Vaclav Smil and the Value of Doubt

A ruthless dissector of unwarranted assumptions takes on environmental catastrophists and techno-optimists.
Vaclav Smil photographed Monday March 12 2018 at the Assiniboine Park Conservatory.
Photograph by David Lipnowski

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.

A dozen years ago, I interviewed a highly regarded chemistry professor at a major American university. He surprised me by saying that his job forced him to spend so much time travelling that he had the same better-than-first-class status on American Airlines that the character played by George Clooney has in the 2009 movie “Up in the Air.” He needed to travel, he explained, because in many ways the most important and time-consuming part of his job was soliciting funding, all over the world, for the research that his graduate students performed in his lab. When I mentioned this to Smil, he said that what I had described was the modern ideal of the scientist, “just flying around, drumming up monies,” and that he detested it. He has never relied on grad students. “I used to run madly among libraries,” he said, but he now makes heavy use of online resources, among them the Web of Science, to which the university still gives him access, and Gallica, a multicentury digital archive created by the National Library of France. He loves classical music, but is “absolutely tone-deaf” and plays no instruments. He has a good memory for big numbers and can do many calculations in his head. His ideas come to him, he said, when he walks, reads, wakes up in the morning, sits on airplanes, or cooks, including favorite Japanese dishes. (He began visiting Japan in 1978, and co-wrote a book about the evolution of the modern Japanese diet). “I just write my books, much as a plumber fixes pipes and garbagemen haul away junk,” he said. “I mean it, no introspection; it is just a kind of work I like and can do.”

Smil has written a great deal about renewable-energy technologies, and he has said that their implementation cannot continue to grow quickly enough to fully negate the global increase in over-all energy demand during the next two or three decades. Unrealistic expectations for such technologies, he has written, arise in part from inappropriate extrapolation from the extraordinarily fast and sustained evolution of solid-state electronics, beginning, roughly seventy-five years ago, with the invention of the transistor. In 1965, Gordon Moore—later a co-founder of Intel—observed that the number of components that could be etched on a single microchip doubled roughly every two years. The number of such components grew from a few thousand in the nineteen-seventies to tens of billions today, a phenomenon that’s often referred to as Moore’s Law. Even for microchips, that rate may be slackening, but its application in most other areas has always been problematic. In “Invention and Innovation,” which M.I.T. published last year, Smil writes, “We are told that rapid exponential growth, driven by digitization and advances in AI, already prevails in such fields as solar cells, batteries, electric cars, and even urban farming.” Such growth, where it actually does exist, can’t continue permanently, he argues. Belief that it can, in his view, is consistent with what he described to me as “America’s Barnumian approach to science and innovation, where every dubious claim is treated as ‘transformative change’ and where every patently impossible promise”—nuclear fusion, high-temperature superconductivity, the colonization of Mars—“is worshipped as another effusion of history’s most brilliant minds.”

In “Growth,” which M.I.T. published, in 2019, Smil takes the same expansive approach to his subject that he does in “Size”—the subtitle is “From Microorganisms to Megacities”—but he does so in smaller type and at almost double the page count. In a brief review in Foreign Policy, Keith Johnson wrote that “the best way to appreciate Vaclav Smil’s latest doorstopper is to take a deep breath, walk across the room, and pick up the book from wherever it landed after being tossed away for the umpteenth time as impenetrable, incomprehensible mush.” But Johnson did pick it up, and, in the next paragraph of his review, he describes “Growth” as “fascinating, compelling—and ultimately convincing.”

In the book’s preface, Smil writes that most growth processes—“of organisms, artifacts, or complex systems”—can be plotted on a so-called S-shaped, or sigmoid, growth curve, meaning that the rate of change increases slowly at first, then increases rapidly, then levels off. An error that humans make with similarly predictable regularity is to assume that the nearly vertical middle segment of an S-shaped curve can continue at that angle indefinitely (the price of Dutch tulips in the seventeenth century, the price of bitcoin in the twenty-first). One of his conclusions is that the steady, unceasing economic expansion that economists and politicians dream of is not sustainable, and that the relentless pursuit of growth is environmentally disastrous. Smil has often said that he doesn’t make forecasts—“a pathetically and inexorably ever-failing endeavor on any level,” he told me—but predictions of a kind are implicit in much of his work. In “Growth” ’s coda, he writes, “Continuous material growth, based on ever greater extraction of the Earth’s inorganic and organic resources and on increased degradation of the biosphere’s finite stocks and services, is impossible”—a principle that, in various forms, animates almost all his work, beginning with his undergraduate thesis.

This framework explains why Smil is deeply skeptical about what he views as unrealistic climate goals. He writes, “The predilection of grand global meetings (as well as of national strategies) to set decarbonization targets at years ending in zero or five (45 percent less carbon by 2030 globally; no carbon emissions from US electricity generation by 2035; net zero carbon globally by 2050) is an obviously arbitrary exercise and meeting these goals would require extraordinary technical and economic transformation on the global scale”—a transformation that the world ultimately must make, he believes, but that cannot be achieved within the time frames now commonly predicted for it. The multinational agreement that was reached in December at cop28—the twenty-eighth annual climate-change conference conducted by the United Nations—has been described as mildly encouraging, but viewing its adoption as a watershed moment requires a heroic suspension of disbelief, and not only because the United Arab Emirates, which hosted the meeting, has almost tripled its electricity consumption since 2000 and still produces by far the largest portion of it by burning natural gas and oil.

There are other reasons for skepticism. Norway is often cited as a global role model, because it generates the vast majority of its electricity hydroelectrically. But Norway is an unusual case. It has a small population and an abundance of dammable rivers, and its economy still depends, as it has for decades, on exports of oil and natural gas, revenues from which have enabled it, among other things, to deeply subsidize its citizens’ electric vehicles. Australia, similarly, has significantly increased its clean-energy infrastructure. But since the early nineties it has also more than doubled its production of coal, much of which it exports to China. China, in turn, both produces and burns more coal than any other country in the world, and has partly achieved its extraordinary economic growth, Smil told me, “by quadrupling its combustion of fossil carbon.” In the United States, electricity production by wind and solar has grown in recent years, and dependence on coal has fallen, but we burn so much more natural gas than we used to that our total consumption of fossil fuels remains close to what it was twenty-five years ago.

The recent slowing of China’s rate of industrialization—S-shaped curves eventually flatten—has not ended its reliance on fossil fuels; the Chinese are still building new coal-fired power plants at the rate of roughly two a week. Not that long ago, Beijing was still a city of bicycles; today, it’s plagued by air pollution, much of it produced by cars. China is the world’s leader in the manufacture of electric vehicles, but it’s also the world’s leader in generating electricity by burning coal. India’s road network, which is already the world’s second longest, after ours, is growing rapidly.

China’s energy consumption will likely peak before 2030, Smil said, but India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and countries in sub-Saharan Africa, among others, are already aiming to follow its growth example. “Don’t forget that at least two and a half billion people around the world still burn wood and straw and even dried dung for everyday activities—the same fuels that people burned two thousand years ago,” he continued. For many years to come, he added, economic growth in such places will necessarily be powered primarily by coal, oil, and natural gas. “They will do what we have done, and what China has done, and what India is trying to do now,” he said. The rate at which the world decarbonizes, he continued, will be determined by them, not by us.

Last May, Smil gave an interview to a writer from “California Energy Markets,” a news outlet for that state’s primary-energy suppliers and buyers. (“Invention and Innovation” had just been published.) The headline was “No Easy Solutions for Climate Change, Scientist Vaclav Smil Says.” A particular challenge in the transition away from fossil fuels, he told the writer, is the scarcity of interconnected long-distance electricity-transmission infrastructure. This is an issue that is older than any effort to deal with climate change, but one consequence of it is that moving electricity from places where wind and sunshine are plentiful to places where they are not is often infeasible. “This is not only a U.S. problem,” he said. “Canada also has no national grid, and even the much more densely populated E.U. does not have sufficient connections to bring electricity generation by large wind projects in the North Sea southward.” In the same interview, he said, “The most immediate way to lower carbon emissions is to shut down all coal-fired plants. Theoretically fine, but practically impossible—and even if the U.S. were to do so immediately, China and India will not.”

The day after that interview appeared online, David Roberts, who produces a podcast called “Volts,” posted a link on X and commented, “This dude gets more useless & irrelevant with each passing day & it clearly offends his ego.” Smil has never posted anything on social media, but he mentioned Roberts’s tweet to me and was clearly bothered by it. In an e-mail, he told me, “A few months ago, a guy with an undergrad degree in philosophy wrote that I know absolutely nothing about energy, not even the basic physics.” Roberts’s philosophy degree is actually a masters—his undergraduate degree was in English—but his podcast is well regarded, and his library of episodes includes substantive interviews with many prominent environmentalists, climate scientists, and entrepreneurs. Roberts and I spoke on the phone, and he told me that he hadn’t actually read much of Smil’s work, and that most of what he knew about him and his books was based on other people’s characterizations. He said that his impression was that Smil enjoyed “being the hardheaded, realistic one” and “bringing down other people’s silly dreams and fantasies.” I asked him if he felt that the difference in outlook was age-related. (Smil is three decades older.) He said that he thought there was “definitely a generational piece,” but that, at every age level, there exists “a whole family of commentators who spend their days yelling at green activists for being unrealistic.”

The antipathy that some environmentalists feel toward Smil may be partly a result of intellectual company he has sometimes been willing to keep. His 2010 book, “Energy Myths and Realities,” was published not by M.I.T. or Oxford but by the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank whose public positions, even today, include deep skepticism about climate change. That book received a dust-jacket blurb from Robert Bradley, a former Enron executive and the C.E.O. of the Institute for Energy Research, which was co-founded by Charles Koch and has been tagged by Greenpeace as a promoter of debunked scientific studies on a long list of environmental topics. (From Bradley’s blurb: “Smil combines basic economics, technological understanding, and historical insight to skewer false energy visions. Energy reality, he reminds us, is determined by the free marketplace, not by words or wishes.” This isn’t false, but, given Bradley’s climate agenda, it’s misleading.) Smil told me that he had published the book with the A.E.I. because an editor he had written essays for elsewhere had taken a job there, but it’s also like him to dismiss what he thinks of as lazy accusations of guilt by association: in his view, scientific facts are scientific facts, no matter who puts them in print. In an e-mail, he told me, “I have never belonged to any political party, I am a life-long solo sailor and I am appalled at the level of incivility and mad partisanship to which the US discourse has deteriorated: after all, enterprise has built America but is it now detestable to publish a factual text with an institution devoted to its promotion?”

The Inflation Reduction Act, which Congress passed in 2022, is by far the U.S. government’s most ambitious effort to address climate change, and it does so largely by creating tax credits and other incentives intended to hasten this country’s transition from fossil fuels. The I.R.A., notably, is not a call for cutting back. Leah Stokes—a professor of environmental politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a significant contributor to the drafting, passage, and implementation of the act—has said, in an interview, “The things we’re talking about are not about sacrifice; they’re actually about abundance. They’re about creating a cooler, more exciting and better future.” The future that Stokes envisions will be built on heat pumps, solar panels, and the electrification of everything, everywhere. Saul Griffith, an Australian-American engineer, has also been deeply involved in the I.R.A. (I wrote about Griffith in this magazine in 2010.) Griffith is a co-founder of Rewiring America, an organization for which Stokes is the senior policy counsel, and he is the author of “Electrify: An Optimist’s Playbook for Our Clean Energy Future,” which M.I.T. published, in 2021. Once we’ve electrified, he writes in that book, “Our citizens can keep pretty much all of the complexity and variety promised by the American dream, with the same-sized homes and vehicles, while using less than half the energy we currently use.”

All this might be thought of as the anti-Smil position. Stokes and Griffith have both been interviewed at length on “Volts,” and the case that they, Roberts, and like-minded climate thinkers make is that the world’s transition to renewables has reached a critical threshold, and that we won’t have to deprive ourselves of First World luxuries in order to reach the ultimate goal. But there are reasonable questions. One is whether enough of us can be counted on to think and act as logically as college professors and engineers, even with tax breaks dangled in front of us. For centuries, humans have routinely converted improvements in efficiency into increases in consumption. In an e-mail, Smil told me that, in terms of per-capita energy use in the United States, “there is no indication that many kinds of better efficiencies have combined to bring any notable savings.” The average American used two hundred and eighty-five gigajoules in 2012, he said, and two hundred and eighty-four gigajoules in 2022, despite significant efficiency gains in every category. And our record would look worse if, during the past few decades, American companies hadn’t shifted so much manufacturing to fossil-fuel-powered factories in Asia.

This dilemma is easy to see on American roads. The best-selling vehicles in the United States last year were Ford F-Series pickup trucks (which for many drivers have taken the place of station wagons). As has often been observed, many models get roughly the same number of miles per gallon as the Ford Model T, which was first manufactured in 1908. But the reason is not that modern engines are inefficient. On the contrary, they’re so remarkably efficient that they now power vehicles that weigh multiples of what the Model T did, despite being loaded with power-hungry features and requiring comparatively little maintenance. In all our vehicles, no matter how they’re powered, improvements in energy efficiency often result in increases in curb weight. A Tesla Cybertruck weighs more than three tons; an all-electric GMC Hummer EV’s battery pack alone weighs almost a ton and a half, or roughly eight hundred pounds more than an entire Mitsubishi Mirage. Manufacturing those vehicles is energy- and raw-material-intensive, and it has devastating environmental impacts beyond adding to the atmosphere’s carbon load. And the taste for ever-larger vehicles isn’t just an American foible. “Until the 1960s,” Smil writes in “Growth,” “both European and Japanese cars weighed much less than US vehicles but since the 1970s their average masses have shown a similarly increasing trend.” (If you’ve driven a full-size rental car in Europe in recent years, you may have noticed that the dimensions of European parking spaces have not kept up.) “Net zero” is a target that doesn’t stay put.

Even to raise issues like these is to risk being labelled a climate-change sourpuss. But questioning strategies is not the same as questioning objectives. In an adaptation from “How the World Really Works” published by Yale Environment 360 in 2022, Smil wrote, “The problem is that rather than take a clear-eyed look at the enormous challenges of phasing out the fossil fuels that are the basis of modern industrial economies, we have ricocheted between catastrophism on one hand and the magical thinking of ‘techno-optimism’ on the other.” Smil has described himself as neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but merely as someone who presents “correct statistics and engineering realities.” Yet he also told me that “upholding rationality in an utterly mad world leads nowhere” and that he sees “no point in throwing more dry peas against the wall of ignorance and self-satisfied but grossly misinformed ‘greenness.’ ”

Whether that strikes you as a good thing or a bad thing may depend, at least in part, on how you feel about the value of doubt. Thus far, the world has mostly failed to meet even relatively unambitious climate goals. Is that about to change? In a podcast in 2021, David Roberts said that one reason he believes the abandonment of fossil fuels will move faster than skeptics like Smil think is that the change is “not merely a transition from one set of physical energy sources to another (though it is that, too),” but is also partly “a transition from the physical to the digital.” That is the techno-optimist position. If it’s correct, we have nothing to worry about. But what if it’s not? ♦