Nathan Gardels, the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine, recently interviewed Vaclav Smil, the Czech-Canadian scientist and policy analyst, to talk about his new book, “Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made” (2021).
Gardels: Your book is about the transitions from past generations to the modern age in four big categories — population, food, energy and the economy. Would you give us a sense of these shifts?
Smil: The most important thing, because it is at the bottom of everything, is population. Demography is destiny in the long run. Because grand shifts happen very slowly, they are often not seen until after the fact, even though change occurs all the time.
From a hundred or so years ago up to the 1970s, we were worried there would be too many of us. People were warning about zillions of humans overrunning the planet’s resources. But in the end, it’s not about the number of people; it’s about their level of consumption.
Many Western countries now have a declining population. Without immigration, there is no Western country that can replace its population over time. China, because of the one-child policy, is below the level of population growth needed for replacement, and even in India, population growth is leveling off. Some countries, including Japan, Romania and several other countries in Europe, are actually declining in absolute numbers.
In the long run, everything will be determined by population growth. On the face of it, that would be a good thing. But pressure on resources doesn’t follow from lower population growth. On the contrary, the smaller families become as they move up the prosperity chain, the more they consume. Less becomes more.
Gardels: The issue then is not population but what a smaller population consumes?
Smil: Yes. It’s consumption. Imagine if you had only two billion people on the planet, but they all consumed at the average American level. God forbid.
People don’t realize just how large the differences in consumption are. Japan is prosperous by any measurement, indisputably affluent; they live longer than anybody else. At least according to data from a few years ago, they consume less than 150 gigajoules per capita, while Americans are at over 250. China is about 95, India 25, sub-Saharan Africa 10. If even a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa reached American levels of consumption, the planet would be stripped.
Gardels: You talk in your book about “delayed catch-up,” by which economic growth and consumption accelerate even more quickly for countries, like China, who had once been left behind. The core impetus of globalization now comes from China more than the West, especially through its Belt and Road project to revive the Silk Road trading routes and spread higher levels of prosperity across Eurasia and Africa. Can the Earth survive China’s success as it aspires to American levels of consumption?
Smil: Probably not, though China has certainly been trying to reach the American level. Only two generations ago, China was at 35 gigajoules. Now it’s close to 100. And they still plan to go to the European level of 130 or 140 as soon as they can.
The question is, can other countries do what China is doing? The answer is that it is not very likely. Places like India and sub-Saharan Africa are progressing much more slowly.
Gardels: There is talk these days of a decisive shift toward a digital economy in the wake of COVID-19. Might that help some countries leapfrog over the inequalities that previously hampered development to reach some level of prosperity?
Smil: It’s been a shift, but people overestimate its impact.
The fundamental thing really is that civilization rests on stuff like steel, cement, plastics, copper and ammonia for fertilizers. There is no digitalization in that. You’ve got to dig up iron ore, smelt it and then turn it into steel. You’ve got to dig up lots of coal and use copious amounts of energy to turn it into coke.
You can digitize the control process, but not the material force. That remains the same. The idea that somehow digitalization is leading to the dematerialization of the economy is ridiculous. The average American car weighs close to two tons. You need two tons of steel and plastic and glass to make that car. You may have digital doodahs in that car, you may even be watching TV while you are driving the car, but the car is composed of two tons of material.
Judging by the sales figures, people in America prefer SUVs and pickup trucks. The Ford F-series pickup trucks have been the best-selling vehicles for over 30 years. It is heavier than it used to be, and more people are buying it. So the amount of materials going into ever more trucks is increasing.
Or think about your cellphone — it weighs less than it did 10 years ago, but now there are billions of them around the world! The total amount of materials going into cellphones has gone up, not down.
People always make a fundamental mistake between relative and absolute dematerialization. What matters is the absolute energy intensity and use of materials.
Gardels: In your book, you warn that the four epochal transitions in population, energy, food and the economy that have made the modern world are themselves at risk now by what you call the “fifth transition” — managing the habitability of the biosphere, and climate change above all.
Smil: I would go much farther, actually, than climate change. I never liked this idea. For decades, I’ve been battling the idea that climate change is the only environmental problem. It’s just one of many environmental problems.
Suppose we had no climate change whatsoever? Suppose carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases had no effect on the climate. We would still have massive deforestation in many countries around the world. We would still have a massive loss of biodiversity. We would still have the problem of hundreds of millions of tons of plastic in the ocean. We would still have classical air pollution. We would still have marine ecosystems acidifying because of fertilizers flowing in.
There are lots of other environmental problems beyond climate change that need to be addressed. So even without global warming, this biosphere is not in great shape.
Managing the biosphere, then, is the main issue, because it’s the only biosphere we’ve got. We are not going to colonize Mars, despite Elon Musk’s enthusiasm. Let’s be clear about that. I remember he said he wanted to send a manned mission there by 2024. He wants to launch massive spaceships to migrate to Mars. I mean, hell, this is beyond ridiculous. It’s totally laughable. This is the only biosphere we have, and we have to take care of it here and now.
Our biosphere is fragile but, fortunately, it is also resilient. That is something many people don’t understand — that it can bounce back. Nevertheless, it is no less true that there are certain levels beyond which it will not bounce back. We can destroy quite a bit, and it will come back, but that can’t go on forever.
Gardels: Are we close to the tipping point when the interrelated cascade of damages reaches the threshold of no return?
Smil: There is no one threshold. There are many different thresholds. A lot of people said that China over the last few years was overdoing the exploitation of its natural resources. I said, “No, it may be constantly collapsing in some places, but it’s also constantly improving elsewhere.”
The same is true about the biosphere. Look what we’ve done in some countries in terms of reforestation, mostly through artificial planting. There is much that is natural and simple about resilience, especially if we assist it. If fields are abandoned, trees take over again. In 1997, nations agreed to limit the use of chlorofluorocarbons to repair the hole in the ozone layer. Today, we don’t worry much about that hole.
As many things keep on improving, of course, many other things will keep on getting worse or not improving at all. What is difficult to determine is the net effect. I couldn’t tell you if we are better off today than 10 years ago because there are different qualities and quantities that are incomparable. It depends on what you focus on and how you want to interpret it. It’s a dynamic process. We are getting better and getting worse at the same time. For that reason, we can be both blasé in some respects and alarmed in others.
Gardels: You have noted in your writing that the big epochal transitions have been uneven. Nations and cultures have advanced at different paces and on different trajectories due to specific cultural attributes. At least on the climate issue, there is a synchronized global awareness. Do you see any possibility of a common sense of “planetary realism” arising to cope with it on a global scale?
Smil: No, because there is a lot of uncertainty about climate change, and rightly so, because it’s a very complex matter. It would require global action for the first time in human history. That doesn’t mean we’d have to rope in Latvia or Cameroon, but we would need at least 20 or 25 of the biggest emitters to cooperate, including Russia, India, the U.S., Europe, China, Brazil and the oil-producing states.
Yes, all those countries signed the Paris climate accord. But what does that agreement even say? People always read just the first page where the parties “solemnly swear” to do their part. Even if they all fulfill their promises, which are not legally binding, it won’t be enough to keep global warming below the goal of 2 degrees Celsius — and many countries aren’t likely to achieve their pledges. So much for stabilizing temperatures, right? Sorry to say, but I just don’t see any global concerted action — it would cut to the very roots of today’s economic model of development.
Let’s look at things as they are: There is no “economy” — there is only energy conversion. Your car, your heated houses, your flights to Europe — all must take a big hit. Unless we invent some miraculous type of energy technology, seriously stemming climate change means we would have to deliberately decrease our standards of living. It’s impossible for everyone on the planet to live like people in Santa Clara County and still have a perfect environment. Just impossible.
Gardels: So what we’re really talking about is adaptation, not mitigation.
Smil: Absolutely. The idea that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 will make a big enough difference is wishful thinking. There are many papers scientifically showing that much more warming is already in the pipeline. We need to admit that the train has left the station. It’s very likely the warming ahead will exceed 2 degrees Celsius at least. So, yes, the realism you speak of must involve coping with rising seas, intense storms, perpetual wildfires and the rest.
Gardels: How do you see adaptation, or some hybrid of mitigation and adaptation, taking shape then?
Smil: Our greatest hope is to finally realize how wasteful we are. We simply need to do what I call “rational management.” We waste up to 40% of all food we grow. And agriculture accounts for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. We release all that into the biosphere to grow food, and then we waste 30, 35, 40% of it every year, year after year.
Now, it’s impossible to run an economy with zero waste. But we could bring down waste to less than 15%. Certainly less than 30. The same is true about energy for transport. Thirty years ago, the best-selling vehicle was not the Ford F-150, but small and medium-sized cars. We waste energy, we waste food, we waste materials — in so many ways.
Think about cellphones again. What is the average lifespan of one now? I don’t have one, but I’m sure you do. I bet you get an advertisement every two weeks about changing to a new one with more gizmos and games. In the West, people replace their cellphones after a couple years or so. These objects contain copper, glass, silver, gold and rare-earth metals and are extremely energy-intensive, yet a lot of people just discard them.
So, one of the most important ways we can mitigate and adapt would be to just become less wasteful on every level. One of my favorite examples is the average size of an American house. In 1950, it was about 1,000 square feet. Now they are 2,500 square feet, even though the size of families has shrunk. People have houses where they don’t even visit some rooms. Think of all the energy conversion going into the materials and construction of that house, not to mention the heating and cooling of it. What a waste!
We could consume so much less and save so much more. Less is more: That should be the mantra of mass adaptation. Because we are so wasteful. And it’s not only us in the West. It’s the Chinese as well. They are gobbling up SUVs and building gated communities with large houses like in California.
Gardels: So, instead of focusing solely on emissions, which are downstream, we should look upstream to curb wasteful consumption.
Smil: Absolutely. We could design a car that could last 35 years if you just put good steel and good materials in it. You could make cars where the engine may have to be overhauled just once in that period.
This could be done, no problem. But we do it the other way around. We design obsolescence. We design waste into our products.
A house is one of the longest-lasting investments people make, but we build them so shoddily. Do you have triple-pane windows in your house? Of course you don’t. I don’t. Almost nobody has triple-pane windows. Why have triple-pane windows? Because you lose about 30% of the energy in your house through your windows.
We ought to seriously pay attention to these things. They are so easy to do. Manufacturing and installing home insulation would also create jobs. Instead of dreaming of inventing some ingenious gizmo to suck carbon out of the air — something that would take many, many years, if it happens at all — why not do something simple, practical and immediately possible, ready to go tomorrow?
It seems we always insist on doing things that are more complicated and wasteful than necessary. There is an old Yiddish saying about scratching your right ear with your left hand, reaching over the top of your head and bending your hand back instead of just scratching with the right hand. This is what we do all the time: waste effort and energy for no purpose. Something simple like triple-pane windows could have a tremendous effect on the biosphere.
Gardels: What you say reminds me of people who make fun of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s practicality and lack of charisma. Once, when she was asked what feelings Germany awakes in her, she replied, “I think of well-sealed windows!”
Smil: She’s a scientist. She’s got a doctorate in quantum chemistry. So she surely understands thermodynamics and that insulation can help save the planet.
Gardels: You said that nature is both fragile and resilient, that there are many thresholds being crossed even as improvements are being made. Is there any one silver bullet, above all, that can salvage the habitability of the biosphere?
Smil: No, there is nothing like that. Never. In complex systems, there is never any one thing that is decisive. Even if we fulfill the Paris accord, warming will still increase.
Suppose we stop selling all SUVs. Suppose people stop flying like crazy, as they did in pre-COVID times. What if people stopped buying massive houses, eliminated food waste and stopped importing blueberries from Peru by highly energy-intensive aircraft?
None of these would do the trick in isolation. That’s the nature of the beast in complex systems. If you attack a single problem, it will impact, say, 6% or 7% of what ails the biosphere. There is no single energy consumption area or environmental issue where, if you fix its problems, 40% of the emissions will vanish.
What we have are lots of small keys to get rid of 3% a year here, 6% there and so on. To assemble such an array of responses requires much more attention, much more consistency and much longer periods of devotion to the problem.
Gardels: At the end of your book, you write that rather than being simplifying maximalists, we should be complexifying minimalists.
Smil: Absolutely — meaning we need to favor a multitude of approaches rather than relying on any single (and purportedly perfect) solution. And I don’t think much is going to change after the COVID pandemic. People are social animals. They will go to bars and cafes even when there are thousands of new infections every day.
It may take a while, but people will be cruising like crazy again, flying just to go somewhere for the weekend. In the long run, there will be much less change than people think now. That is the root of our challenge.