Review of Vaclav Smil’s Growth

First Appeared in Sustainable Population Australia’s Newsletter No. 138 February 2020


Did you know that wandering albatross chicks are up to 1.5 times heavier than their parents? Or that there is no significant difference between the economic performances of republics and monarchies? These are just two of the intriguing facts in Vaclav Smil’s latest book, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

Czech-Canadian academic, Vaclav Smil, is one of the world’s experts on energy and has been named as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
Growth is striking for its level of ambition, traversing an extraordinary sweep of topics: starting with microorganisms, moving to plants and animals, before exploring trends in human energy use and the history of machines, devices, buildings and infrastructure. The final two chapters are most relevant to SPA, considering populations and economies, as well as what comes after growth.
In his section on population, Smil starts with an account of the growth of the global human numbers over the last two million years. Growth then moves to assessing the causes and effects of demographic transition (changing death rates and birth rates) and total fertility rates. Growth then discusses possible future population trends, highlighting that the main uncertainty is future fertility rates, and the global significance of those rates in sub-Saharan Africa. Smil sensibly makes no firm predictions as to future global population numbers, but does discuss Earth’s biophysical constraints on sustainable population levels.

In considering what comes after growth, Smil focuses on the implications for nations of low fertility rates. He particularly discusses Japan, concluding that its infrastructure, health care, food production and global influence will be impacted by its declining population. Readers might criticise Smil’s emphasis on age dependency, but he does not specifically identify it as a problem to be ‘fixed’.

Smil’s treatment is arguably stronger for economies than population. He starts by setting out the dramatic expansion in human economic use of energy, which has increased almost twenty-fold since 1800. Smil then considers the importance of energy inputs and fertilisers to boosting food production, noting that ‘anthropogenic’ energy (essentially fossil fuels) inputs to farming increased by a factor of 130 over the twentieth century.
Growth also covers trends in material economic inputs, particularly steel and cement. Smil makes the point that while many industrial processes have become more efficient, reduced prices have led to greater demands for consumer goods, as Jevon’s paradox would predict. He argues there has been no absolute ‘dematerialisation’ on a macro level. Smil later uses a paper lead-authored by former SPA president, James Ward, to demonstrate that GDP growth cannot be decoupled (long-term) from growth in material and energy use.

Possibly the most interesting part of Smil’s treatment of economies canvasses the sources of economic growth. He supports the argument that the ‘second industrial revolution’ from 1870 – 1900 (with the introduction of internal combustion engines, running water, oil extraction and chemical industries) was more consequential to economic growth than the start of the industrial revolution or the digital revolution. Smil goes on to consider the positive effects of the demographic transition on national economic performance: the demographic dividend.
Those hoping to find a strong position on population will be disappointed; Smil is his own man, often contrarian, and would doubtless vigorously resist co-option into any activist movement. On most matters, Smil retains the scientist’s measured approach and avoids definitive statements on contentious topics. He is, however, scathing of poorly constructed arguments and flawed methodologies. For example, he criticises the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth algorithms for using what he considers are meaningless input variables.

Smil also brings a physicist’s critical eye to neoclassical economics, rehearsing common critiques of GDP as an indicator of national wellbeing. He also criticises neoclassical economics for its failure to recognise the importance of energy inputs and material flows to economic activity, stressing the impossibility of ongoing economic growth. He similarly points out the long-term material impediments to implementing a circular economy.

Smil works his way slowly to his conclusion as he focuses on the global environmental effects of human economic activity. He does not explicitly predict the collapse of the natural environmental or civilisations, or the nature or timing of disruptions. He does, however, firmly assert that the pursuit of economic growth, extending consumerism and treating the biosphere as merely exploitable resources “must change in radical ways”. Smil concludes that “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting…(economic) limits (at) the planetary scale.”

While Growth is not a polemical text, it does contain useful material for the activist. Beyond that, it is a fascinating read.

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