just asking questions

Vaclav Smil: We Must Leave Growth Behind

Illustration: Stevie Remsberg/Intelligencer. Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

Vaclav Smil cuts an unusual figure in the climate world — an iconoclastic Czech-Canadian scientist, he is often called the person who understands energy transitions better than anyone else in the world. (Bill Gates is a particular fan.) But his view of energy transitions is, famously, dour — that it will take, at least, many more decades to produce a transition to renewable energy than most analysts and advocates predict and that a total transition may prove tremendously difficult.

In his new book, Growth — a dense, 500-page treatise that covers everything from “microorganisms to megacities,” whose afterword we’re excerpting here — Smil makes perhaps an even-more-off-putting proposition: that in order to “ensure the habitability of the biosphere,” we must at the very least move away from prioritizing growth and perhaps abandon it entirely.

Let me start by asking you about the very end of the book. I know so much of this was written in a spirit of caution and care and wanting to avoid drawing long-term, large-scale conclusions from the material. But from my read, at least, it ends on a quite definitive note. “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting limits on the planetary scale.”
That has been always the case. There’s nothing new in this, except many people have been refusing to recognize it.

Can you tell me a bit about how you came to that conclusion?
Speaking as an old-fashioned scientist, I think the message is kind of a primitive and, again, old-fashioned message. This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology.

Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology because everybody’s studying what’s communications, writing in code, economics, business administration, liaising the state office, and things like that. This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.

You’ve said that while economists believe we can decouple growth from material consumption, that is “total nonsense.” How much do you think we need to reduce out expectations for economic growth, then?
If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year. There is no 30 percent or 40 percent gross there, really.

It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermodynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermodynamic and material limits.

Even the progress in transistors, which I think has been the sort of conceptual model that so many optimists are basing their faith in — even that progress is slowing down considerably.
Technically speaking, we are nearly at the limit. Everything simply has their limits. That’s the message of this book. Everything has its limits. This is why I’m so irritated by this Kurzweilian nonsense — just say it aloud, by 2047, human intelligence will be expanding into the universe at the speed of light. Really? And he is the chief scientific adviser to Google.

I mean, I’m speechless. As a scientist, I’m speechless. These loonies. These people are flying around the world and preaching the vision of singularity by 2047. It’s like, what’s her name? That Goop lady, what’s her name?

Gwyneth Paltrow.
The actress. This is unbelievable, right? The scientific version of Goop.

On climate, tell me where you think we’re headed.
The American way is to have the whole pie and eat it at the same time: we are going to have SUVs everywhere and raspberries from Nicaragua in Europe in January. And transport it by airplane even, and do all these things as we have been doing. In fact, we do even more because now Chinese will copy us.

Think of this Chinese tourism now. Before there would be 100 million Chinese tourists flying every year, only something like 40 million of them are flying.

To deal with that, we’d need a totally different kind of plane or a massive carbon-sequestration project.
Mark my words, there’ll be no massive sequestration of carbon. There hasn’t been any, and there’ll not be any next year, or 2025, or 2030.

Why are you so sure?
The scale. We now make about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Ten percent of that is 3.7 billion tons. Say 4 billion tons of C02, just to control 10 percent of the problem. This is almost exactly the amount of crude oil we produce. It took us 100-plus years to develop an industry, which is taking 4 billion tons out of the ground and with the gradient, and then taking it up and refining and using it. Now we would have to develop a new industry, which would take 4 billion tons, and store it, push it against the gradient into the ground, and guarantee that it will stay there forever. Something like this cannot be done in five, or 10, or 15 years. And this is 10 percent. So, simply on the matter of scale, carbon sequestration is just simply dead on arrival.

What does that mean for where we’re headed?
We have to do something else. There’s this hope, this great hope of this technical fix. We’ll have the raspberries, and we’ll have the SUVs, but also the carbon will be dealt with. My favorite choice would be not with strawberries in January, and not with SUVs.

To draw down on consumption, in other words.
This is what I call the slack in the system, and most people are not even aware, because they haven’t studied the systems closely enough, what tremendous slack in the system you have. There’s lots of waste before we produce food, but even after we produce it, 40 percent of our harvest is wasted. You cannot eliminate all this, but you could eliminate probably like two-thirds of it easily.

The same thing goes about buildings. If everybody would have a house like I have, we would be saving like 5, or 7, or 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. We need to take up this enormous slack in the system and bring down our consumption of everything by 10, 20, 30, 40 percent quite realistically. But people aren’t willing to do it, because people want to have it all. Giant houses with circular staircases which are not properly insulated. They want to have their SUVs, and they want to have their raspberries in January. That’s the problem.

So, you don’t think there’s much hope of us staying below two degrees of warming, for instance?
Sorry, say it again?

I assume that means you don’t think there’s much chance of staying below two degrees of warming, for instance.
(A) I wouldn’t be hung up on two degrees. Why not 1.9 or 2.1? From a scientific point of view, two degrees is meaningless. Whatever the goal is there, though, we certainly are well on track to go past that actually. There is no doubt about that.

Do you see any way we change course?
Well, we could. I could design you the global system today without any horrible loss of standard of living all around the world. Consuming 30, 40, 50 percent less of everything what we are consuming. Be it water, or steel, or energy, but we are not willing to go down that route. Technically, it doesn’t require any new inventions, nothing, and it will actually save us money in many ways.

But the expectations are just crazy, they’re just so crazy. Food waste, for instance, is just amazing. We grow all that stuff, we dump all those fossil fuels, all this liquid used, diesel and gasoline, and electricity, and metals, and ammonia, fertilizers. And we waste 40 percent of everything they grow. Because the expectation is what? That everybody should have strawberries in December, everywhere? No matter if it’s northern Japan or northern Finland, really, right? The expectations are quite ridiculous because we don’t need raspberries or strawberries in December. The amount of vitamin C is as good in any apple which could be stored over winter.

My favorite example is this creation of SUVs. I love all these people telling me that they have to take these great steps to limit global warming. When if we would have never introduced SUVs in the 1980s. There was no reason to introduce them, nobody was calling for them. We could have saved billions upon billions of cumulative tons of carbon since 1985 by not having SUVs. Which are now the dominant mode of transportation in the western world. Even in Europe now, they are operating everywhere.

Yeah, but on some level — I don’t mean to be taking the side of the optimist here, I’m quite pessimistic about things, but on some level you could look at the story of the SUV expansion as a hopeful one. In the sense that in relatively short order, a relatively new technology spread very, very rapidly.
But this is not new. It’s just simply the same thing. The wheels are the same, the engine is the same, it’s a little heavier. It’s just a real machine, but there’s nothing fundamentally new about this. It’s just simply heavier, it’s bulkier, it’s American, it’s Texas, right? It’s like steak. The French would eat filet mignon of 200 grams. You can have restaurants in Texas where there’s a steak of 1,000 grams, 1 kg. There’s nothing new in this, it’s just the size.

Sure, but, still, the speed of penetration …
Yeah, but it depends. The speed of deploying stuff you could study your whole life and you could not yet make sense out of it. It’s just so difficult. Look, the best example, of course, is the cell phone. People are social animals, and want to gossip, and want to critique, and want to take dumb selfies, and want to put other people down and build themselves up. So cell phones spread like wildfire.

Now, we have like what? It’s like 4 billion of them for 7 and a half billion people. There’s an example which is just the fastest penetration over a little gizmo ever in history of mankind, the mobile phone, which is not even a phone, really. It is just simply the gadget for self-aggrandizement. On the other hand, just a couple of days ago there was this headline. Nigeria went for three years without polio. They should have been done by 1960. Some things move very fast, but some things go very slowly.

A few months ago I wrote a paper about netting the net, right?

The internet, you mean?
It’s been such a blessing in so many ways, such a tremendous, unbelievable advance. On the other hand, you know, the black net, financial manipulation, invasion of privacy, pedophilia — it’s a hell on earth, really. So, how do I net the net? Do I say it’s been a benefit, or 80 percent benefit, or 75 percent benefit? I cannot do it. Maybe you could do it, but I cannot do it. And this is the problem I find with the humans and ecosystems, and humans and energy consumption.

When I wrote that thing a couple of years ago, I said, “Well, I cannot net the net.” By now, I can net the net. I think it’s been, certainly not an unmitigated disaster. There are many mitigations to it, and I’m an avid user. But I think, on balance, I would say thumbs down, really.

Reading, for instance, has been in great peril for a long time now, because of television and so much visual stuff and everything. But now, even my so-called learned academic friends, I ask them all the time, and they read maybe one book a year. They just scroll through the net.

Well, you could say that’s reading too, though of a different kind and different quality.
Yeah, no, come on, David. It’s not the same thing. I’m reading very actively, so I’ve been reading this book about the relationship between Sassanid empires and the Roman empire during late antiquity, 500 pages of it. You cannot find that on the net, right?

Probably not. But actually, I wanted to ask you about the lessons of the internet — in particular how so many people have embraced a foolish idea of how easy scalability is and how seamless deployment of technology can be.
This is the thing — the contrast between what could be done and what we are doing. Let me give you an example of how things slide, even with people who are kind of paragons of virtue. When I started to buy Hondas, my Honda Accord was 900 kg. We’re still buying Honda Accords, because even Honda, this virtuous company of small cars, started to make bigger and bigger items. Now Honda Civic is 30 percent bigger, heavier than my original Honda Accord was. I was in the dealership for an oil change the other day. I see a Honda Civic in the corner, one of them, and the rest of these six different kinds of SUVs. Honda the virtuous small-car company.

How easy would it be just simply to produce one Accord and one Civic, and no SUVs? We don’t have to invent anything new. And the same goes about food, and same goes about building, and same goes about material consumption. Because materials are very highly energy intensive, really. So, even without inventing anything, just simply reshuffling the system, they can cut the slack.

Do you see any culture, any country in the world that is moving in that direction?
No, nobody. Look at Germany. This transition to renewables — they put more than half a trillion dollars into installing affordable-type solar cells in a climate which is about as sunny as Vancouver or Seattle. It doesn’t make sense to me; it’s just crazy because they work about 11 percent of the time. The rest of the time, it’s just simply too cold there.

At the first time that they started, somebody called me and said, “Could you comment about the world’s largest formal-type plants?” I said, “I would if I would know where it is.” They said, “In Bavaria.” I grew up a stone’s throw from there, I couldn’t believe it. And after half a trillion dollars they spent, the electricity generation is now about 30 percent from renewables, fine. But these are still the people who have no speed limit on the Autobahn — where cars go 250 km per hour. And Angela Merkel, she said, “Oh, we cannot have any limit on the Autobahn. We have to show how our cars can do it all.”

So, they virtue-signal in terms of electricity generation, but they are burning the fuel on the Autobahn, and building huge diesel cars right, left, and center. So, even virtue in Germany is not virtuous at all.

And they’re also retiring nuclear plants.
That’s another story, this fear of nuclear. These extreme reactions — either nuclear is very bad or very good, right? No. It’s a tool to be used wisely, if you can use it wisely.

But to me, this is the thing that’s just so emotional. I’m an old man, so I shouldn’t get so excited, but I still do get that excited about this thing. This whole debate about global warming, to me, it is so annoying. We knew, we got an inkling of it with Joseph Fourier in 1828. We were on pretty solid ground understanding the physics of it by 1860s. And by the time we got to Svante Arrhenius in 1895, he did the calculations, which are almost perfectly the same ones as we do now with these massive machines and 200,000 lines of code.

I wrote my first paper about global warming in 1972. Then 20 years later, I made a decision never, never to write explicitly about global warming again, because it became just a total political football. People aren’t even aware how long we’ve known all these basic things. And most of the people who are talking about it, they’ve never taken a course in atmospheric physics, or atmospheric chemistry. They have no idea what methane is, or N02. They have no idea what global warming potentially is.

I hate when people ask me this question, but is there anything that gives you hope?
Partially there is a “hope” I would say in the sense that we are dying out. I’m sure you are aware that essentially every western country, every affluent country has now started to fall below the replacement level of reproduction — 2.1. Some countries come pretty close. Some countries are like 1.8, 1.9, including Sweden, Finland, Norway are pretty close. But most countries are now 1.6, 1.7, and there is a bunch of countries which are down to 1.3 or 1.4. As we have seen over the past three decades, once you get to 1.3 or 1.4, there’s no more chance in hell that it could ever recover.

Japan is losing now half a million people every year. All of Europe is below replacement level, Canada and U.S. are below the replacement level. If it wouldn’t be for our legal and illegal immigration, and most of America will be dying out. So that is reason for hope: Years from now, we will not be consuming, because there will be nobody there.

And yet even so, you think that we’re scheduled to exceed the natural limits of the planet.
This is the thing. This is us, the rich part of the world. But the rich part is only depending how you count it, 1 billion. If you count the rich Indians, because there is lots of rich Indians and Chinese, and in the Middle East, there’s probably like 1 and a half billion affluent people. But there is 7 and a half billion in total. And there’s this discord between what we could do in rich countries and what simply cannot be done in poor countries. Poor countries will drive this program, no doubt.

I always tell people this, we don’t matter anymore. People talk about global problems. That our problem is their problem. Our problem is that we are dying out but still consuming like crazy. Their problem is that they want to consume like us, and they are increasing at a rapid rate.

And you don’t think there’s any chance that they adapt for a different consumption pattern as they develop?
Even if they did, it would still be a couple of generations of increasing consumption of everything in Africa. Everything, water, cement, fuels, you name it.

Do you think, even over time, that kind of adaptation is possible?
I’m not trying to idealize this, because there are many obstacles. I have a super-insulated house, but it makes economically no sense, especially where I live, because we have the cheapest electricity on the planet. If I build a super-insulated house, return on that investment is probably like 25 years, or 18 years, or whatever it is. By that time, most of the people will not live in that house and who cares?

On top of which, people don’t want to pay premium buying that house, really. People will not do this unless the price of energy goes up, up. If prices go up, people will start super-insulating and new houses will be better built. That may actually create quite a few jobs. On the other hand, if you don’t have raspberries in January, then, of course, people in Mexico and Nicaragua are losing jobs. Truckers and shippers who are moving them to the U.S. or Canada are losing jobs. So these lowered expectations have to result in some improvements in employment and in some good economic growth, but of course, they will result in some losses. The same as with beef.

As you know, people aren’t crazy about beef right now. Beef is killing the planet and whatever. “Let’s get totally out of beef.” People don’t even realize how beef is penetrating the U.S. economy. We are talking about millions of jobs. Not just the farmers themselves, but shipping it, cutting it, retailing it, exporting it. Millions of jobs hang on beef. So you become virtuous, you decrease your methane footprint, you get rid of beef, millions of jobs on the plate right now.

And given how hard it’s been to move away from coal in the U.S., which only employs tens of thousands …
This is what I’m telling you. It cannot be simply done without wrenchingly, massively centering our economy. It cannot be done on the margin only. It has to be done on a very large scale to have a large-scale global effect. And it has to be done in China, and in India, eventually, not only among the rich countries. It is the scale of the problem which is most important. We have many known solutions, we have many technical means how to fix things, we are pretty inventive, and we can come up with more, and better things yet. But it’s a thing to deploy them in time and on the scale needed. That’s our major problem, scale.

How much change would it take?
To do a dent in this global need for water, gas, oil, electricity, carbon emissions, whatever — to make that dent, you are talking about billions and billions of tons of everything. Let’s say if you want to get rid of coal, right? We are mining now more than 7 billion tons of coal. So, you want to lower the coal consumption by half, you have to cut down close to 4 billion tons of coal. More than 4 billion tons of oil. You want to get rid of oil and replace it with natural gas? Fine and dandy, but you have to get rid of more than 2 billion tons of oil.

These are transformations on a billion-ton scale, globally: (A) They cannot be done alone by next Monday; (B) they will be wrenching with huge economic consequences; and (C), what we can do, and the Chinese can do, the Indians can not. The Indians published a new paper a few months ago saying, “Coal will be our No. 1 fuel until 2047.”

There’s also the downstream effects on politics and culture to think about. Over just the last decade or two, we’ve seen how much frustration is produced by just the dampening of expectations for economic growth.
Exactly, yeah.

We’ve moved from, I don’t know, expectations of 3 percent or 4 percent to one percent or 2 percent. But then when I look at Japan, they’ve been living through the same slowdown, or even a more dramatic slowdown, without the same sort of political perturbation we’ve had in some of the West.
Okay, this is the 40th year of me going to Japan. I’ve been going there since 1979, almost every year. I’m going again in October. I know a great deal about the country, but I still don’t understand it in so many ways. But this thing, I understand: They have always been a country living within severe limited means. They were always used to, if not to sacrifice, then to live within great constraints. They never had excessive expectations. So this is such a culturally different thing. I have written about it extensively, and look at it in great detail, but I must say, it’s an inappropriate example, because it’s just Japanese. They are truly different than other people.

You look even in Europe, the people in Europe, the expectations are always lower in Europe than in the U.S. Always lower. But then you look at how these things have changed even there over the past 20 years. You go to Amsterdam or Copenhagen, and every bus has a big sign on the side of the bus: Amsterdam to Cyprus, 30 euros. These are the new expectations, Europeans travel like crazy. There are tens of millions of Europeans flying every week. Thirty years ago, hardly anybody was flying in Europe, really.
Expectations like are created very rapidly. First, they went down to Spain or whatever — to Majorca maybe. Now, they go to Mauritius all the time. As I say, for 29 euros. Let me give you a study which people are not aware of. Until three years ago, 82 million Germans spent more money on foreign travel than 320 million Americans. Only in the last few years, Americans got slightly ahead in absolute terms. Which means in relative terms, they are still like one quarter of Germany. One quarter. Thirty years ago, no German, even businessmen, would fly — they would take a train from Berlin to Munich. Now, everybody is flying everywhere for 20 euros.

And it’s hard to imagine that stopping.
I wish people would go the Japanese way. They come to Asia, they are eating less meat, and they are consuming less of everything. They are apparently not less — well, they were always an unhappy nation, but they are no more unhappy than they used to be.

This is what people forget. I see this “Earth is flat” nonsense. What’s the name of this guy? This flat-earth guy? This New York Times guy? Friedman, right?

Thomas Friedman, yeah.
Yeah, this is utter nonsense. This world is so different, so differentiated. The guy must be, I mean, like IQ 65 to say something like that.

Where do the Europeans get those expectations? Why is it now that 30 years ago, things were so different than they are today? What happened?
Everything is underlied by energy. As I always say, there is no economy, there is only energy conversion. Money is only a very imperfect way how to measure energy flows in society. So what happens is we got this supercheap energy — both the fuel, and electricity, and the food energy.

When I was a kid growing in Europe, right after the Second World War, England had rationing. Even in England, a so-called victorious country after the war, England had rationing until 1953, 1954. Many European countries rationed food, and a typical spending for an average family in Europe in the 1950s was 60 percent of disposable income, went to food. Sixty percent, right? Now, in Europe, it’s 18 percent, and in the U.S., it’s about 8 percent or 9 percent. Food is more expensive in Europe, but it’s still so much less expensive than ever it has been. So people have this enormous disposable income, and they travel, and they buy electronic junk, and they do all sorts of crazy stuff. Expectations have grown as a result of cheap energy, and cheap food, and energy.

But what if those prices reflected the true cost of energy extraction?
Yes, yes, exactly, David. We never know what the true cost is, because it depends where you put the boundaries on measuring the true cost.
Nobody’s paying for it again. Again, the truer or closer real cost of food and energy should reflect the cost of all our waste, which we even don’t incinerate, landfill, or we just simply dump into the ocean on the ground. We are not even trying to come close to the real cost of our economy, which is so much higher than we pay for. It’s certainly not 8 percent of energy, or 8 percent of food, or 9 as it is in the U.S. now. It’s vastly higher.

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