How We Got Trapped by Carbon

Vaclav Smil, Global Thinker No. 49, tells Foreign Policy's Charles Homans how the West got tricked into thinking it could overcome its gasoline addiction.

China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images
China Photos/Getty Images

I think that what's happened is that we've been misled by the computer revolution. Cramming these transistors on the microchip happened so rapidly, the Moore's Law idea, that people thought everything else works like that. Well, no -- China in the past five years increased its coal production by 1.5 billion tons. We've invested tens of trillions of dollars into this global energy system. It's the most complex human infrastructure system there is. We're not going to walk away from it tomorrow because we've found something better.


You have to start changing everything, and there's no constituency for speeding that up. After all, we know what we need to do. If everyone in the United States drove a Honda Civic, the gasoline consumption would be halved. But this is not going to happen. The other way is that you tax people into changing it -- but you know very well what the sentiment about that is in Washington.


There comes a point when these things reach critical mass -- it just takes 40 or 50 years. The biggest hope that people are missing is population. Before too long, the whole rich world won't be growing. This will change everything. There will be less urgency to satisfy these energy demands. But a lot depends on what the Chinese do. I'm afraid the Chinese want to out-American the Americans.

I think that what’s happened is that we’ve been misled by the computer revolution. Cramming these transistors on the microchip happened so rapidly, the Moore’s Law idea, that people thought everything else works like that. Well, no — China in the past five years increased its coal production by 1.5 billion tons. We’ve invested tens of trillions of dollars into this global energy system. It’s the most complex human infrastructure system there is. We’re not going to walk away from it tomorrow because we’ve found something better.


You have to start changing everything, and there’s no constituency for speeding that up. After all, we know what we need to do. If everyone in the United States drove a Honda Civic, the gasoline consumption would be halved. But this is not going to happen. The other way is that you tax people into changing it — but you know very well what the sentiment about that is in Washington.


There comes a point when these things reach critical mass — it just takes 40 or 50 years. The biggest hope that people are missing is population. Before too long, the whole rich world won’t be growing. This will change everything. There will be less urgency to satisfy these energy demands. But a lot depends on what the Chinese do. I’m afraid the Chinese want to out-American the Americans.

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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