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Reasons to be cheerful - despite rising energy costs....

Reasons to be cheerful - despite rising energy costs...

Is it our ideas that make us optimists or pessimists, or our optimism or pessimism that makes our ideas?

Take the rising cost of energy. Carey (Business Week, 4 Aug 2008) reports that economists – specialists in the so-called ‘dismal science’ – believe that things are bad now because the global capitalism became too reliant on cheap oil. The days of double-digit growth fuelled by oil at €20 a barrel are well and truly over. And just how bad things are with oil prices at around five or six times the level they sank to just a few years ago can be seen at the level of society’s most vulnerable – large families on low incomes who are hardest hit by the soaring costs of heating, travel and basic foodstuffs. The winter will be particularly hard for them, and it would be harsh indeed to ask them to seek out a silver lining.

Yet high costs are already causing many people to think more creatively about how we use energy, where we could economize, how we could develop substitutes or, possibly, tap into entirely new supplies. There really are reasons to be cheerful in the current global crisis.

First, scientists have been telling us for some time that, as a planet, we could not go on burning fossil fuels in the manner to which we had become accustomed. Now, because of market forces, we are finally beginning to do something about it.

Alternative energy is a complex field that is expanding rapidly. Scientists working on ever-more efficient ways of converting the sun’s rays into electricity are optimistic that they will be able to produce solar power at the same cost as traditional energy sources within three to five years. Similar optimism surrounds wind and tidal power.

Petrobras is drilling for oil in the deep offshore Brazilian waters. It appears probable that the company’s finds may be among the largest discoveries ever made – if also among the most technically demanding to bring to the surface. But the company’s scientists believe they can solve the problems – and their optimism is backed by investors who have seen the value of Petrobras shares rise tenfold over the last five years.

Finally, the rising prices of all commodities – not only oil – are increasing the amount of money that can be made from collecting, processing and recycling rubbish. Against this background, Kenney (Industry Week, Jul 2008) reports that the automotive facility Subaru of Indiana is sending precisely no waste to landfill and saving 102lb of steel for every car it builds.

Through co-operation with Allegiant Global Services, the Subaru plant is able to recycle not only steel, but also cardboard, paper, plastic, foam, bottles, cans and even solvent-soaked rags and light-bulbs. Allegiant collects and sorts recyclable materials at the Subaru site and advises the vehicle manufacturer on using recyclable materials and creating markets for manufacturing by-products.

Across the world, the growing profitability of recycling is attracting venture capitalists and buyout firms, keen to invest in start-ups. When some see gold in the contents of a waste-skip, there really may be grounds for all that optimism, after all.