Watchdog of the Biosphere

The Eco-pragmatism of Vaclav Smil

A few weeks ago, Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates published his personal summer reading list on his blog Gates Notes. Of the eight titles, two are by the same author, a Canadian professor emeritus you’ve probably never heard of: Vaclav Smil.

“I’m trying to read everything he writes, but he publishes so quickly that I can’t keep up,” Gates writes of Smil on his blog.

Smil, who taught in the department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba until 2011, can only be described as an interdisciplinary scholar. He has written about a large number of globally significant issues and trends, though he tends to focus on energy, food production, and the environment. The two Smil books on Gates’s summer agenda are about the fall of manufacturing in the US and the rise of sushi and meat-eating in Japan. He has also published books on the creation of synthetic fertilizers, the diesel engines and jet turbines that make global trade possible, and the limits to growth in China. His book count will hit 34 in December, and he’s published hundreds of academic papers. He is 69 years old.

Smil’s intellectual omnivorousness is precisely what appeals to Gates, an insatiable reader with broad interests. “On any page [Smil] might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the average human life span during the Roman Empire,” Gates writes in a review of Harvesting the Biosphere, one of Smil’s latest books. “The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.”

Quartz spoke with Smil about his background and his most recent books. He’s a bracingly smart and hard-nosed academic who is obsessed with global systems and doesn’t own a cell phone. His ideas don’t fit comfortably into any ideology: He simultaneously argues that the West should eat less meat for environmental reasons and that Western governments should not make a concerted effort to stop using fossil fuels.

Below is an excerpt of the interview:

Your interests are incredibly broad-sweeping. What is your educational background, exactly?

I’m the product of the classical, old-fashioned European education that is broad-based. You want to get your degree in the world, you have to study all sorts of things. I studied what the Germans call the Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences. Everything from biology to geology. How the clouds are formed, how the animals live, and what makes the rocks. So I know about nature. Period.

I’ve read about 80 books a year for the past 50 years. I come from cultural breeding. I don’t have a cell phone. When you spend all your time checking your cell phone messages, or updating your Facebook (of course I don’t have a Facebook page) then you don’t have any time for reading.

What was the key lesson you learned while writing Harvesting the Biosphere?

Harvesting the biosphere is still the most fundamental human activity. Without that, everybody’s dead, really. We could do quite well without microchips, or the business site of Atlantic Monthly, the gated communities, Guccis, and high growth GDP. But we cannot do without harvesting the crops and cutting down the wood. No human civilization could ever sever our dependence on photosynthesis.

People are obsessed with the progress of electronics and high-speed machinery and things like that, but first things first. If you ask “what has been the most important invention of the past 100, 150 years?” it’s been the synthesis of ammonia. If we could not synthesize ammonia by taking nitrogen from the air, hydrogen from natural gas and pressing them together in the Haber-Bosch cycle… if we could not do this to make nitrogen fertilizers, we could not grow enough food for about 40% of people. So you are talking about something like three billion people. In existential terms, that is the most important invention.

Earlier this year, you published a book called Should We Eat Meat? So, should we?

I say we should eat meat but in modest quantities.

And, later in August you have another book coming out, called Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing. Can you tell me what that book is about?

That book will cause me so much trouble it will be unbelievable.

The reason is that people think there is a renaissance in US manufacturing — but of course, there isn’t. In the past 12 years, America lost 7 million manufacturing jobs, and it got 400,000 back. Would you call that a renaissance? Definitely not. A renaissance is a glorious flowering beyond the previous state. The US will never regain those millions of manufacturing jobs. Never. Never.

People think that because fracking gas is cheap, everybody will come and locate in the US. Well, if you go to the US and make a petrochemical factory, that’s fine, but how many people does a petrochemical factory employ? Have you seen a big refinery? There are like 20 people sitting at the controls and controlling the whole refinery. These modern industries, they don’t employ people.

And finally, Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization will be out around December. What’s the thrust of that one?

People think that we are getting better because we are dematerializing. Look at your iPhone. A perfect example of dematerialization. Before that you would need, what? An alarm clock. A telephone. A camera. A compass and a map. Now you don’t need any of these things — you just need one cell phone. So instead of having the mass of all these things like before, you dematerialize.

Well, that’s fine. But do you know how many of these cell phones we are throwing away every nine months? One billion. We are only seeing dematerialization in relative terms. Our refrigerators weigh less than they did 20 years ago, they are better insulated, they are better built. Certainly our electronics weigh less than they weighed 20 years ago. (But of course our cars do not weigh less, because most of our cars in North America are SUVs.)

Many things are dematerializing, but they are dematerializing per unit. Yet we are selling many more units, so in total terms, global consumption is vastly increasing. This is like efficient energy consumption. We increase the efficiency of energy consumption, but have three televisions instead of one. Per refrigerator, per television, per car, the consumption is down. But overall, the consumption is up.

On the issue of consumption, you’ve been critical of renewable energy. Can you explain why?

I love renewable energy, but not pushing it down somebody’s throat or spending zillions of dollars. Let it develop organically. Like with any new energy form, it will take a while. All these forecasts—20 percent by 2020, 30 percent by 2030—that’s not science, that’s voodoo.

If you look at it in planetary terms, it’s out of our hands. In terms of global energy use, the US is still number two, but China is number one. What would be the reason to rush into renewables? Global warming. But, China will burn every bit of coal it can lay its hands on. So whatever you do in the US or Germany, it’s irrelevant because China will wipe it out in a matter of weeks or months.

You have 14 “Useful Links” on the homepage of your website, including links to an encyclopedia of sushi, a chart of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, and Project Gutenberg. Why did you decide to also include a link to Boeing’s homepage?

Because I like planes. As a guy who thinks about systems, this is one of the ultimate systems things. You have to have perfect materials, you have to have aluminum and steel, you have to have a prime mover—the beautiful engine. I wrote a whole book about the prime movers of globalization, about jet engines and about diesel engines. To fly them, you have to have these electronic controls, and you have to check the weather, and you need satellites and communication. It’s amazing. It’s a super system. Plus, you have to have the airport with the runways built from heavy concrete. It’s a beautiful system.

What are some of the topics that you would like to write about but haven’t yet?

Oh, that is a great question. There are like 77 of them, which I will never write because I’m an old man now. I’d love to write many things. I may write some of them yet, and so as not to hex it, I will not mention those things.

I have so many historical things in mind, you know, looking at deep deep history. Not just kings and queens and politicians and murders and battles, but the history of food, the history of building stuff, the material civilization. Ideas get interpreted and re-interpreted, but buildings are buildings.

Ritchie S. King is a reporter and visual storyteller at Quartz, focusing on infographics and interactive features. You can find him on Twitter @RitchieSKing. This article originally appeared on Quartz, a new kind of business publication.

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