The Conversation

Readers write in about our interview with Bill Gates and more.

“We Need an Energy Miracle”

For the November issue, James Bennet interviewed Bill Gates, who has committed his influence and his personal fortune to propelling the world beyond fossil fuels before climate change wreaks cataclysmic damage.

Bill Gates compares government with the private sector on the question of which is more inept. According to Gates: “Yes, the government will be somewhat inept—but the private sector is in general inept. How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly? By far most of them.”
It might have occurred to Gates that venture capitalists end up investing in so many ventures that go poorly because the poor performance gets quickly exposed by the private sector’s harsh system of profit and loss. With no comparable way to expose its own ineptitude, government is free to keep throwing good money after bad on failed ventures, thus leaving Gates the impression that it is only “somewhat inept.”
Gene Epstein
New York, N.Y.

What if we reframed the cap-and-trade dialogue around consumers instead of corporations? After all, consumers’ demand for goods and services dictates what corporations bring to market. So if, as a society, we want to reduce the carbon emissions generated by the goods and services we demand, why aren’t we holding ourselves responsible?
In my opinion, corporations should not be responsible for reducing the emissions associated with the goods and services we consume. We should be. Consumers should have an individual carbon cap, and corporations should be responsible for disclosing the carbon emissions associated with the goods and services they sell, so that consumer demand can drive emissions reductions. Governments should be responsible for enforcing consumers’ carbon limits, and for ensuring that corporations accurately disclose emissions information to consumers.
Tiare Ferguson
San Francisco, Calif.

I am a professional engineer who has worked for many years in the electric-power-production industry. I found Mr. Gates’s ideas regarding energy production and climate change to be insightful and appropriately broad in scope. However, there is one area—use of nuclear power—where I think his position needs rethinking. He states, “Nuclear is a non-CO2 source, but it’s had its own problems in terms of costs, big safety problems, making sure you can deal with the waste, making sure the plutonium isn’t used to make weapons.”
I suggest that Mr. Gates consider the nuclear-power situation in France. About 40 years ago the French adopted U.S. nuclear-power technology and have since built more than 50 plants, which have produced about 75 percent of France’s electricity. There have been no serious safety issues associated with these plants—no major accidents, and no radiation-caused deaths of civilians. The amount of carbon-dioxide emissions associated with these plants is insignificant. If the United States decided to follow this approach, we could within a decade or two very strongly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and make real progress toward meeting our carbon-dioxide-reduction goals. Building plants on this scale is practical, as evidenced by what France did in the 1970s and ’80s, and by what is now being done in China, where about four or five large nuclear-power plants are being brought online each year.
Pursuing the nuclear-power option for a generation or two, until other power sources are developed, is a technically practicable approach. I recognize that use of this option would face serious political resistance from some groups. But Mr. Gates could use his resources to help overcome this resistance. Not taking the proven, readily available nuclear-power option and continuing to discharge vast amounts of carbon dioxide would pose grave risks to future generations.
Jeffrey A. Gorman, Ph.D., P.E.
Washington, D.C.

Nowhere in this long interview does Bill Gates allude to the real problem: the population explosion. At one point he says, “Now, climate change keeps climbing all the time—it just keeps summing, summing, summing, and adding up … So we have to have dramatic change here.” Rather than hoping for a miracle, we need to get the human population on this planet back to where it was in, say, 1930—when it was 2 billion—and then keep it there. Nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned, so a good start would be to make sure every female on the planet is given access to modern, reliable, long-term birth control.
Elizabeth P. Kutchai
Charlottesville, Va.

Analyzing Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Charles Schulz

In November, Sarah Boxer delved into the Peanuts archive to see why the comic strip endures (“The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy”). “The characters,” she determined, “could stir up shockingly heated arguments over how to survive and still be a decent human being in a bitter world.”

This is to thank Sarah Boxer for her insights into the world of Charles Schulz and Peanuts.
Though Boxer dealt mainly with Snoopy’s changing persona, I was reminded of the consistency of the other characters in the strip over the years: No adults were ever seen, and clothing styles stayed in fashion.
Over the many years I followed the strip—though I may not have seen every installment—Charlie Brown broke character only once. A kid drawn with the attitude of a con man won all of Rerun’s marbles. Charlie Brown confronted the kid and won Rerun’s marbles back. That was the one time he prevailed, and he did it on behalf of someone else. Subtle message there, perhaps?
Ken Blackwell
East Flat Rock, N.C.

Get off Snoopy’s back. Let sleeping dogs lie!
Robert McCurdy
Camp Hill, Pa.
The author gets a detail wrong when she says “the football was always yanked away” from Charlie Brown. Once, in 1979, Lucy did not pull away the football. Of course, Charlie Brown missed and broke Lucy’s arm instead.
Paul Mollica
Chicago, Ill.

Sarah Boxer replies:

It’s fascinating that two of the letters point out strips in which Charlie Brown breaks character, or at least is given a chance to be not so Charlie Brownish. The first case, noted by Ken Blackwell, when Charlie Brown confronts the “con man,” seems to me not so much out of character as an echo of Charlie Brown’s more assertive, even impish, roots in the 1950s.
The second case, when Charlie Brown actually does get a chance to kick the football but misses and instead kicks Lucy’s arm—thank you, Paul Mollica, for pointing out this bizarre strip!—strikes me as both physically and dramatically off-kilter, even surreal. It makes me wonder where in the world Schulz’s head was when he drew it!

Silicon Valley Weighs In

For the November issue, the magazine surveyed 101 Silicon Valley insiders about, among other things, sexism and the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the tech industry.

The absence of the question “On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the worst), how bad is ageism in the industry?” tells me that the answer would be 20.
Azmat Malik
Redwood City, Calif.

Explaining Hoover

In November’s “Amateur Hour,” about presidential contenders, Jonathan Rauch noted, “You can win without elective experience if your name is William Howard Taft or Herbert Hoover.” Taft, he added, held prominent judicial and Cabinet positions before his election.

Rauch offhandedly dismisses Herbert Hoover’s presidential win with “I have no explanation for Hoover. Does anyone?” Perhaps he was trying to be witty, perhaps not, but a careful reading of history reveals the richness of Hoover’s background. Among other experience, he ran the huge efforts of the U.S. Food Administration and the Commission for Relief in Belgium during World War I, and served as secretary of commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge.
Erik Meyers
Ludwigshafen, Germany

The Big Question: What is the greatest comeback of all time?

(On, readers answered December’s Big Question and voted on one another’s responses. Here are the top vote-getters.)

10. The United States’ return after the Civil War.

— Arthur C. Ford Sr.

9. By the early 1800s, Johann Sebastian Bach had drifted into near-oblivion. Felix Mendelssohn was only 15 when his grandmother gave him a copy of the manuscript score for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion; over the next five years, he labored to prepare, rehearse, and finally conduct a performance of that masterpiece. The year was 1829, and that performance sparked a Bach resurgence, which would forever and immeasurably alter the course of music for the better.

— John Contino

8. Hannibal, by all accounts one of the greatest military strategists in history, humiliated Roman generals and ran rings around Roman armies for 15 years on Roman soil. But the Roman Republic never surrendered, and it went on to conquer the Western world.

— Marcus Chandler

7. Anne Boleyn is still dead, but history has given her everything she wanted. And it is well known that any book or miniseries about Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell must include her to be commercially viable.

— Lucia Perri

6. At the beginning of World War II, the Axis powers completely dominated and defeated the Allied powers on all fronts, resulting in the occupation of large parts of Asia, Europe, and North Africa. All seemed lost. Yet the Allied powers were able to regroup and in the end decisively triumphed.

— Alan Borken

5. China.

— Ken Blackwell

4. On the Eastern Front in 1942, the Red Army went from a near-defeat on the banks of the Volga River to a three-year drive west to expel the Nazi army from Soviet territory.

— Egor Korneev

3. Aesop’s tortoise.

— Brian Fitzgerald

2. Jesus Christ. Humiliated and brutally murdered after being deserted by his small band of followers, he came back (literally, if one believes in his resurrection) to be the founder of a worldwide religion with billions of followers.

— Cynthia Millen

1. The Earth, after we stop warming her up. Hopefully.

— Jim Schnitter

The Atlantic & College Board Writing Prize

We are pleased to announce that The Atlantic, together with the College Board, will be holding its second annual writing contest in 2016. This year’s contest asks high-school students to write about a work of art. Submissions will be accepted between January 1 and February 28, 2016. The winner will receive a $5,000 prize and the winning entry will be published in The Atlantic.

For more about the contest, and to learn how to enter, please visit

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