Ever since I learned that exercising on a treadmill generates ten times more energy than it consumes I have become obsessed with the idea of feeding all that excess gym-power into the National Grid: I just need someone to do it. If Thomas Edison were still alive, I am sure he would sort it out. He was a prolific inventor but, more to the point, he understood the commercial importance of delivering new inventions to the world. For example, not content with his part in the invention of the electric light bulb, he went a stage further and invented power generation and distribution systems which enabled us all to use it - since when we have been eagerly burning all available fossil fuels in order to generate ever more gigawatts of electricity.
In doing so we have created the problems of global climate change and increasingly expensive electricity and, unless we resolve them, future generations will be living in a retro stone-age. Meanwhile, in modern-day Britain, the benefits of Edison's invention are already unaffordable for the least well-off whose current dilemma is whether to heat or eat.
One of our prominent politicians last week made an ill-advised attempt to help the poor by promising that, if his party wins the next election, energy companies will be obliged to fix their prices. Within days the inevitable happened: one by one, the energy companies raised their prices. This clearly demonstrates the folly of showing one's hand - a tactic which the politician in question will no doubt avoid in future.
More importantly, however, it demonstrates the rise of 'retail politics', whereby ideology-based policies are eschewed in favour of populist measures aimed at winning votes in the short term. Votes must be won, but the net effect of this behaviour is that governments are reluctant to commit to long-term planning, especially in respect of controversial or "difficult" issues. Short-term political expediency trumps the more noble purpose of long-term governance for the benefit of society as a whole.
Power generation is a case in point. It is an infrastructural necessity which society has come to depend on, yet there is an ambivalent approach to providing for it. Politicians, shy of the high-cost, long-term commitment required, look to the private sector to take it on, but the acknowledged necessity for reducing carbon emissions is a crucial part of the equation and the corporations have too much invested in the present fossil-fuel system to be entrusted with its demise.
Cleaner, renewable energy sources are feasible but, having failed either to commit significant public funds or to encourage private investment in developing the technology required for delivery, Britain's government has been backed into a corner. It has just announced an eleventh-hour decision to return to nuclear generation - a technology which we pioneered in the 1950's but which, due to circumstances entirely within our control, we have since lost. Consequently we are obliged to offer generous inducements to others to provide it for us.
And so it comes to pass that our nuclear stations will be built and operated courtesy of the sovereign investment funds of other countries. Our government has absolved its responsibility for the nation's infrastructure; corporate profits will determine price and availability; renewable alternatives will wither for lack of investment and we will accumulate a pile of nuclear waste which will be someone else's problem in the future. It's a worrying example of party politics at its least effective.
What a pity that Thomas Edison is no longer around. He died in 1931 but before he went he said: