Thursday 6 December 2012

Next thing you know, they'll invent the screwdriver

This is a screwdriver.

Insert the blade into the screw as hinted in the picture, turn the screw 90 degrees, remove the blade, go back to the original position, turn the tool so you can use the other blade, reinsert it, another 90 degree turn of the screw, and so on. A screw can be tightened or removed in no time. In narrow and tight spaces that's the only tool which works. By the way, the blade is straight (not tapered), which means no extra force is needed to keep the thing engaged as you turn.

I found this tool thirty years ago in Hong Kong when I visited it with the yacht. On board it had a special place and no-one could use it without my personal permission; that's how important it was. Since then, right up to today, I haven't found anyone in Australia who immediately identified it for what it is, let alone had used it. I just checked the internet: hardware stores here, in the UK and the US offer all kinds of screwdrivers but not this one. It's not a comprehensive analysis, but still.

Back in 1981 some department stores in Australia and some stores that sold watches offered the first couple of versions of the emerging digital variety; simple things, just telling the time. That same year there was a street in Mumbai where sellers sat at dozens of tables selling digital watches by the hundreds, if not thousands. They had the functions we have come to expect.

I remembered those times when the 2012 conference on climate change went through its paces in Doha. As usual the representatives of governments argued about who should do what. The outcome was not encouraging. Given that the latest update on climate change promises a 2C rise in global temperature over the next twenty or thirty years as just about inevitable, for some people thoughts might turn to panic.

But then I thought about that screwdriver and those watches. While the rest of the world - well, certainly the developed world - had its established stores and advertising catalogues and consumers who thought they had it all, there were places where you could get things the rest of the world had not even heard of. That's enterprise at street level.

Some big items: while they were arguing in Doha, China has the largest contingent of wind generators in the world. Germany is one of the world’s top solar cell installers. At a recent energy conference in Melbourne about 80% of renewable energy products were from China.

But there is also the everyday detail, the things that tell about the atmosphere besides the official brochures. Business at any time of the day, bustling night markets, a population that generally works in step with each other, school children who sit still in class and who actually have to prove they are ready to advance to the next year, a cultural memory anchored in centuries and millennia, and entertainment which would make our finger-waggers choke on their digits.

I wonder what her audience made of Julia Gillard's revelation last month that Australia has recognised the importance of Asia and yes, we are going to be part of it.

There is no reason to believe among the billions there aren't enterprising souls - possibly as we speak - who put together something which addresses the challenges posed by climate change. Not to stop the effects, that's the job of governments if they ever get around to it, and mostly the battle is lost already. Rather, to create devices and habits which allow us to live with it. There is no guarantee idealists or romantics or moralists will approve, but apart from the rather ossified West there is a world out there where people make things happen anyway. It's the reason they got to where they are today, a productive balance between governments who have their plans but not the means and inclination to enforce every detail.

And so I still have my screwdriver printout and every so often I show it to someone - no? never seen it? And in Queensland there is bound to be yet another marketing campaign to sell The Sandy Beach overseas for a "family holiday" (no smokers please!), in the schools the children boil their brains in 30+C heat but it doesn't matter because next year they'll move to the higher class anyway, and in parliament they sledge each other over who is a misogynist.