I’ve been puzzled by the recent large increases in prices, led by oil and other sources of energy and followed by most other bulk commodities — including metals, cereal grains, etc. Many observers and experts are busy explaining, with perfect hindsight, what has happened and what is happening in the world and the world economy. I am unaware of any strong, clear pronouncements that predicted today’s circumstances with a whit of useful accuracy.
The recent price increases have not hurt the hydroelectric business and, in fact, appear to be aiding the worldwide boom that’s under way to build new hydro. Moreover, owing to the fixed costs of existing hydro facilities and their use of “free” fuel, these facilities are now worth more than ever.
In trying to rationalize the way things are today, I’ve fallen on the bit of wisdom that many of the key events and trends that affect our lives and society at large are beyond the realm of prediction. So, while we may take comfort in knowing that “the sun will rise tomorrow,” there is much that affects us that we cannot anticipate.
Consider the personal computer — a device with which all HRW readers are familiar. The “PC” first arrived on the scene about 25 years ago — a time span of less than a generation (among 300 or so generations of human history). When introduced, the personal computer was an expensive novelty with few practical applications — yet this single innovation, with its virulent evolution and manifold adaptations, has permeated to the core of modern life.
Ample evidence of the futility of forecasting has been documented by author and TV personality James Burke. In introducing his 1978 book, Connections, he claims that “Things almost never turn out as expected. When the telephone was invented, people thought it would be used only for broadcasting. Radio was intended for use exclusively on ships. A few decades ago, the head of IBM said America would never need more than four or five computers.” Burke’s book — and an acclaimed television series of the same name that succeeded it — offers example after example of instances where chance guides the course of history.
Even though forecasting the future may not be possible, one trend we can rely on appears to be firmly established — that of increasing reliance on electricity to power commerce and to bring greater comfort and convenience to people’s lives. And, when it comes to producing electricity, nothing does the job better than hydropower.