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.