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.

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.

China Photos/Getty Images


Art in a Time of Prosperity

Alvaro Vargas Llosa, son of Nobel laureate and Global Thinker No. 64 Mario Vargas Llosa, offers FP his look at the potentially bland future of Latin American literature.

Societies that go through times of difficulty tend to generate a much bolder, much more creative, and much more transcendent type of art, particularly literature. That's why, for the last half-century, there was a tremendous gap between the creativity, force, originality, and power of Latin American art and the mediocrity and conformism of its politics and economics. Latin American writers became globalized when Latin American political systems were going exactly in the opposite direction.

Already we see that if there's one thing that characterizes this new generation of younger writers compared with the generation of the 1960s, it is the fact that they don't see their literature having any kind of political effect whatsoever. The question is: Is it possible to be subversive and transcendent and profound in a context in which things are becoming much more livable than it was? I am pessimistic, but I don't entirely rule it out.

I would not be surprised, if in the coming years we see writers in Cuba and Venezuela emerging as some of the dominant talent in the continent precisely because of the conditions in which they're operating. It's probably a little early to say, but eventually Cuba's going to open up, and I am sure that the hunger among aspiring writers there is going to be such that real masterworks are going to emerge.