The last lot of climatological gloomsters – the lot that came before the current global warming consensus – used to frighten everybody with its claimedly scientific evidence for the imminent onset of an ice age. However, the futurologists of the twentieth century did not restrict themselves to such frigid forebodings.

Some of them were Utopians, predicting the deliverance of humankind – in sufficiently developed countries – from want and drudgery as science and technology advanced.† Others thought that they saw a downside to that advance, though. As well as offering prospects of ever-more-leisure-filled and ever-earlier retirement for ever-less-severely-driven industrial workers, they warned that many such workers could be replaced by machines, which were more reliable and productive than people. An unemployed and unemployable underclass could grow and fester, becoming a cancer that endangered developed societies and civilisation at large.

To some extent those prophets seemed to be proved right by events and trends. Workpeople were made ‘redundant’ as automation progressed in industrialised countries, or were encouraged to take early retirement and thus make way for younger blood. Productivity did increase. Troublesome underclasses did appear.

Yet today the pundits threaten us, not with an ice age but with the melting of polar ice caps; and they dangle before citizens of developed countries, not retirements replete with leisure pursuits (or idleness), but longer working lives and harder saving for later pensions and more frugal declining years. By way of explanation the politicians say that people are living longer, so greater numbers of oldsters have to be maintained by smaller numbers of working youngsters. Really? Was not precisely such a problem to have been rendered impossible by scientific and technological advance; or, more specifically, by the substitution of machines for human workers?

The implication seems to be that engineers and scientists have not lived up to the pundits’ promises: and that those underperformers must bestir themselves to make the Utopians’ predictions come true. Clearly, not the least important of those at whom the accusatory fingers point, and who are expected to strive much harder and longer, must be the ones who have to conjure up the necessary resources of energy and power. Yes, the onus is being put on us, among the others.

But, however hard we try to make Utopia possible, we shall not be able in any real world to save the faces of all the climatological gloomsters and doomsters. One or another lot of them must surely have got their readings of the freezing and warming indicators horribly wrong.

Watch these delightful prime movers

I have a soft spot for the wound-clockwork radio. A fairly recent invention, it did from the beginning strike me as wonderfully apt for the impoverished people in this world who lack access to batteries and industrially generated electricity. Yet I feel less delighted about the cheapish laptop computer, also hand-cranked, that is reportedly on its way from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology laboratory to a global market.

Should I not be pleased that goods more modern and sophisticated than radio sets are to become available to our planet’s poor? Am I unjust to suspect that laptop computers cannot be as desirable for the indigent masses as radio sets (which, after all, serve as often for propaganda or selling as they do for the provision of information or entertainment)?

Perhaps I am. So, intellectually if not viscerally, I must penitently hail the forthcoming millionfold annual deliveries of these machines as beneficial. Deep down, though, I feel that hand (or foot) prime movers for portable electrical gadgets are not the right answer. A better answer would be no-hands (or no-foot) electrical power for everybody. The gadgets – and much else – would follow.

How do we procure that answer? Now that is a very good question!