mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Will We Run Out of Gas?

The metaphorical answer to this question is more important than the
literal, but the literal is irresistibly short: No, unfortunately not.
Humans will have at our disposal as much gasoline as we can burn in
the 21st century. Nor are we likely to run out of heating oil, coal or
natural gas, the other carbon-based fuels that have powered industrial
civilization for 200 years.

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Why won’t we run out? And why is that unfortunate? After all, these
fuels provide nearly 80% of the energy humans use to keep warm, to
light buildings and run computers, to power the cars that get us
around, the tractors that plant food, the hospitals that serve our
sick. If these fuels were to vanish tomorrow, worldwide chaos would
follow and humans would die in the hundreds of millions.

So why not rejoice at having lots of fuel to burn? Let me try to
answer that by telling you about my friend Zhenbing.

I met Zhenbing in China in 1996, near the end of a six-year journey
around the world to write a book about humanity’s environmental
future. A 30-year-old economics professor who was liked on sight by
virtually everyone he met, Zhenbing was my interpreter during five
weeks of travel throughout China. A born storyteller, he often
recalled his childhood in a tiny village northwest of Beijing. Like
most Chinese peasants of that era, Zhenbing’s parents were too poor to
buy coal. Instead, in a climate like Boston’s, where winter
temperatures often plunged below zero, they burned dried leaves to
heat their mud hut. Their home’s inside walls were often white with
frost from November to April.

In 1980, China’s economic reforms began putting enough money in
people’s pockets to enable even peasants like Zhenbing’s parents to
buy coal. Today coal supplies 73% of China’s energy, and there is
enough beneath the country to last an additional 300 years at current
consumption rates. Plainly, that is good news in one respect. Burning
coal has made the Chinese people (somewhat) warm in winter for the
first time in their history. But multiply Zhenbing’s story by China’s
huge population, and you understand why 9 of the world’s 10 most
air-polluted cities are found in China and why nearly 1 of every 3
deaths there is linked to the horrific condition of the air and water.

Equally alarming is what China’s coal burning is doing to the planet
as a whole. China has become the world’s second largest producer of
the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, and it will be No. 1
by 2020 if it triples coal consumption as planned. But the U.S., the
other environmental superpower, has no right to point a finger.
Americans lead the world in greenhouse-gas production, mainly because
of their ever tightening addiction to the car, the source of almost
40% of U.S. emissions.

Which returns us to gasoline and its source, petroleum. The earth’s
underground stores of petroleum are not quite as ample as those of
coal or natural gas, but there is enough to supply humanity for many
decades, even with rising population and living standards. Crippling
shortages may still occur, of course. But they will arise from
skulduggery or incompetence on the part of corporations or
governments, not from any physical scarcity.

Will we run out of gas? — a question we began asking during the oil
shocks of the 1970s — is now the wrong question. The earth’s supply of
carbon-based fuels will last a long time. But if humans burn anywhere
near that much carbon, we’ll burn up the planet, or at least our place
on it.

Change won’t be easy. But how we respond will help answer the
metaphorical meaning of Will we run out of gas? That is, will our
species fizzle out in the coming century, a victim of its own
appetites and lethargy? Or will we take action and earn a longer stay
on this beautiful planet?

The good news is, we know how to change course. Improving energy
efficiency is the first step and – surprise! – potentially a very
profitable one, not just for consumers and businesses but also for all
of society. And better efficiency can buy us time to make a global
transition to solar power and other renewable energy.

China could use 50% less energy if it only installed more efficient
electric lights, motors and insulation, all technologies currently
available on the world market. Americans could trade in their
notoriously gas-swilling SUVs for sporty new 80-m.p.g. hybrid-electric
cars. Better yet: hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars, expected in
showrooms by 2004. Since their only exhaust is water vapor, fuel-cell
cars produce neither smog nor global warming.

The best part is that we could make money by making peace with the
planet. If governments launched a program – call it a Global Green
Deal – to environmentally retrofit our civilization from top to
bottom, they could create the biggest business enterprise of the next
25 years, a huge source of jobs and profits.

Which is why I’m not entirely gloomy about our future. After all,
what’s more human than pursuit of self-interest?

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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