Restless, attentive, and punctilious, Vaclav Smil (Pilsen, Czech Republic, 1943) is the spitting image of a wise man. He has been researching energy return for 40 years. His polyhedral knowledge is based on facts and collected in books, such as the recently published ‘Energy and Civilization’. A story (Harp) or Numbers do not lie: 71 stories to understand the world (Debate). He is so used to the precision of the data that any question seems generalist to him.
He speaks from his home in Winnipeg, Canada, where he arrived almost half a century ago and lives with his wife, without a mobile phone. Retired as a professor of the environment at the University of Manitoba, he assures that there is more progress in the world than regression, “although regression always lurks.”
Economists defend growth. Are they wrong?
Well, no and yes. Many countries need to grow. The question is which ones. In America, they do not need more lawyers. In Europe, there are plenty of bureaucrats in Brussels. But the planet has a supply problem. In five years there will be a shortage of water and food. We must grow in the right direction.
And are we not doing it?
We do not need the Seychelles holidaymaker market to grow. We need Malaysia and Indonesia to grow, but not the United States. And leveraging growth to improve equity is critical. That gross domestic product increases unevenly is not good, although we must assume that a perfectly egalitarian society will never exist.
The growth/happiness equation does not always work.
There are 2 ways to measure things, including emotions. Objectively, indicators such as the suicide rate, divorce or violent crime reveal unhappiness because, if you are well, you do not commit suicide, you are not divorced or you are violent. But there are also subjective indicators. This is where individuals come in: one can be poor and happy. Most people have problems and do not define themselves as unhappy. Let’s see, nobody is very happy in Afghanistan. But the happiness index that results from comparing both indicators indicates that growth does not make you happier. People in Bolivia are happier than the Japanese or the Spanish. Happiness and per capita income are not related.
The world’s largest economies export arms.
Yes. United States, China, Spain … even Canada. It is a global market. Where do you think the Taliban have gotten their weapons from in the last 20 years? They did not produce them in a cave, did they?
Is disarming the world a utopia?
As much as they were prohibited, which will not happen, do you think the owners would return them?
Is the world going to depend on the relations that are established with the Islamic countries?
For centuries there has been fundamentalism in Catholicism. Now it occurs in Islamism. But there is a lot of moderate Islamism, and a lot of ignorance about Islam. Let’s see: which country in the world has the largest Muslim population?
I do not know. Iran?
In India, Hindus are the most widespread population. But Muslims are the second. That is why it is an Islamic country larger than Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
Is economic growth behind obesity? Cancer, for example…?
There is no growth without risk. And those diseases are multifactorial. Every advance carries a risk that must be weighed. It is absurd to try to measure the world in opposite terms. Good and bad are relative.
Everything is relative, but you summarize your information in numbers.
Without data you cannot make decisions. But even if you have the best numbers, you must consider the unpredictable, the non-numerical aspect of each decision. It is easy to reduce CO₂ emissions in Denmark. But Nigeria today lives like the Danes in 1850. What can they be asked to reduce?
Countries that need to grow. Can they be warned of the danger of growing too much?
It is like talking about skin cancer to someone who has a lack of iodine. We are in a global economy, but there is no one-size-fits-all global solution. The western world forgets that. The cost of reducing emissions should not be proportional, but à la carte. It is not the same to grow to survive than to expand the economy. Look at India. It is about to surpass China as the world’s most populous country [the UN expects it by 2027], yet it consumes a third less energy.
Is the expansion of humanity coming to an end?
There are people who do not understand that perpetual growth does not exist. We live on a finite planet. Almost all European countries have already stopped growing. If it were not for immigration, legal and illegal, Europe would not have enough population to pay for pensions.
If immigration is a solution; why is it such an unpopular measure?
If life were similar on one side and the other of the wall between Mexico and the United States, people would not move. Migration is the result of inequality: the poor move to rich countries to survive. It is part of our nature to search for food for our children and flee from conflict or oppression. Dot you not want immigration? It defends equity. Very few countries close like Hungary. However, the time of open doors has passed. Obama noticed it. It must be regulated that the world is a more equitable place.
You came to Canada from Czechoslovakia 50 years ago. Why?
Who wants to live in a communist cage?
Explaining how his way of staying warm has changed, he traces the history of energy: Yes. My father cut fir logs and that system was only 15% efficient. In the United States, we live in an apartment where the heating ran on diesel —67% efficient. I have been in Canada for half my life on natural gas. Our house is 97% energy efficient.
How did you get it?
Insulating the walls and with triple glass. In Spain almost all windows have a single glass. In cold countries they usually have them double. I have triple of them.
Speaking of energy, he sounds like a psychologist: “If you do not control the decline, you succumb to it”.
Of course! Knowing how to deal with decadence is desirable. But not everyone sees it the same. Notice; the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been judged in Europe as the decline of the United States. But that is how it is? Well, it was a free decision: the United States chose to withdraw…