Would you call this an electrifying thought?

1 September 2011

Some astute economics thinkers have come forward with a solution

Greens of various shades have been telling us for a long time that economic growth cannot be kept up indefinitely because natural resources are finite. For survival we must therefore reduce our consumption to sustainable levels and that means sticking to renewables.

Opposing this school of thought are some economists who have faith in our discovery and mastery of new resources as old ones are depleted and knowledge accumulates. According to this school the health of human society can be secured only, or perhaps principally, by going for economic growth. The unfettered expansion of industry and business is essential.

Both schools cannot be right, can they? The choice seems agonising. But some astute economics thinkers have come forward with a solution to the problem. The buzz emanating from them offers a winning combination. Not just growth, not just sustainability, but the two together: sustainable growth. I have seen one newspaper article on this proposal so enthusiastic that the heading claims for it the new incarnation of capitalism.

I have not read on sufficiently to learn how the new theorists develop their idea but my own uneducated hunch is that, were growth treated as a plus-or-minus variable in the mathematics of corporate optimisation, something clever might be done with it.

Mobiles meld with automobiles

No traditionalist still believes in such a thing as an all-mechanical motor car – that is, an automobile propelled by sparkless internal- or external combustion engine with associated machinery (transmission etc). The ‘assistance’ of electricity for ignition, lights, accessories and an ever-increasing number of extras has become a necessity. The all-electric automobile has become a technically feasible competitor for road travel even though electrochemical power cells do not equal heat engines in their performance and economics.

The fact is that electrification is already a dominating feature of motoring, and an internal-combustion engine is often present under the bonnet or hood as the prime mover of a mobile generating station supplying on-board electric power needs, every bit as much as it is on board to supply traction power at the roadwheel-roadway interface.

This fact of modern motoring life was the theme enjoyed by automobile buffs at a Geneva show for their digital electronics specialists recently, and no less a leading light than Alan Mulally – Ford’s chief executive – was there to salute electrical engineers’ contribution to his company’s present and forthcoming models.

One obvious trend appealing to a wordsmith is the convergence between car and mobile technology, of course meaning mobile in the telephony sense. Ford, like its global competitors, appears to have recognised that its younger customers are as besotted with their shiny miniature telecommunications instruments as with their shiny high-performance cars, and they like to see the two technologies melding together. Some visitors at the Geneva show were almost persuaded that the great carmakers are demanding of their designers as much knowledge and skill as needed to include all the information and entertainment required by all of each car’s occupants and equipment.

Integrating that lot, seamlessly, is an immense challenge. So is keeping the parts – animate and inanimate – separate where necessary.

Sentiment and presentiment

The origin of the fission-fired fraction of our industry is traceable in part to the work of Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born physicist who showed the atom to be a tiny space characterised by, among other things, an even tinier material nucleus. That nuclear entity has turned out to offer humanity immense power, for good or ill. But ‘nuclear’ power should be ruthlessly snuffed out, say some deep pessimists at its virtual centenary.

Rutherford, let us remember with respect, published most famously in 1911.*

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