been taken aback by the expenditure of $100s of billions on “sunbeams out of cucumbers”.

    • “…in eight years more, he should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate…”. Notwithstanding “… their practice of begging from all who go to see them…”

      Swift not only anticipated Adam Smith’s theory of rent on real estate, but the 21st century version of rent-seeking from unreal estate, ie, intellectual property, real and hyperreal.

  13. Regretfully William York, your’e comparisons between Australia and Balnibarbi of Gulliver’s travels are likely to land you in severe trouble with our [ anything but! ] Human Rights Commission which will take a couple of years to process your insulting and denigrating contribution to the hurt feelings of many members of the Canberra and States political system arising from comparing them to the citizens and nation of Balnibarbi.

    Action by the Human Rights Commission arising from the reporting of such hurt feelings on the part of a couple of Canberran’s and various state politicians and academics and bureaucrats will lead to very considerable censure and the strict enforcement of the now very widely / wildly interpreted section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975

    A very substantial sum will no doubt now be demanded from yourself, otherwise known as a shake down, as compensation to the aggrieved parties.

    Such a shakedown compensation will enforced under section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 by the aforesaid Human Rights Commission whose President has trouble laying straight in bed at at any time, particularly when being confronting by a Senate Inquiry

  14. Joking apart, this is a strong indication that politicians have not changed.

    Now: Are you a big-endian or a little-endian.

  15. You have to say WUWT does broaden one’s education. This, very pertinent, chapter of Gulliver’s Travels was omitted from my school education (wonder why?). Not to mention information about tomatoes and the Trappist-1 star system, both of which had also passed me by. Good stuff.

  16. William York:

    Thanks for your article that I enjoyed and will cite.

    Good satire attacks pomposity and its effects and, therefore, it is timeless in its application to all who perceive themselves as being elites. Each of the peoples Swift describes in Gulliver’s Travels can be recognised today.

    I should have thought to consider Swift in my considerations of climate policy-making, but I did not. And I am very grateful for your pointing out my oversight which I am sure others have made, too. Again, thankyou.

    Richard

  17. In reading the quotes from Swift, I am reminded of Lysenko in Stalinist Russia and of Mao’s murderous romp through China. The immense harm that can be done when idealists claim unopposed authority, so that wishful thinking becomes official policy without all the fussy bother of proving cause and effect.

  18. Great post. You can say Swift predicted that the Projectors would fail in their plans to feed many people at lower cost; but in fact they (eventually) succeeded. The deeper point is that we should only “trust the experts” insofar as there is no significant evidence that they live in a bubble of group think, ignoring their mistakes, and the suffering they are causing to people in front of their eyes. Still deeper: the very power and success of modern science may make this kind of group think difficult to avoid.

    • It is written down next to his theory on stupidity.
      Both should,in my opinion,be engraved in stone.

  19. Waited to see if anyone else would ask but…
    Who has ever called Jonathan Swift by his first name Dean?

  20. Let’s hope they don’t start threatening other countries with missiles fired from the darkness and with exports of surplus lithium six over and above their domestic needs.

  21. OT, but it is interesting that the business about “Dean Swift” comes up. Victoria Glendinning, in her book on Swift, says that when she travelled in Ireland, many people would preface a particularly funny joke by saying “As the Dean said ….” In Ireland this always means Jonathan Swift–as if he was so funny, every funny joke, even a joke he couldn’t possibly have heard of, is attributed to him.

  22. So, how did the course of Balnibarbi turn out? Surely the elites of the new scientific society pillaged the noble estates, redistributed their bounty and sent these societal leeches onto attitudinal adjustment camps at The Centre for Excellence in Climactic Sciences.

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