I am therefore very cautious about both fearful and optimistic predictions about what changing technology can do. There are, however, two things I am pretty confident about predicting. Technological change will continue to happen at a rapid rate and those changes will not be responsible for an overall destruction of jobs. No computer ever took home a pay cheque. Changing technology can and will make big differences to what people wish to purchase and therefore to who makes a good living and who gets made redundant. It will not, of itself, drive the overall mass of employment down. Only the choices of economists, politicians and voters can do that.
Every time someone spends money it ends up in someone else's pocket and so if new products and services become available then the people supplying them will gain in employment. The pain of losing your job if you work in a part of the economy supplying services people no longer want is very real but so far every wave of technology there has ever been has increased employment and helped make human being more productive and so better off overall.
What changing technology does do is to make big changes to the nature of society. Every few decades it creates a new way of doing things that makes such a difference that the entire economy is restructured. The last time this happened was when information technology spread from the campuses to the mainstream. The next time is looking increasingly like it could be a move away from a dependence on fossil fuels.
On the face of it, there is something incredibly primitive about powering almost all of our society on the basis of digging up fossils and burning them. It is a crude and clumsy way of doing business and it creates huge costs. Some of them are direct to the user such as heating costs in homes or the power bill of a factory and other costs are inflicted on the whole planet in the form of the dreadful polluted air clogging up the huge new cities in places like China, dangerous increases in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and increasing acidity destroying vibrant coral reefs.
This chunky and outdated way of doing things is coming under increasing threat by rapidly changing technology. The huge amounts of investment that have already gone into alternative energy and low carbon products is beginning to reach the point where it can really take off. However limited and tardy the changes agreed at the Paris climate change conference turn out to be one thing is already very clear. There will be a lot more money available to support investment into creating and using alternative energy technology and it will move forward even more rapidly.
No one can know which forms of alternative energy will triumph. My money is on improved electricity storage making it possible to generate power locally via solar and wind without having to worry about the absence of a power source at night or on calm days. What is important is, however, not the style of the change but the substance. Companies and countries relying on the out of date technology of fossil fuels could be about to find themselves priced out of the market by increasingly cheap alternatives.
Subsidies and investment in new ways of generating power look like they are reaching a tipping point where it makes good commercial sense to start using them so much more often that they can be produced at scale and the price can start to tumble. At the risk of being naively optimistic it does finally look like we might just be entering a much healthier era for the environment and the economy where fuel is more cheaply and easily available from clean and decentralised sources.
Already the price of oil has fallen dramatically. This could, of course, be a temporary change which is quickly reversed if the world economy starts to grow faster and the demand for energy increases before alternative energy is commercial or sufficiently subsidised at the necessary scale. Equally we could be witnessing a long term downward change caused by a new source of supply - alternative energy - doing what an introduction of a new source of supply always does. Increased supply reduces price unless demand goes up even more.
Few of us will cry tears for the oil company shareholders if their investments in extracting fossils from increasingly remote and difficult locations starts to become less profitable. Nor will many of us be devastated to see the vast oil revenues going into regimes like Saudi Arabia reduce drastically. It is hard to think of a down side of the shift in technology that I am describing. Solar power equals lots of decentralised production centres and easy availability of electricity across remote rural communities. It is an intrinsically democratic and locally controlled technology. Fossil fuels equals large corporations and military complexes defending massive sources of wealth in the hands of a very few people.
There is, however, one potential downside. Those societies that are slow to adopt to the change could find themselves much poorer in relative terms and possibly even in absolute terms than those that get themselves on the forefront of the change and invest in the future. History is littered with examples of countries that became rich by getting themselves at the forefront of technological change. Britain dominated the world for over 100 years as a result of this. History is also littered with examples of countries that were once very powerful but missed out on investing in new technology. For all the gold and silver it got out of its empire Spain slid backwards economically because it failed to invest in factory production.
So how is the UK shaping up in preparing for this new stage in technology? Well we've just made 3,000 people redundant from the solar industry. We've just cancelled a major carbon capture technology project. We've just cancelled a huge investment in building offshore wind turbines that was due to create a real northern powerhouse in the north east. We've just changed the planning laws to allow any small group of local objectors to block the building of a wind farm. And we've just done exactly the opposite with fracking. The local community in Lancashire is having the decision about whether it wants dodgy technology under its feet taken away from it and made in Whitehall where it will be forced through.
Since the election the UK government has made every effort to tell people that it cannot afford to invest in alternative energy because it will put up their power bills. At the same time the increased use of alternative power across the planet has been doing exactly the opposite. It has helped cut people's power and fuel bills. The UK is in real danger of getting left behind in the latest wave of developments. I would expect a responsible government to recognise the moral obligation to act quickly to protect the future of the planet. Then again morality has never been the strong point of a lot of politicians. But if the UK government won't invest seriously in alterative energy for moral reasons then at the very least I would have thought they could be relied upon to do so on the basis that it represents a hard headed business opportunity to set the country up for the future. It is increasingly looking as if I am going to be very disappointed on that front as well.