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Vaclav Smil: ‘Growth must end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realise that’

Vaclav Smil

The scientist and author on his latest book – an epic, multidisciplinary analysis of growth – and why humanity’s endless expansion must stop.

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Over more than 40 years, his books on the environment, population, food and energy have steadily grown in influence. He is now seen as one of the world’s foremost thinkers on development history and a master of statistical analysis. Bill Gates says he waits for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie. The latest is Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities.

You are the nerd’s nerd. There is perhaps no other academic who paints pictures with numbers like you. You dug up the astonishing statistic that China has poured more cement every three years since 2003 than the US managed in the entire 20th century. You calculated that in 2000, the dry mass of all the humans in the world was 125m metric tonnes compared with just 10m tonnes for all wild vertebrates. And now you explore patterns of growth, from the healthy development of forests and brains to the unhealthy increase in obesity and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Before we get into those deeper issues, can I ask if you see yourself as a nerd?
Not at all. I’m just an old-fashioned scientist describing the world and the lay of the land as it is. That’s all there is to it. It’s not good enough just to say life is better or the trains are faster. You have to bring in the numbers. This book is an exercise in buttressing what I have to say with numbers so people see these are the facts and they are difficult to dispute.

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