Smil’s lengthier books are remarkable for their scope and sheer amount of detailed factual information. Their narrative structures and editorial choices, however, often suffer from the fact that their author rarely seems to have a specific audience in mind. Growth and Energy and Civilization, each over 500 pages in length, are typical of his earlier output.
2.1. Summa Smilia
As historian of technology David E. Nye blurbed on the dust-jacket cover, Energy and Civilization
can be considered the “definitive work on this vital subject”. The book is a revised and expanded version of the earlier primer “Energy in World History” [23
]. As highlighted in the preface, the new text is 60% longer, has 40% more images, more than twice as many references, and builds upon the work of hundreds of scientists, engineers, historians, and economists. Taken together, the addenda, notes and bibliography are the size of a small book. Stylistically, the text consists mostly of short detailed vignettes. Many of these describe a group of people or a specific inventor who contributed the process or product X. X displayed features Y that, in turn, increased productivity by a factor of Z. Smil also throws in a few calculations of his own on subjects such as the energy costs of Roman roads, pre-industrial wind and energy power, the amount of energy required to sustain a female coal bearer in an early nineteenth century Scottish mine, and the power densities of past urban energy supply and use.
Along the way readers learn much beyond the history of technology narrowly construed. Browsing randomly through the book, one comes across the historical use of pack camels in the arid region between Afghanistan and Morocco, the game-changing nature of hydraulic fracturing on the global supply of petroleum products, the nature and productivity of Pre-Columbian agriculture, the technical details and devastation of the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945, the 2015 revised estimates of global energy subsidies compiled by the International Monetary Fund, and the murderous character of Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes. Some of the more exotic references include an 1880 English translation of “The Lusiads” (the 1572 epic Portuguese poem describing Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India), the 1945 “United States Air Force Statistical Digest World War II”, Robert Caro’s massive biography of American President Lyndon B. Johnson, and articles published in outlets such as “Études françaises” and “Extreme Physiology & Medicine”.
While rejecting the label of energy determinist, Smil’s core message is nevertheless that “[c]ivilization’s advance can be seen as a quest for higher energy use required to produce increased food harvests, to mobilize a greater output and variety of materials, to produce more, and more diverse, goods, to enable higher mobility, and to create access to a virtually unlimited amount of information” (pp. 417–418). The ultimate result has been “larger populations organized with greater social complexity into nation-states and supranational collectives, and enjoying a higher quality of life” (p. 385). Smil, however, expresses concern about “environmental externalities” and inequality between those who consume too much (“high-energy countries”) and those who have too little (p. 441). Because of these, he calls for a “commitment to change” (p. 441). Unfortunately, nothing of substance will happen in the short run because energy systems are too complex to be significantly altered by subsidies to technically inferior alternatives, be they wind power or liquid biofuels.
covers some the same ground, but it is a different animal in terms of its ambitions and ultimate goals. Smil describes the book as the most comprehensive study on the modalities of growth in Earth’s life systems in their many “natural, social, and technical forms” [11
] (p. xix), meaning biological organisms, human artifacts (from simple tools to complex machines) and complex anthropogenic systems (from population to economic growth) (Systems are defined as “entities consisting of connected and interdependent parts that make up specific structures and provide desired functions” (p. 303)) The first chapter introduces readers to common growth patterns (e.g., linear, exponential, hyperbolic, sigmoid) and outcomes (e.g., normal and power-law distributions). This is followed by a reworking and repackaging of some the author’s earlier writings on agriculture, technological change, human societies, and other subjects. In the last chapter, Smil puts on his activist hat and worries about environmental abuses and the fate of humanity.
As expected, Smil punctuates his core text with a few quirky calculations such as the number of musical masterpieces Mozart could have produced had he lived beyond the age of thirty-five. He also compiles yet another list of detailed studies written by knowledgeable experts who proved completely clueless about (often short-term) future developments and outcomes. Failed predictions, Smil argues, can often be explained by small variations or external interventions that disrupt the neat progression of an expected growth trajectory in both simpler systems (e.g., weather events on a crop) and in human societies. A striking case of the latter is the unexpected development of hydraulic fracturing that turned the American petroleum production output curve from an asymmetrical bell shape into something of an incomplete bimodal distribution. Readers are also warned never to infer simple and predictable growth patterns on rapid initial take-offs. Cases in point include the historical trajectories of British coal extraction, the sudden halt of Japanese economic growth a generation ago, and a sharp decline in electric car sales.
Although this is obviously not the author’s intent, social scientists and historians already skeptical of crude inferences from the methods and patterns of outcome observed in the domains of the natural sciences to the realm of human actions will feel rather vindicated by Smil’s evidence. After all, what can growth patterns observed in geological processes or simpler life forms really tell us about creative individuals willing to dissent from the status quo, consumers with evolving preferences, or market economies characterized by an ever more complex and refined division of labor? What is the analog to rapid and sometimes drastic changes brought about by political actors, such as the displacement of laissez faire and fiscal conservatism by new tax and spend policies, targeted “green” subsidies and bans on conventional energy production and transport? Smil agrees to an extent, especially when discussing the “role of the basic sociopolitical setting on economic growth and individual prosperity” by “comparing outcomes in countries controlled for decades by Communist parties with the achievement of neighboring nations” (e.g., North and South Korea, East and West Germany) (p. 417). In the end though, he reverts to the default position of most environmental scientists that humans should be treated like other living creatures and ecosystems because they are subjected to immutable natural laws.
2.2. “Numbers Don’t Lie”, but They Don’t Tell the Right Story, Either
Smil’s neo-Malthusian outlook permeates much of his work. His recent output is no exception. In one of Growth
’s few paragraphs without numbers or references, he contends that Malthus’ basic assumption is “unassailable” for “the power of population growth is indeed much greater than the capacity to produce adequate subsistence”, at least when “population growth is unchecked” [11
] (p. 317). He does acknowledge, however, that Malthus was wrong to think that a food shortage would keep populations in check. Smil further admits that economic growth proved to be the best contraceptive. As he is often fond of stating, “numbers don’t lie”. Strangely though, the remarkable increases in agricultural yields and total food production do not ultimately tell a tale of human achievement and creativity, but rather of humanity having tapped into its finite store of natural resources and having failed miserably to tackle environmental impacts. These are said to constitute “high direct and indirect energy subsidies” [11
] (p. 317).
Unlike most economists who have long viewed an ever expanding division of labor as the necessary foundation of further growth and development, Smil, like many other sustainability theorists before him, laments instead the “loss of such valuable, flexible skills as the ability to grow one’s own food or to repair a range of small machines” [11
] (p. 439). Readers, however, are not told how much one should push back against the division of labor. Is a hobby gardener allowed to buy pre-packaged seeds and plastic sheeting? Can a hobby mechanic plug his equipment in a functioning electrical outlet and grid? Most importantly, how is growing one’s own food a better use of one’s limited time than investing in the further development of specialized marketable skills and, in the process, better provide for one’s family? Indeed, how many pioneers who could build a log cabin and grow food without external inputs wouldn’t want to trade their situation with that of a relatively less skilled 21st century delivery truck driver?
Smil’s key conclusion is straightforward: One should not be blinded by Moore’s law (i.e., the doubling approximately every two years of transistors and other components emplaced on a silicon wafer) for all natural growth on Earth, including economic growth, must eventually end. In a few paragraphs he tells his readers that economic growth is ultimately unsustainable because it is based on “anthropogenic insults to ecosystems” [11
] (p. 492). Dematerialization is a mirage because “decoupling economic growth from energy and material inputs contradicts physical laws”. A circular economy is nonsensical for “modern economies are based on massive linear flows”. In the end, the dominant model of economic progress is incompatible with the preservation of a habitable biosphere and humanity must “put an end to material growth and forge a new society that would survive without worshipping the impossible god of continuously increasing consumption” [11
] (p. 497).
While Smil mentions or refers to a few sophisticated Promethean writers such as Merrill K. Bennett, Julian Simon, Herman Kahn, and Joel Mokyr, like most sustainable development theorists he proves incapable of engaging them seriously. Instead, he dismisses pro-growth policy analysts as being disproportionately “economists, lawyers, and techno-optimists” who “rarely think about the biosphere’s indispensability for the survival of human societies” [11
] (p. 510). To the extent he discusses the economic way of thinking, Smil mostly limits himself to criticizing concepts or approaches that have long been the favorite whipping boys of environmental studies scholars, e.g., GDP statistics, models that treat innovation as an exogenous factor, and a failure to appreciate the fundamental role of energy in economic activities. In short, his neo-Malthusianism is of the kind one encounters at most environmentalist academic meetings, for not only is techno-optimism boiled down to a soulless straw human, but it is also denied a competent defense and drowned under incantations of Kenneth Boulding’s famous mantras that “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist” or else that society needs to move from a “cowboy economy” to a “spaceman economy” [11
] (pp. 492–493).
To a Promethean reader, Growth
is more akin to a grandiose Malthusian legal brief than a balanced assessment of an ancient and perennial debate. This will not surprise long-time readers of Smil, for the book doesn’t contain anything that he hasn’t already stated in more detail before. For instance, in his 2013 book Made in the USA
Smil disparaged the “growth imperative of modern economies” as “obviously unsustainable” because of the second law of thermodynamics [18
] (p. 11). He even went as far as rephrasing his conclusion by using the titles of then popular pessimistic books: Because “materials matter… we should stop shoveling fuel for a runaway train of economic growth… embrace the logic of sufficiency… confront consumption… and make a break with the throwaway culture… by reasserting self-control” [18
] (pp. 11–12). Smil’s thinking is also what one expects from the author of another book titled “Harvesting the Biosphere. What we have taken from nature” [24
]. As he further re-stated in a recent interview: “This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology” [19
Yet, Professor Smil also knows that the core arguments put forward by neo-Malthusians over the last two centuries have not withstood the test of time in market economies. As he documents in Growth
and many other writings [25
], there is now so much food in most parts of the world that many poor people suffer from obesity rather than calorie deficiencies. In Energy and Civilization
, he specifically dismisses concerns about “the rising use of fossil fuels [as] a cause for concern about their early exhaustion” or “the early onset of unbearably rising real costs of recovering these resources” [21
] (pp. 424–425). Indeed, not only has there never a shortage of non-renewable commodities in functioning market economies, but the inflation-adjusted price of most valuable commodities has often gone down drastically, indicating greater availability in spite of rapidly rising consumption [26
Faced with the facts that supply numbers don’t lie, many neo-Malthusians have long pivoted towards claims of present or future irreversible environmental degradation as a result of population growth, overproduction, and overconsumption [27
]. As perhaps best stated over five decades ago by Resources for the Future staffer Henry Jarrett, the “underlying causes” of problems such as “lowered environmental quality, smoggy atmosphere, polluted streams, noise [and] land skinned by strip mining” have long been believed by many “to be seen in the same statistics that most of the time are hailed as indicators of economic growth” [28
] (pp. viii–ix). Smil shares this assumption and consequently calls for learning to live within solar and biospheric limits, which would involve a “delinking of social status from material consumption” [21
] (p. 440). Yet, in a harsh review of Jared Diamond’s best-seller “Collapse”, Smil also commented that the most frequently invoked historical examples of environmental destruction as a result of population growth and alleged unsustainable societal practices (e.g., Rapa Nui, Norse settlements in Greenland) failed to conform to the environmentalist narrative and were at any rate of little if any relevance for more resilient advanced societies [29
]. Smil’s writings on the Chinese environment also suggest that economic growth coupled with even partial institutional reform can go a long way in addressing seemingly hopeless predicaments [30
Like many present-day environmentalists, Smil’s claims of massive environmental degradation are ultimately based on rather extreme and controversial scenarios and analytical frameworks such as the sixth mass extinction [31
] or the Stockholm’s Resilience Center’s planetary boundaries [32
]. Needless to say, such catastrophist claims have a long history. For example, over a century ago scientific management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor summed up contemporary fears as follows: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight” [33
] (p. 5). The President of the New York Zoological Society and prominent eugenicist Henry Fairfield Osborn similarly observed at the time that, with the exception of conservation areas, nowhere was “nature being destroyed so rapidly as in the United States” [34
] (n.p.). Not only did “vulgar advertisements hide the landscape”, but “air and water are polluted, rivers and streams serve as sewers and dumping grounds, forests are swept away, and fishes are driven from the streams. Many birds are becoming extinct, and certain mammals are on the verge of extermination” [34
] (n.p.). While there were indeed severe problems at the time, they proved largely manageable in later decades. Indeed, environmental indicators such as air and water quality and the extent of the forest cover suggest that the American environment is now in a better (or at least less bad) state than it was a century ago despite a population that more than tripled in size and is now considerably wealthier [35
]. In the end, if not all environmental trends are good everywhere, one can hardly deny that, with the exception of carbon dioxide emissions, most environmental indicators in societies that have experienced significant economic growth have long shown (often major) improvement over time [35
Smil also echoes another long-standing complaint of neo-Malthusians, i.e., the deleterious impact of greater population numbers and increased material wealth on the need for the psychological (or spiritual or affective) flourishing one experiences as a result of encountering natural beauty, avoiding large crowds and enjoying other life forms (“biophilia”). In his case, this takes the form of light pollution that interferes with his enjoyment of a “starry sky bisected by the Milky Way” or East Asian tourists who ruin his contemplation of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” at the Museo del Prado [11
] (p. 499). In this, Smil echoes illustrious predecessors such as economist John Stuart Mill who commented in 1848 that if there was indeed enough room for population growth “supposing the arts of life to go on improving” and “capital to increase”, it was nonetheless “not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species” because a “world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal” [37
] (n.p.). Solitude, he argued, was essential to improve one’s character, such as when meditating in “the presence of natural beauty and grandeur”.
A century later, best-selling eco-catastrophist author William Vogt wrote that contemplating the “Peruvian Andes, high above the timberline, where the vast and ancient movement of the earth’s crust lies recorded before the eyes of any observer who will stop to look, are so majestic, so awe-inspiring”, that it created in him an experience similar to listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony [38
] (pp. 94–95). To people able to appreciate the perfection and richness of natural beauty, Vogt added, environmental destruction arose the same kind of feelings that a Frenchman would experience if someone slashed the Mona Lisa. In his 1957 presidential address to the Population Association of America, prominent population economist Joseph Spengler stated that “an overworked stork is the enemy of the beautiful” [38
] (p. 61). His 1965 presidential address to the American Economic Association similarly decried Americans “prepared to trade natural grandeur and ‘spontaneous activity of nature’” for “junkyards and carscapes” in a failed attempt to access “‘God’s great open spaces’” [39
] (p. 5). Indeed, Spengler observed, “some hold [economist] J. K. Galbraith had better label ours an effluent society than an affluent one” [39
] (p. 10).
While environmental regulations and public education campaigns undoubtedly played a role in cleaning up the environment of ever wealthier societies, what Smil and other prominent neo-Malthusians have long failed to grasp is that market-based economic development has always contained the seeds of both improved standards of living and environmental remediation. I now turn to a discussion of their key arguments.