In 2005, Britain had decided to convert to renewable energy.
That meant we had to start thinking about switching off nuclear power stations.
The BBC asked what could we each do to reduce our energy usage.
And they had the answer: 65% of mobile phone users left their chargers plugged in when they weren’t being used.
So the BBC began asking us all to save electricity by unplugging our phone chargers when we weren’t using them.
It became a bandwagon for everyone to jump on, to do our bit to help save the planet, to become responsible, ecologically aware citizens.
But Professor David MacKay wasn’t convinced.
He was chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
He got a power-measuring meter and plugged in a mobile phone charger.
It registered zero.
So he plugged in another phone charger – it still registered zero.
He plugged in a third – still zero.
So he plugged in his laptop, and the charger for a pocket PC, and a charger for four AA batteries.
Finally, the meter flickered to its lowest setting, one watt.
Which meant the average mobile phone charger actually used 0.01 kWh.
Or 1% of the energy needed to power a lightbulb.
Or enough energy, per year, for one hot bath.
Or the energy, in a year, to drive the average car for one second.
What annoyed Professor MacKay was the facile nature of the BBC’s answer.
While giving people an easy bandwagon to jump on, it distracted from the real scale of the problem.
Britain had around 300 power stations.
Each one generated the same electricity as 2,000 wind turbines.
Which meant it would take around 600,000 wind turbines to generate the electricity we needed to replace the power stations.
That was the scale of the problem we should be talking about.
Not unplugging our phone charger.
Professor MacKay had just written a book: Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.
He wanted a grown-up discussion of the problem.
As he said: "I’m not anti-wind or pro-nuclear. I’m pro-arithmetic."
This is a different level of thinking than the one we normally operate on.
We like the quick fix that doesn’t take much thinking, no real mental effort.
We ask lazy questions, so we end up with lazy answers that usually don’t work.
This is how we come up with silly ideas that win awards at Cannes and disappear within a few weeks.
This is how we come up with campaigns that are supposed to benefit the world but are actually just trivia.
This is the sort of thinking that annoys Professor MacKay.
Because it isn’t thinking at all, it isn’t designed to solve a problem.
It’s designed to make a small group of people feel good about themselves in the short term.
It’s designed purely to generate headlines or win an award.
If it was designed to do actual good in the world, it would start from the point of what is a problem that really needs solving?
Then: what is a solution that would really benefit a lot of people?
Not: what is something easy that we can make a lot of noise about?
What is the quickest route to a few headlines and awards in the short term?
Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.