As an environmental scientist, Vaclav Smil brings to his work an extraordinary multi-disciplinary breadth, infectious pedagogical enthusiasm and critical pugnacity. The analytic clarity of his approach, combined with his zippy summaries of the literature, global—not to say civilizational—reach and confidently hard-headed use of data, has given him unusual cachet with financial institutions and government agencies such as the World Bank and the cia, for whom he was a regular consultant in the eighties and nineties; not to mention Bill Gates, whose praise for the ‘latest masterpiece’ appears on the paperback of Growth. The book’s aim, Smil writes, is to assess both the accomplishments and the limits of ‘growth’, as well as what comes after it, through a quantitative approach that will set these trends in historical and comparative perspective. In 500-odd pages, he gallops through the rise—and sometimes fall—of microbes, plants and trees, human populations, energy forms, man-made mechanisms and infrastructures, societies, empires, economies and civilizations.
It should be said at the outset that Growth rests upon the accumulated number-crunching of several dozen previous works. A Czech émigré, long based at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Environment and Geography, Smil launched his writing career nearly fifty years ago with China’s Energy (1976), a totalizing account of the country’s hydro, fossil and renewable energy sectors, followed by a glut of further books—The Bad Earth (1984), Energy in China’s Modernization (1988), China’s Environmental Crisis (1993) and others. From there Smil embarked on broader studies of the biosphere and human civilization, culminating in his ambitious General Energetics (1991): a comprehensive and analytically unified survey of energy systems—solar, geomorphic, photosynthetic, metabolic, mechanical, fossil fuel—from prehistory to postmodernity. By ‘comprehensive’, Smil explained, he meant the treatment of energy sources, flows, conversions, uses and consequences for Earth’s biosphere, throughout the history of civilizations. By ‘analytically unified’, he was referring to his use of common metrics—power density (watts per square metre) and energy intensity (joules per gram), rather than some larger conceptual synthesis.
The conclusions of General Energetics and its later iterations were broadly in line with those of the 1990s ecological economists. Fossil-fuelled civilization involved an exponential increase in per capita energy consumption with vast material inputs, raising atmospheric concentrations of co2 sixteen-fold in the course of the twentieth century. Smil was dubious about Georgescu-Roegen’s call for a macro-policy based on minimizing entropic degradation, requiring a radically reduced human population, living by new norms; he was closer to Herman Daly’s steady-state strategy, emphasizing the need for a multidimensional approach, gearing energy use to the provision of a decent quality of life for all. Smil estimated this could at a pinch be secured for an annual 40–50 gj per capita, though 110 gj would be desirable; in the 1990s, the us rate was 340, Germany’s 175, Thailand’s 40. Achieving a compromise between energy use adequate to sustain the quality of life and protection of the biosphere would not be easy.
Smil went on to deploy the ‘general energetics’ framework in a series of further books, examining societal development through the complex interaction of different energetic sectors: introductory primers like Energy: A Beginner’s Guide (2006); updatings like Energy in Nature and Society (2008); a run of works on global ecology, among them Cycles of Life (2000) and The Earth’s Biosphere (2002), drawing on the work of the Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky; sceptical assessments of the prospects for a necessary but difficult switch to renewables in Energy Transitions (2010) and, most recently, Grand Transitions (2021); and expansive treatments of environmental history such as Making the Modern World (2013). At the same time, Smil applied his characteristic approach—longue durée perspective, high-speed survey of the relevant literatures, plentiful data—to a widening range of issues: the impact of meat-eating on global food production, the history of the diesel engine, oil, power density, manufacturing; in Why America Is Not a New Rome (2010), he ventured into comparative history. New books continue to pour from the presses.
‘I’m the creation of the communist state’, Smil wryly commented to Science magazine, and there is some truth in this. Born in 1943 in the Bohemian-Czech town of Plzenˇ, he grew up in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic under Novotný’s rule. His father was a policeman, later a factory worker; his mother, a book-keeper at a hospital. At the Charles University in Prague, he was given an intensive education in the high Austro-German tradition of the Natural Sciences: five years of 35 classes a week, studying climatology, geomorphology, zoology and ecology. Here he would have encountered Vernadsky’s The Biosphere (1926), which he would later hail as pioneering a general-systems approach, based on the recognition of multidimensional complexities and non-linear feedback—a welcome break from nineteenth-century trends of scientific specialization. This was also the era of the Czechoslovakian New Wave (Forman, Kundera, Menzel, Liehm), and Smil’s debunking of (some) received wisdom is very much in the sardonic tradition of Prague’s dissident intelligentsia. To grandiose claims that the Soviet Union had increased production of passenger cars by 1,000 per cent in a single year, he retorted, ‘Yeah, but you started from nothing.’ In 1969, a year after the Soviet invasion, he and his wife Eva, a newly qualified physician, migrated to the United States, a society Smil admired despite his enjoyable disdain for American optimism. After acquiring a PhD at Pennsylvania State University, Smil took up an offer from Manitoba where he has remained, teaching environmental science and writing his extraordinarily extensive oeuvre.
Rarely does Smil offer predictions, still less does he make recommendations; he is more given to debunking than promoting. Where he does suggest policies, as in his 2015 book touting natural gas as a potential ‘fuel for the 21st century’, they come heavily caveated. He is known for his ruthless demolition jobs on Paul Ehrlich’s ‘population bomb’ thesis (‘spectacularly wrong’); the Limits to Growth theory (a moralistic treatise with grossly simplified computer modelling, based on a poor-man’s version of Jay Forrester’s work); the ostensive ‘dematerialization’ of production (‘nothing but a complex form of material substitution’); and the briefly vogueish concept of ‘peak oil’ (with an abundance of oil left to exploit, writes Smil, all predictions of imminent decline are hostages to future discoveries or extraction technologies). He has never had much patience for those who blame ecological crisis on ‘capitalist exploitation’, dismissing the thought as more erroneous than religious explanations rooted in original sin. He is likewise contemptuous of the Green New Deal, of which he simply asserts: ‘Scientists should not dignify nonsense.’ Smil is more likely to cite the King James Bible for ethical inspiration than any secular political creed. He is also culturally conservative, a despiser of smartphones, who refuses to read fiction published after 1900. At the same time, his respect for the Vernadskian concept of the biosphere places him at odds with a capitalist culture based on endlessly compounding growth.
The concept, as Growth makes clear, is far from innocent. The measurement of economic growth is an instrument of statecraft—‘Political Arithmetick’, as William Petty called it—but its persuasive power derives from the organic metaphor. Economies ‘grow rich’, are fertilized by ‘seed capital’, and experience ‘green shoots of recovery’. By false implication, when gdp grows, everyone gains. Revisionist histories have begun to challenge the conventions that determine which activities are deemed ‘productive’ by this metric. However, even if gdp is a distorted measurement, it indexes certain realities. What grows, Smil argues, is the scale and complexity of social systems, each increase demanding a parallel rise in the use of energy and materials. In his striking presentation, ‘fossil-fuelled civilization’ is functionally equivalent to an enormous heterotrophic life-form, consuming a steady intake of raw materials and water, oxidizing carbon and impacting the planet’s biogeochemical cycles. This means that its growth is ultimately confined by the laws of thermodynamics. The pattern of growth witnessed since 1800—the basis of capitalism’s promise of progress—has relied on an unprecedented and likely short-lived burst of exosomatic energy derived from fossil fuels. Once that energy is entropically scattered through combustion, it is irreplaceable. Far more energy and resources would be required to reproduce it—to reconstitute a lump of coal from a heap of ash, for example—than was obtained in burning it.