The Paradoxical Malthusian. A Promethean Perspective on Vaclav Smil's Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (MIT Press, 2019) and Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017)

Pierre Desrochers
2020 Energies  
Prolific energy writer Vaclav Smil's "Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities" (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2019) is marketed as the most comprehensive study of the modalities of growth in Earth's life systems in their many natural, social, and technological forms. While the book reflects Smil's strength as a polymath, it also brings into focus his Malthusian outlook. Smil's Malthusianism is puzzling in light of much empirical evidence to the contrary and of his own detailed histories of
more » ... man technological achievements, including his recent massive synthesis "Energy and Civilization: A History" (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2017). In keeping with Smil's historical emphasis, in this review essay, the Malthusian assumptions, assertions, and conclusions of these books are challenged through the Promethean insights of numerous writers whose output long predates the modern environmental movement and can thus avoid charges of "greenwashing". I make a case that, in the context of market economies (i.e., competition, price system, and private property rights), humans' unique propensity to trade physical goods and to (re)combine things in new ways have long delivered both improved standards of living and environmental remediation. I further suggest that it is not the volume of materials handled, but rather how they are handled that determines the impact of economic growth on the biosphere. While Professor Smil is fond of saying that "numbers don't lie", his work illustrates that they are sometimes made to tell an unduly pessimistic story through the intellectual filters created by an author's assumptions and value judgements.
doi:10.3390/en13205306 fatcat:2ix4dfh4dvfhfndfn7i7do6dei