The three R's of the energy syllabus

1 October 2010

Our species must make the best of what is on offer at any particular juncture

Only absolute technophobes yearn for paradisiacal bliss untainted by the seductions of knowledge. The relative kind, grown comfortable with particular knowledge, merely hate new or unfamiliar knowledge. Nineteenth-century varieties rebelled against ‘unnatural’ railways, industrialisation and so forth but came to enjoy travel and life-enhancing manufactures. Technophobic manifestations abound in subsequent history too. Abominators flocked against cars, flying, scientific and medical ‘interference’ with nature, power drawn from nuclear fuels, and so on.

It is interesting to observe present-day variations on such themes, repetitious though they may seem. One notes that motoring was at first welcome for its environmental benefits (such as diminished equine pollution) but later blamed for environmental deficits (such as worsened atmospheric pollution). Petroleum products increased the sum of human happiness until greedy and overmighty suppliers threatened to reduce it; then a nuclear power alternative came along to counterbalance the economic threat, and in its turn was deposed for fear of horrible accidents.

Technophobias struggle with each other for supremacy or survival. Now apprehension of climate change by CO2 from fossil fuel combustion is helping nuclear diehards to push confidently for a nuclear revival. Apparent success in the UK has led Electricité de France’s British offshoot to advertise itself in a business newspaper supplement on ‘Responsible Business’ as ‘the UK’s largest producer of low carbon electricity’. However, opponents cling to their renewable energy preferences, not only out of dread of ‘carbon’ (CO2) but in horror of fossil as well as fissile fuel.

There are fossilophobes that have felt themselves justified by the Mexican Gulf ‘oil spill’ disaster presided over this year by BP. An old-established British weekly review (now under the same ownwership as MPS), The New Statesman, thundered about this in a leading article whose title called the event ‘a chance to bring Big Oil to heel’. The writer went on to assert arrestingly that ‘Big Oil’, after all, is responsible for fuelling global warming’.

Another old-established UK paper, The Observer, attacked BP for having ‘the financial firepower to lead the green energy agenda’ but instead having ‘shut down the group’s alternative energy HQ last year and imposed swingeing budget cuts’. The multinational’s chief executive had, moreover, ‘taken the company into controversial tar sands projects, despite a protest from shareholders’.

Recalling an old-time technological battle, The Financial Times, an international business newspaper, mentioned the rivalry between heat engines and electric drives for early automobiles. ‘The Gulf of Mexico oil spill’, commented The FT, ‘has galvanised the electric car industry as policymakers, investors and consumers show a renewed interest in alternative energy sources’.

Among the more measured comments on these power struggles some of the best, also published in The FT, were attributed to Fulvio Conti, chief executive of ENEL, the Italian utility. He was reported to be trying to exploit the greater interest in renewables while attempting also to stand out among advocates by not agreeing that most of the increases in global temperatures are ‘very likely to be caused by man-made emissions’.

Conti told The FT that ENEL is more focused on developing coal and nuclear power. But he added that ‘It is much better to react now, believing it or not, before the world gets the impact of climate change’.

Wisest, surely, must it be for humanity not to neglect or abandon any energy source. The species has, on the whole successfully, played with fire since burning revealed itself in primeval forests. Nature shows her versatility in the provision of phenomena of all kinds. Our species must make the best of what is on offer at any particular juncture.

To sharpen the point an economist, or perhaps an engineer, might evoke the memory of a certain lord mayor of London, Sir William Curtis (1752-1859), who (reputedly) raised a glass to ‘Riting, Reading and Rithmetic’ and thus immortalised these as the ‘three R’s’ of pedagogy. Today’s parodist might promote Resources, Resourcefulness and Risk to the pedestals.

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