Vaclav Smil on Growth

Yet another interesting book I haven’t read yet:

• Vaclav Smil, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2019.

As I hope you know, Vaclav Smil is an expert on energy, food, population, and economics, who assembles and analyzes data in fact-filled books like Energy and Civilization: a History.  Bill Gates has said “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next ‘Star Wars’ movie.”

He was interviewed here:

• Jonathan Watts, Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’, 21 September 2019.

The interview begins:

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?

The facts here are fascinating but the question is absurd. Are we really sinking into such anti-intellectualism that a journalist feels the need to start a conversation with a scientist by asking if he sees himself as a “nerd”?

I’d have been tempted to reply “First, can I ask if you see yourself as a twit?” Smil more wisely replied:

Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it.

Here’s why he wrote the book:

I have deliberately set out to write the megabook on growth. In a way, it’s unwieldy and unreasonable. People can take any number of books out of it–economists can read about the growth of GDP and population; biologists can read about the growth of organisms and human bodies. But I wanted to put it all together under one roof so people could see how these things are inevitably connected and how it all shares one crystal clarity: that growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that.

He advocates degrowth in some places… but growth in others:

[…] it’s important not to talk in global terms. There will be many approaches which have to be tailored and targeted to each different audience. There is this pernicious idea by this [Thomas] Friedman guy that the world is flat and everything is now the same, so what works in one place can work for everyone. But that’s totally wrong. For example, Denmark has nothing in common with Nigeria. What you do in each place will be different. What we need in Nigeria is more food, more growth. In Philippines we need a little more of it. And in Canada and Sweden, we need less of it. We have to look at it from different points of view. In some places we have to foster what economists call de-growth. In other places, we have to foster growth.

I’m sure his book will be more interesting than these quotes, because it’ll be full of well-organized and important facts—and the questions surrounding growth are some of the most pressing of our age.

5 Responses to Vaclav Smil on Growth

  1. rovingbroker says:

    Another view on growth …

    The Return of Nature
    How Technology Liberates the Environment

    https://thebreakthrough.org/journal/issue-5/the-return-of-nature

    Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature, stripping and despoiling it, and reducing acreage left. Then, in about 1940, acreage and yield decoupled in the United States. Since then American farmers have quintupled corn while using the same or even less land.
    [ … ]
    Crucially, rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs. The inputs to agriculture have plateaued and then fallen — not just cropland but nitrogen, phosphates, potash, and even water. A recent meta-analysis by Wilhelm Klümper and Matin Qaim of 147 original studies of recent trends in high-yield farming for soy, maize, and cotton, funded by the German government and the European Union, found a 37 percent decline in chemical pesticide use while crop yields rose 22 percent. This is the story of precision agriculture, in which we use more bits, not more kilowatts or gallons.
    [ … ]
    In addition to peak farmland and peak timber, America may also be experiencing peak use of many other resources. Back in the 1970s, it was thought that America’s growing appetite might exhaust Earth’s crust of just about every metal and mineral. But a surprising thing happened: even as our population kept growing, the intensity of use of the resources began to fall. For each new dollar in the economy, we used less copper and steel than we had used before — not just the relative but also the absolute use of nine basic commodities, flat or falling for about 20 years. By about 1990, Americans even began to use less plastic. America has started to dematerialize.
    [ … ]
    But even Californians economizing on water in the midst of a drought may be surprised at what has happened to water withdrawals in America since 1970. Expert projections made in the 1970s showed rising water use to the year 2000, but what actually happened was a leveling off. While America added 80 million people –– the population of Turkey –– American water use stayed flat. In fact, US Geological Survey data through 2010 shows that water use has now declined below the level of 1970, while production of corn, for example, has tripled (Figure 11). More efficient water use in farming and power generation contribute the most to the reduction.

    Interesting stuff. Much more at the link.

  2. rovingbroker says:

    On Degrowth …

    Evidence of a Decline in Electricity Use by U.S. Households

    Abstract

    This paper shows that U.S. households use less electricity than they did five years ago. The decrease has been experienced broadly, in virtually all U.S. states and across all seasons of the year. This pattern stands in sharp contrast to steady increases throughout previous decades and has significant implications for household budgets, energy markets, and the environment. I discuss some of the implications of the decline and then take preliminary steps toward identifying potential explanations. While multiple factors have contributed, I argue that the rapid emergence of LEDs and other energy efficient lighting has played a particularly important role.

    http://e2e.haas.berkeley.edu/pdf/workingpapers/WP030.pdf?mod=article_inline

    Via the Wall Street Journal

    Americans Are No Longer Gluttons for Electricity—Thank the LED Bulb
    After increasing 10-fold between 1950 and 2010, average residential consumption dipped

    “Is this a small pause?” he asked. “Or will we all buy electric vehicles?”

    That would reduce vehicle emissions by half. But, Dr. Davis said, it would accelerate household electricity use by 20% overnight.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/americans-are-no-longer-gluttons-for-electricitythank-the-led-bulb-11570791602?mod=hp_lead_pos9

  3. I noticed that as well — that Vaclav Smil writes essentially a similar book every year on the topic of FF depletion and transforming the energy economy.

  4. Giampiero Campa says:

    It definitely looks like a great book, I’ve put it in my list, thanks!

    By the way, a couple of years ago I read perhaps a similar one, “Scale” by Geoffrey West, of SFI:

    However, while that book was interesting, I personally didn’t like that much, for various reasons. Still, definitely worth reading overall.

  5. rovingbroker says:

    One more “interesting book I haven’t read yet, “More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources–and What Happens Next,” by Andrew McAfee. McAfee is interviewed on this week’s EconTalk.

    Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Sloan School of Management talks about his book, More from Less, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. McAfee argues that technology is helping developed nations use fewer resources in producing higher levels of economic output. The improvement is not just a reduction in energy per dollar of GDP but less energy in total as economic growth progresses. This “dematerialization” portends a future that was unimaginable to the economists and pundits of the past. McAfee discusses the potential for dealing with climate change in a dematerialized world, the non-material aspects of economic progress, and the political repercussions of the current distribution of economic progress.

    https://www.econtalk.org/andrew-mcafee-on-more-from-less/

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