An Open Letter to Vaclav Smil
Why I Disagree With Your Conclusions About Climate Change
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In 2017, when Bill Gates recommended your book, Energy and Civilization: A History, I tackled it, loving and thoughtfully digesting every page. Now five years old, I still believe the book is among the best I’ve ever read and invaluable for understanding world history. By looking at the history of the Earth through a lens of energy, you opened my eyes.
So, when I saw that Bill had recommended your new book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, I immediately acquired a copy and added it to my summer reading list.
Since reading it, I’ve been thinking about my response. In short, I’ll quote a 1903 humor magazine that said, “Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: ‘It can’t be done,’ are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.”
Often paraphrased as “Those who say it can’t be done should stop interrupting those who are doing it,” and attributed to more thoughtful minds, the point is the same. Your dour view of the future does not jibe with the fact that people are doing what you say can’t be done.
Before I continue, I must note that you know more than I about everything in your book. You are intellectually superior to me. If we were to debate the issues, I trust that I would be made a fool.
Your superior intellect, however, does not merit absolute deference. Not only can we reverse climate change by 2050, we must.
How the World Really Works reveals your bias as much as your expertise.
In your book, you take aim at vegans eight different times, pointing out in one instance that chicken (among the most climate-friendly meats) is less carbon intensive than tomatoes (among the least climate-friendly plants). That makes as much sense as implying one group of people is more intelligent than another because the smartest member of the first group is more intelligent than the dumbest member of the other. We get it. You like meat.
You seem to conclude that because we won’t all eat vegan diets, there is little to be done on this front. There is no doubt from my studies on the topic that we don’t all have to be vegan to reduce the carbon intensity of our diets substantially. Reducing the consumption of beef would be a good start.
While I don’t want even to insinuate that you approached your work in bad faith, you do appear to be guilty of the human tendency toward confirmation bias. Rather than explore the possible, you examine only the barriers that make solutions seem impossible.
I hope millions of people read your book and have the same response I did. You’ve thrown down a gauntlet challenging more environmentally-minded people to prove you wrong. Everything you say is difficult—or worse—presents an entrepreneur with an opportunity.
With respect to your overall conclusion, I note two areas of fundamental disagreement:
First, your rear-facing look at what has been done and, to a lesser extent what is being done, ignores too much of what has already begun.
Second, your dismissive attitude toward future solutions to come seems to rely too heavily on your argument that artificial intelligence won’t save us. I agree that the general AI that inspires fiction writers won’t save us. That doesn’t mean we can’t save ourselves.
Regarding the first point of disagreement, Project Drawdown maintains a list of technologies that already work at a scale that we can implement to solve climate change before 2050. Even though we are not limited to these existing technologies, the reality is that smart people believe we can do what you say is impossible.
For example, regenerative agriculture, a well-established and defined practice for farming that sequesters carbon in the soil even as it reduces demand for water and fertilizer, is not even mentioned in your book.
Your discussion of cement production is thoughtful but ignores some of the tremendous progress we’re making. Bill himself has funded climate-friendly cement development. I featured the founder of another company on my podcast earlier this year. Good cement is already in play. All the world needs to shift to its wholesale use is an economic incentive.
On the second point, every day for the next 28 years, scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs will present the world with new technologies that bring us closer to a goal of net zero in time to prevent more than 2 degrees of warming. Yesterday’s addition (at least in terms of my awareness) is a battery technology that requires no rare earth minerals and that accepts a charge an order of magnitude more rapidly than today’s best batteries.
The key ingredient in the new batteries is carbon. This means that this new technology that wasn’t on your radar as you wrote the book in 2021 and concluded that our situation was hopeless addresses climate change in two ways:
By allowing the use of abundantly produced renewable energy to be stored
By sequestering carbon in the production of the batteries themselves
Ignoring what can happen because we don’t know exactly what will happen demonstrates a failure of imagination.
You repeatedly emphasize that people in low-income countries deserve access to the volumes of energy we in rich countries enjoy. Of course, you’re right. They do deserve access to the 4x volume of energy we use.
You likely know that in much of the world, there is little wired telephone infrastructure. People in many countries skipped wired telephone lines moving directly to cellular phones.
People in the developing world are rapidly embracing renewable energy. Paired with wave energy, geothermal, green hydrogen and improving storage, they will soon enjoy equal access to power without a comparable carbon footprint.
Your primary argument that it cannot be done is scale; that is, there is simply so much to do it cannot be done. That is like telling Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary (or any of the 4,000 other people who have done it) that Mt. Everest is too tall to summit.
Entrepreneurs, activists and scientists around the world accepted your challenge to reverse climate change by 2050 even before you made it. I only ask that you not interrupt them while they do it.