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Grand Transitions by Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil is a modern day Renaissance man. As the author of more than 40 books, he has incredible range, covering everything from energy and economics to public policy and the environment. His latest book, Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made, exemplifies his interdisciplinary expertise.

As Smil explained in a recent interview, "What I try always to look at is what really makes the world go." Smil not only succeeds in this endeavor, he also manages to explain the interconnections and complexities of grand transitions by “bringing together findings from spheres of research that rarely speak to one another, while refusing to offer the easy rewards of tidy explanation.”


Now, a curious reader may wonder: What is a "Grand Transition," exactly? Basically, it's the four shifts (in populations, agriculture, energy, and economics) that allow billions of people to lead lives that are longer and more secure than ever before. In short, it's the shifts that brought us the modern world. Or, as a Washington Post review put it, "...with choices (of food, work, pleasure) and powers (instantaneous communication, fast and safe travel, the world’s cultural archives at their fingers) that would have struck most previous generations as wild fantasy. We don’t just live like kings: We live like sorcerers."


Such "sorcery" is the essence of these Grand Transitions. In fact, Smil defines a “modern affluent economy” as a society “enjoying a surfeit of food, fuels, and electricity.” Speaking of economics, Smil is surprised by the discipline's shortsightedness. To wit, he finds it remarkable that "the mainstream economic analyses (concerned with capital and labor) have managed to ignore the most important physical factor, [energy]." Somewhat provocatively, Smil says that the onset of modern economic growth can be traced (largely) to declining energy costs and "the discovery and exploitation of inexpensive and highly energy-dense fuels." In sum, energy isn't just part of the economic calculation, it's the prime mover.


Of course, discussions of modern progress inevitably turn to Steven Pinker and his well-known work, "Enlightenment Now." While Smil sympathizes with Pinker's emphasis on the importance of facts and empirical evidence, Smil is skeptical of Pinker's evergreen optimism. Unlike Pinker, Smil does “not believe that the admirable record is the inevitable basis for seeing more of the same in the future.” In other words, past performance is not indicative of future results.


Smil’s major objection to Pinker’s point of view is that “these visions of endless automatic improvements of lives, environment, societies, and economies amount to simplistic escalators in the building whose floors never end.” “This kind of determinism," he adds, "can be read as a profession of yet another belief, one leaving little room for discontinuities, reversals, and unpredictable shifts that have always marked the evolution of our species and its recorded history.” Ultimately, Smil concludes that a historical perspective is needed to correct overly optimistic assumptions: “A student of history might point out that while gains and advances have been real, cycles—rather than inexorable, unidirectional self-reinforcing trajectories—have been always a part of that history.”


If the past persuades us to be pessimistic, what should we make of the future? It is “currently fashionable [to] talk about decoupling energy and economic growth and about dematerialization of future economies," Smil says. Yet, the unfolding economic and environmental transition cannot succeed "unless we recognize the central role of energy and materials and the importance of numerous environmental constraints in human well-being, and unless we come up with fundamentally different approaches to reconcile these imperatives with long-term economic development."


In conclusion, Smil warns that society may be making a serious categorical mistake in its approach to the next "Grand Transition". Namely, “believing that vigorous economic growth can proceed with ever smaller amounts of energy materials," a decoupling which would "contravene fundamental physical principles.” Put differently, while it's certainly possible to get more (economic output) from less (material), it's not possible to get more from nothing. Ironically, for all of its supposed "physics envy," economics may be ignoring the most important physical limit of all---planet Earth.

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