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Do We Need to Abandon Growth to Save the Planet?

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Interrogating the planet's most important climate thinkers.

On September 23, the United Nations opened its Climate Action Summit here in New York, three days after the Global Climate Strike, led by Greta Thunberg, swept through thousands of cities worldwide. To mark the occasion, Intelligencer will be publishing “State of the World,” a series of in-depth interviews with climate leaders from Bill Gates to Naomi Klein and Rhiana Gunn-Wright to William Nordhaus interrogating just how they see the precarious climate future of the planet — and just how hopeful they think we should all be about avoiding catastrophic warming. (Unfortunately, very few are hopeful.)

Vaclav Smil cuts an unusual figure in the climate world — an iconoclastic Czech-Canadian scientist, he is often called the person who understands energy transitions better than anyone else in the world. (Bill Gates is a particular fan.) But his view of energy transitions is, famously, dour — that it will take, at least, many more decades to produce a transition to renewable energy than most analysts and advocates predict and that a total transition may prove tremendously difficult.

In his new book, Growth — a dense, 500-page treatise that covers everything from “microorganisms to megacities,” whose afterword we’re excerpting here — Smil makes perhaps an even-more-off-putting proposition: that in order to “ensure the habitability of the biosphere,” we must at the very least move away from prioritizing growth and perhaps abandon it entirely.

Let me start by asking you about the very end of the book. I know so much of this was written in a spirit of caution and care and wanting to avoid drawing long-term, large-scale conclusions from the material. But from my read, at least, it ends on a quite definitive note. “The long-term survival of our civilization cannot be assured without setting limits on the planetary scale.”
That has been always the case. There’s nothing new in this, except many people have been refusing to recognize it.

Can you tell me a bit about how you came to that conclusion?
Speaking as an old-fashioned scientist, I think the message is kind of a primitive and, again, old-fashioned message. 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.

Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology because everybody’s studying what’s communications, writing in code, economics, business administration, liaising the state office, and things like that. This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.

You’ve said that while economists believe we can decouple growth from material consumption, that is “total nonsense.” How much do you think we need to reduce out expectations for economic growth, then?
If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year. There is no 30 percent or 40 percent gross there, really.

It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermal dynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermal dynamic and material limits.

Even the progress in transistors, which I think has been the sort of conceptual model that so many optimists are basing their faith in — even that progress is slowing down considerably.
Technically speaking, we are nearly at the limit. Everything simply has their limits. That’s the message of this book. Everything has its limits. This is why I’m so irritated by this Kurzweilian nonsense — just say it aloud, by 2047, human intelligence will be expanding into the universe at the speed of light. Really? And he is the chief scientific adviser to Google.

I mean, I’m speechless. As a scientist, I’m speechless. These loonies. These people are flying around the world and preaching the vision of singularity by 2047. It’s like, what’s her name? That Goop lady, what’s her name?

Gwyneth Paltrow.
The actress. This is unbelievable, right? The scientific version of Goop.

On climate, tell me where you think we’re headed.
The American way is to have the whole pie and eat it at the same time: we are going to have SUVs everywhere and raspberries from Nicaragua in Europe in January. And transport it by airplane even, and do all these things as we have been doing. In fact, we do even more because now Chinese will copy us.

Think of this Chinese tourism now. Before there would be 100 million Chinese tourists flying every year, only something like 40 million of them are flying.

To deal with that, we’d need a totally different kind of plane or a massive carbon-sequestration project.
Mark my words, there’ll be no massive sequestration of carbon. There hasn’t been any, and there’ll not be any next year, or 2025, or 2030.

Why are you so sure?
The scale. We now make about 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Ten percent of that is 3.7 billion tons. Say 4 billion tons of C02, just to control 10 percent of the problem. This is almost exactly the amount of crude oil we produce. It took us 100-plus years to develop an industry, which is taking 4 billion tons out of the ground and with the gradient, and then taking it up and refining and using it. Now we would have to develop a new industry, which would take 4 billion tons, and store it, push it against the gradient into the ground, and guarantee that it will stay there forever. Something like this cannot be done in five, or 10, or 15 years. And this is 10 percent. So, simply on the matter of scale, carbon sequestration is just simply dead on arrival.

What does that mean for where we’re headed?
We have to do something else. There’s this hope, this great hope of this technical fix. We’ll........

© Daily Intelligencer