Saturday, February 24, 2024

New Yorker profile of Vaclav Smil

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 New Yorker profile of Vaclav Smil.

 Persons of Interest Vaclav Smil and the Value of Doubt A ruthless dissector of unwarranted assumptions takes on environmental catastrophists and techno-optimists. By David Owen February 20, 2024 Vaclav Smil photographed Monday March 12 2018 at the Assiniboine Park Conservatory. Photograph by David Lipnowski Save this story Not long ago, I randomly opened Vaclav Smil’s recent book “Size: How It Explains the World.” 

The first paragraph I read, in a chapter about good and bad design, concerned rubber flip-flops, which Smil described as among the world’s most widely owned individual possessions even though “they provide neither good lateral support nor basic vertical stability.” The following paragraph, about furniture, mentioned “the steadily diminishing share of the rich world’s population that grows food, catches fish, cuts wood, mines minerals and builds structures.” 

The next touched on religious pilgrimages, airports, and commuting to work. In 2018, Elizabeth Wilson, who is the founding director of the Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society at Dartmouth, told Science, “You could take a paragraph from one of his books and make a whole career out of it.” Smil is an emeritus professor of environmental studies at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg. He is best known for his writing about global issues, among them energy, agriculture, population, economics, and climate. He has served as a consultant with the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other institutions. His scholarly interests are eclectic, and he is prolific. “Size,” which was published last May, is not his most recent book; the second edition of “Materials and Dematerialization,” which was first published a decade ago as “Making the Modern World,” came out a month later. Altogether, by his count, he has published forty-eight, beginning with “China’s Energy: Achievements, Problems, Prospects,” in 1976.

 He has four more under way: one about globalization, one about food, a “Size”-like study of speed, and a combined reissue, by Oxford University Press, of two earlier books, which examine the years between 1867 and 1914, the period that he believes did more than any other to shape the modern world. His books typically begin at a trot and maintain the same daydream-defying pace until the final paragraph. The fifth chapter of “Size” includes a detailed critique, with formulas, of what he identifies as the impossible proportions of various characters in “Gulliver’s Travels”: “Properly scaled, an adult Lilliputian would thus have a body mass more than 10 times larger than Swift’s erroneous attribution, and instead of being equivalent to a tiny shrew he would be more like an eastern gray squirrel.” Smil has a sense of humor, but he uses it sparingly; even passages that seem at first to be personal or anecdotal sometimes turn out to be footnoted. 

 Smil is a ruthless dissector of what he believes to be unwarranted assumptions, and not just those of eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish satirical novelists. The first book of his that I read, twenty years ago, was “Energy at the Crossroads,” published by the M.I.T. Press, in which he wrote that the power under the direct control of an affluent American household, including its vehicles, “would have been available only to a Roman latifundia owner of about 6,000 strong slaves, or to a nineteenth-century landlord employing 3,000 workers and 400 big draft horses.” 

He was making a characteristically vivid point about the impact of modern access to energy, most of it produced by burning fossil fuels. No one can doubt that twenty-first-century Americans’ lives are easier, healthier, longer, and more mobile than the lives of our ancestors, but Smil’s comparison makes it clear that most of us underestimate, by orders of magnitude, the scale of the energy transformations that have made our comforts possible. More recently, 

Smil has written about ongoing efforts to address climate change, and about the feasibility of achieving “net zero” by 2050. In “How the World Really Works,” published in 2022, he writes that, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, “despite extensive and expensive expansion of renewable energies, the share of fossil fuels in the world’s primary energy supply fell only marginally”—from eighty-six per cent to eighty-two per cent—and that, during the same period, global consumption of fossil fuels actually increased, by forty-five per cent. 

Those numbers surprise people whose sense of environmental progress is shaped by car commercials and by news stories about breakthroughs in solar panels, algae-based fuels, and organisms that turn carbon dioxide into stone. They also annoy environmentalists who view Smil’s observations as backward-looking and counterproductive, and they contribute to what one journalist described to me recently as Smil’s reputation as “a sourpuss.” Smil dislikes giving interviews. He believes that his books contain everything that anyone needs to know about him, and he told me that he had agreed to be profiled in Science, in 2018, only as a favor to his publisher—a gesture he later regretted. When I approached him about this article, I did so with trepidation. 

We exchanged e-mails almost daily for most of a month, and we had a lengthy telephone conversation. But when I suggested meeting in person, he replied, “As for flying to Manitoba, nobody ever does that (much like nobody ever flies to Topeka).” A quality that runs through all his writing, and that I find both appealing and challenging, is his stubborn skepticism. Toward the end of “How the World Really Works,” he quotes a line, usually attributed to Descartes, that could serve as his own guiding principle: de omnibus dubitandum. Doubt everything. 

 Smil was born in 1943 in what today is the Czech Republic but at the time was the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, which the Nazis had established after invading four years earlier. He deflected my questions about his upbringing other than to say that his childhood,“if a label has to be chosen,” was “normal and happy.” 

Between 1960 and 1965, he was a student at Charles University, in Prague. He described his student years and the ones immediately following them as “a long prelude to the Prague Spring of 1968.” The Prague Spring was a period of liberalization that began with Alexander Dubček’s election as the head of the country’s Communist Party, on January 5th, and ended, seven and a half months later, with a full-scale invasion by Soviet bloc soldiers and tanks. 

Until the Soviets intervened, Smil said, “even ordinary students could access Western papers and journals in the university library.” He studied a broad range of topics related to energy, among them biology, geology, meteorology, demography, economics, and statistics. 

The subject of his undergraduate thesis was “the environmental impacts of coal-fired electricity generation, particularly the effects of air pollution.” His scholarly skepticism, he said, came to him naturally, beginning when he was a teen-ager, and was “mightily reinforced by getting trained as an old-fashioned scientist (in what the Germans call in one of their beloved compounds Naturwissenschaften) beholden to demonstrable realities, strengthened daily by living (until 1969) under the Commies (with their endless lies about everything).” 

 Smil met his wife while both were students, she in medical school. Like thousands of other Czechs, they fled the country before travel restrictions made emigration virtually impossible. They arrived in the United States on August 31, 1969, and he spent two years earning a doctorate, in the geography department at Penn State.

 (The subject of his dissertation was global energy development.) In 1972, the University of Manitoba offered him a job, and he took it. He is fluent in four languages and has studied half a dozen others. His recent reading, he told me, has included Mandelstam and Pasternak in Russian, and the New Testament in Latin. 

His English is excellent but accented, and he speaks it even faster than he writes—so fast that there were parts of our telephone conversation that I didn’t understand until I had listened to a recording with the speed reduced by twenty-five per cent.