Scarecrows – humanoid effigies made and positioned to frighten birds away from seeded soil – have been around for millennia; but they have not always been stuffed dummies, with or without rattles and rolling coloured eyeballs; nor indeed other scary-comic creations of the modern sort. Originally they were living frighteners. They were often children.

I have it on the authority of knowledgeable personnel at a certain power station that recourse to the genuine (that is, living) article became fashionable again in fairly recent times, thanks to changing circumstances and deepening psychological insights. There have been, in short, advances in the understanding of mental phenomena.

One outcome has been that the problem of nucleophobia (fear of nuclear power plant) has been tackled with the help of what in the trade are called ‘negative scarecrows’.

These have proved to be better at their jobs than are conventional scarecrows, which they do not resemble. They do not operate on avian invaders of gardens, smallholdings and farms. Instead, benignly, they influence human observers.

One can easily recognise a negative scarecrow if it figures in a photograph of an industrial entity such as a nuclear power station. Engagingly alive, the form is however rarely human. Often it is chewing the cud. Always it is counteracting anything suspiciously industrial-looking in the background.

I have been assured by my nuclear station staff informants that, in fact, the bucolic bovinity stratagem has been so effective that it is no longer spoken of in raucous r terms: its exemplars are now affectionately referred to by their PR employers as ‘negative scarecows’.

Sadly, though, having ruminated on these reported additions to the lexicography of nuclear power, I have been led to wonder whether I have been subjected to some devilish secret nuclear tensile test.*

Do futurologists have blind eyes?

Half a century ahead is always a good (and therefore favoured) guess when one is foretelling some significant turn of events in scientifically and technologically propelled civilisation. It has long been the temporal distance of the horizon that has been located by prophets for: the continued availability of resources such as petroleum, the beginning of the thermonuclear power age, the perfection of fuel cells for widespread use, the ousting of heat-engined by electric automobiles; and so on.

Some of the hazier-eyed seers are hanging their fifty-year hats even on the peg reserved for what they call hydrocarbons, probably forgetting (if they have been aware) that coal, our most plentiful hydrocarbon, has had an ‘about-a-century’ life expectancy attributed to it for – could it be, er, centuries?

I cannot remember seeing any fretful predictions, whether learned or pop-scientific, for the survival of the oxygen supply for combustion and other purposes by humans, but there must be a few figures about somewhere. I suppose that the doomsters must have looked oxygen up and found it described as our most abundant element.

A strange commodity cost to reckon with

Watch out for the developing danger of that already demonised gas, carbon dioxide. We all know that you can suffocate in it and that many power stations emit it as a pollutant product of combustion. Some of us know that it has good points too. It is useful for refrigeration, firefighting, horticulture and so on, including a vital role in the physics and chemistry of life itself.

So we are not surprised that some of the stuff is made, bought and sold respectably, as commodities on commodity markets.

The demonised form of carbon dioxide is not sold as such but it does give rise to a market. Regulatory authorities may prescribe how much of the gas may be emitted by certain of its producers. Those who emit less than their emission allowance may have the right to sell the unused allowance to producers who cannot keep their output and emission down as prescribed. Dealing in unused allowances takes place on so-called carbon dioxide emission trading markets.

According to The Financial Times, an esteemed international business newspaper, the rapid growth of trade on these markets has led a UK regulating body, the Financial Services Authority, to warn that ‘other commodities markets’ may be threatened. (Pedants such as your correspondent may wonder whether a carbon dioxide emission trading market is truly a commodity market: are emission allowances commodities?)** Also threatened, says The FT, are markets for ‘related commodities such as gas and electricity’, whose traders ‘factor carbon permit prices into their deals, which can hit consumers’.†

So, yes: do watch out.