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The War on Growth?

Updated: May 23, 2020

“Growth,” we are told, “attracts adjectives.” Chief among them are ‘anemic’ and ‘disappointing’ on the low-end, and ‘explosive’ and ‘exponential’ on the high. Similarly, the work of Vaclav Smil attracts descriptors ranging from ‘dense’ to ‘magisterial.’ To this list, add another: Encyclopedic.


While Smil recognizes the potential pitfall of too much information, (“the scope of growth studies…is too vast to allow a truly comprehensive single-volume treatment”), the reader does not escape unscathed. As the economist Tyler Cowen has noted, “This book was too much a pile of facts for my taste.” 


Aside from the superb preface, it would be wise to skip the first few hundred pages of Growth. Chapter 2 is particularly arid and impenetrable. A typical sentence reads: “These are prokaryotic organisms without a cell nucleus and without such specialized membrane-enclosed organelles as mitochondria.” To the non-specialist, these dry descriptions (“the chlorophyll content of algal cells”) and scientific jargon (“translocate photosynthate”) serve to discourage even the most avid reader.


Fortunately, by chapter five, Smil’s explanatory powers re-emerge. In short order, he dismantles common misconceptions about cities, GDP, and the (over)valuation of tech companies. Channeling Diane Coyle, he notes GDP is “questionable, both because of how it is accounted for and what it omits.” Smil also eviscerates a Harvard economist for presenting cities “in purely positive terms” and promoting the “misleading simplification” that cities are always ‘greener.’ Smil shows how cities have high consumption levels in terms of food, raw materials, water, and waste. Moreover, per capita energy demand in cities is “significantly higher than in small towns or villages.” 


While Smil prizes reality-based analysis, his antipathy toward optimism occasionally turns into outright pessimism. For instance, he criticizes Google and Facebook's sky-high stock valuations, and grumpily reminds us that “it is perfectly possible to have affluent, productive economies without any of these would-be masters of the universe…” Such a statement is strikingly odd and sounds almost Luddite. What’s worse, it seems Smil is willfully ignoring the paradox of value, wherein “unnecessary” goods and services can command much higher prices than “necessary” ones.


Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the debate over the source of economic growth. Naturally, this involves Joel Mokyr and Robert Gordon, two economists who embody drastically different visions (explained, brilliantly, by The Wall Street Journal). Robert Gordon, for his part, questions the “fundamental Solowian assumption of economic growth.” By contrast, Joel Mokyr has “almost unlimited confidence” in our ability to keep growing. Mokyr also champions Enlightenment ideals, which he argues had more influence on growth than technical advances or business practices.


Overall, Growth is a story of irreconcilable conflict. In the beginning, Smil assured us his careful, fact-based approach would lead only to “cautious conclusions” and that “This book makes no radical claims of any kind.” And yet, he concludes by arguing that continuous growth is “impossible” and doing more with less “cannot remove this constraint.” Further, he says we must take a “radical departure” from the status quo in order to avoid catastrophe.


Ultimately, while the book may be dense and dry at times, it is also an authoritative analysis of the most essential economic topic. As Tyler Cowen concluded, “…some of you should read it. When you get right down to it, there are worse things than a pile of facts!”

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