The Revolution Will Not Be Patented
We're already sending our clean-energy tech to China, and intellectual property law has nothing to do with it.
Posted Wednesday, April 21, 2010, at 7:06 AM
Also from the Climate Desk: One possible solution to the green technology patent deadlock.
Greens convinced themselves they solved acid rain by passing cap-and-trade for sulfur dioxide, which led to innovation in clean-air technologies. In truth, smokestack scrubbers and low-sulfur coal made the legislation possible in the first place. Libertarian conservatives, for their part, tell fanciful inventor-as-hero stories, where great men like Hewlett, Gates, Jobs, and the Google guys received no help from the government. In truth, none could have done what they did without direct government assistance in the form of electrification, military procurement, science education, and multi-decadal R & D investments.
If the world does anything about climate change, it will look a lot more like what the Chinese government and Western energy technology firms have been doing in practice and less like what liberals and conservatives in the West have been proposing since the late 1980s. The nation that leads in these sectors will be those nations that provide private firms with the necessary conditions for innovation—big laboratories, R & D centers, Ph.D. scientists, engineers, and government demonstration contracts. In exchange, private firms recognize that some of their intellectual property will spill over in the same way that Silicon Valley firms borrow or steal from each other (depending on your point of view).
Though it is easy to lapse into an end-of-empire narrative, America regularly remakes itself in the face of foreign competition, from the Russians in the 1950s to the Japanese in the 1980s. There are reasons to be hopeful. Recognizing the role of innovation for economic growth, President Obama increased his request for federal R & D funding. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, who also used to work at Bell Labs, is lobbying Congress for greater funding for science and education. There's still time, it seems, for the United States to participate in the clean energy race. Let's just hope we don't have to wait for the end of neoliberal economic orthodoxy for it to happen.
Correction, April 21, 2010: The sentence originally called Jim Sensenbrenner a senator. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Michael Shellenberger is a co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founder of Breakthrough Institute.
Ted Nordhaus is a co-author of Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility and co-founder of Breakthrough Institute.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.