23 APRIL 1977, Page 3

End of the industrial age

It may well be that President Carter's address on the energy question will be seen in years to come to be a turning point in post-war history. The formal acknowleugement by the leader of the free world that the conservation of energy is an exceptionally urgent priority brings - to an end the first industrial age: that age was based on the huge and ever-increasing consumption of Carbon fuels, and on the assumption that the supply of s. Lich fuels would be limitless. The basic principle of Industrialism, in fact, came to be that the consumption of energy was inherently beneficial, quite apart from the Fncl-product. Indeed Keynes came close to giving this Instinctive working principle a theoretical base. t, rJNow, as we are beginning to see that classical economic theory is not wholly worthless in comparison to Keyneshanism, we see too that elementary prudence and good USbandry may sensibly be applied to fuel supplies. this Carter may startle the American people with !Ills realisation—that their consumption of 40 million _barrels of oil a day is insanely prodigal, that the United States annually wastes as much energy as Japan consumes and it must be hoped that America's legislators will Lake the point too and that they will resist the immensely Powerful oil and motor lobbies. Of course there are acute problems and brutal contraoTictions if the United States undertakes this new course, aralk about petrol taxation and exhortations to waste less f.e one thing: it is another to find national alternatives 3 a country where, for example, public transport barely 'Lists (apart from a vast and energy-intensive aviation d ustrY). An enormous psychological change will have to ac_rnade in a country where home-produced oil still costs „ s y low S5 a barrel, as against the world price of se The contradiction lies in President Carter's previous rM-veto on the expansion of plutonium fast-breeder reactors with the implication that nuclear power is not ter all the magic wand which is going to solve all our energy problems. The arguments against the rapid development of nuclear power, and especially of fastbreeder reactors, are too clear to need spelling out again except to those who face with equanimity the prospect of the destruction of the world. All the same, the two presidential initiatives, coming as they do so close together, make exceedingly clear that harsh problems lie ahead.

What are the lessons for Great Britain in all of this ? It is clear that our own energy policy has been grossly mismanaged in the past, or rather not managed at all. The brief and ridiculous crisis of some three years ago—with ministers exhorting us to wash in the dark—came and went. Since then politicians of both parties have tried to forget about the miners, and the Arabs, and waited desperately for the North Sea oil to come and save them from the consequences of their fecklessness. But even when the oil comes, British energy policy will be an urgent priority. There are two sides to an energy policy. One is the production of energy. Great Britain is exceedingly fortunate in having huge potential resources of fossil fuels: as Sir Derek Ezra points out, we have enough coal to supply our likely needs for 300 years; and it is to be hoped that this rich supply will enable the deliberate exploitation of coalfields in such a way as does not involve the spoliation of vast tracts of countryside. At the same time a policy should be laid down, and vigorously pursued, to restrict the consumption of fuel. A tax on the engine size of cars is one obvious example; we could well follow the wise example of those countries which restrict the hours in which petrol can be sold; and the dire warning of the United States about what happens when public transport disappears should be carefully noted. Such measures are not in themselves a complete answer. But they will be a necessary start in the facing up to our challenge; what is nothing less than the supreme challenge of whether our mechanical, industrial civilisation can survive.