To an extraordinarily powerful human mind, one that can reckon the dimensions of galaxies and conjure the worlds they might contain, the problems that bedevil our species must seem, sometimes, like pretty small potatoes. More than 50 years ago, the physicist Freeman Dyson calculated the number and force of nuclear detonations required to power gigantic rocket ships to the moons of Jupiter. He went on to imagine trees that would grow in airless space and help us colonize the comets. Is it any wonder, as our longtime contributor Kenneth Brower writes in this issue, that Dyson has emerged as a formidable skeptic of fears of global climate change, assured as he appears in the faith that technology will allow us to elude any danger?
The notion that science will save us “is the sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental catastrophe,” warns Brower. The only solution to global warming, he writes, “will be in the hard, nontechnical work of changing human behavior.”
Yet there may be limits to what we can hope for from human behavior as well. Just to stabilize the amount of carbon gathering in the air, the entire world would have to reduce its per capita emissions to the level of Kenya—and each American now accounts for as much carbon as every 25 Kenyans. But, of course, Kenyans and everyone else want the same power-hungry technologies that are so embedded now in Americans’ lives we hardly notice them. For our cover story, James Fallows set out many months ago to discover what technical innovation might meet that demand while creating a clean energy future.