I am feeling enormously cheerful and optimistic.
The huge surge in oil prices last year and the current financial crisis have given me a spring in my step and a newfound enthusiasm. This might sound callous and inconsiderate, especially since I have not directly felt their effects - I live in New York, I don't own a car and I'm lucky enough to still have my job. Millions of people in the world have been adversely affected, and yes I'm a bastard for saying this, but...I was expecting the events to produce this much change to be much worse.
So the status quo has been shaken - twice - and people are looking for a way out and finding one that was there, developing and improving, all along.
In May of 2008, the US government Energy Information Administration recorded a price of over $4 for a gallon of gasoline, a threshold that shocked a nation becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the cost of the fuel previously considered as a cheap, staple resource.
When your fuel costs so much more, what are you going to do? Stay at home? No.
Sales of hybrids in America are rising in spite of the economic crisis - Toyota are doubling their allocations to the US market and I've seen an explosion of hybrid cars here in New York...perhaps aided in overcoming any negative social connotations by Mayor Bloomberg's decree that all NYC cabs must be gas-electric hybrids by 2012.
It's interesting to see how the auto-makers, with their 2008 product lines stacked with giant SUVs and trucks, have reacted to this direction of consumer choice. Giant cars are what American consumers have been buying for years.
The "luxury SUV" Cadillac Escalade weighs 5,700lbs (2,500kg) - about as much as a female African elephant. The 2007 gas-only model gets just 13 mpg in a city environment and 19 mpg on the highway. Hybrid technology on this behemoth improves its mileage to just 20mpg city and 21mpg highway. In an attempt to have the best of both worlds, Ford have produced the Escape, a more lightweight SUV-like car designed to be a Hybrid - and these get 34mpg in the city. New York's cab companies are buying Escapes in droves.
Imagine how much less gasoline would be used if designers (and the consumers who pay their wages) realized that there was an even better way...moving away from the family tank and back to the family car. What would the mpg be on a hybrid Smart car?
But baby steps...and this is all very encouraging.
Gas prices went below $4 again in August 2008. But hybrids made sense before the gas crisis, and they still make sense. The only thing that changed was that people were shocked into looking for a better way of doing things. And they found it.
Bank after bank has crumbled, jobs have been lost, purse strings have tightened. The old ideas about how the global economy works have been questioned. What are we working on again? Why are we working this way? Where are we generating value?
The statement released yesterday by the G20 leaders included some serious pledges and an outline of a planned path to recovery. The final pledge was this:
- build an inclusive, green, and sustainable recovery.
Whole nations are shaken and looking for another way of doing things...and there, all along, standing in the political hubbub shouting at the top of its lungs but tragically unheard, was a logical, sensible, sustainable approach to energy, industry, development and economics.
So what I hope I'm seeing is the different aspects of our society; the political, industrial, and social spheres, recognizing that yes, renewable energy makes sense. Sustainable practices make sense. Consuming more efficiently makes sense. Green economic growth can happen. Green economic growth makes sense.
As a realistic individual I have long acknowledged that it is not enough for green technology and renewable energy to be simply better for the environment. It needs to be better, economically, for it to develop in our society. It needs to be cheaper. The opportunity to invest in a wind farm needs to get investors' heart rates up. The market needs to drive these changes.
You can do this two ways - develop the technology to the point where the economic balance tips, and a wind generated Kilowatt-hour is cheaper to produce than a coal or nuclear generated Kilowatt-hour...or the economic goalposts can move and suddenly renewables are a better proposition. Subsidies for green projects are one way of moving those goalposts.
Another way would be to wait for total depletion of fossil fuels, global economic meltdown and health-threatening degradation of the environment to make renewable energy a promising investment.
Call me heartless, but I think that would be much worse than what we are currently experiencing.
So a gas price spike and the mortgage crisis could be looked at as an early warning. Yes, the goalposts have moved...the global economic framework is changing. Hopefully just enough that the market can drive renewables and green practice as an engine for economic growth.
Maybe the technology isn't there yet for what Al Gore is calling for - 100% renewables in ten years - but technology tends to progress, especially when market driven. Social attitudes do not have to change.
It might be my inner engineer talking, but I would rather have a technological problem to solve than a social one...and I think we're getting there on both fronts.
So cheer up, and cross your fingers. After the smoke clears...it might never come back.