Vaclav Smil is a polymath who has written more than 40 books and some 500 papers on numerous topics including energy, power, population, food production, and the history of innovation. Smil declined to appear on the podcast, so in this episode, I discuss my favorite books of his (I have 13 of them), his distaste for publicity and politics, and read some excerpts from a recent interview Smil did with the New York Times. 

Episode Transcript

Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And today I’m pleased to welcome Vaclav Smil who is not here. So this is my nan interview with Vaclav Smil. As many of you know, I’m a big fan of Vox love SMIL. He’s one of the most prolific writers that I know of, and also a, as the New York Times said in this recent interview, an eminent scientist, and that is clearly the case, I think he’s published something like 40 books. But this I’m doing this podcast because SMIL didn’t. He refused to come on the podcast, I emailed with him, and I’ll get into that in just a minute. But I was spurred to reach out to him because when I started this podcast now, some 110 episodes ago, he was one of the first people I thought, hey, you know, who do I want to have on the podcast? Well, Vaclav Smil, would be among them. But I also knew he was going to be reluctant. And I’ve met him before I’ve had dinner with him at the breakthrough Institute at the breakthrough dialogue some years ago, with him, his wife, Eva, She’s charming, but I also knew that he is also grumpy. And he’s Czech. He emigrated to the US or to Canada, rather from the Czech Republic, during the Soviet era. So he has a different view on the world. And I would say it’s fair to call him, grouchy, grumpy, maybe I don’t mean that to be pejorative, but that’s who he is. And he doesn’t seek out publicity. And when I emailed him, after I read this, this interview with him that was in the New York Times on April 22, it’s called this eminent scientist says climate activists need to get real. Well, I think climate activists do need to get real, but it was a remarkable interview. And I’ll read parts of it in just a minute. But I exchanged several emails with him. And I said, Hey, wants to come on the podcast. And he made it clear, he wasn’t going to be on the podcast, and that he had only done the New York Times interview because the book publisher had asked him to, and I won’t betray any of the things that we discussed in the email, because he asked me not to. But he just made it clear. I don’t do these kinds of things. I’m not interested in publicity. And so the answer is no. And it’s a hard No, so don’t be asking me anymore. But how, in some ways refreshing in a world where everybody’s trying to get in front of the camera, everybody’s trying to get more Twitter followers, I guess, including me, that he doesn’t really care. And he has a job at the University of Manitoba. And he said, I’m going to write my books, and I will betray that from that he’s just gonna leave me alone effectively is what he said in his emails, that what I do is write books. And that’s what I do and I don’t need any publicity. So good for him, I guess in a certain way. But he’s also kind of become the Greta Garbo or JD Salinger of the energy and power world at the same time as being one of the most recognized experts on energy and power systems on inventions on technology in general. And so his reclusiveness I think that’s the right word when it comes to publicity is in some ways really admirable frustrating for guys like me because I’d really like to pick his brain but he didn’t want to be here. So you know, the Greta Garbo JD Salinger, or maybe is my friend Jesse hospital calling the Kafka, the Franz Kafka of, of energy and power.

So this is my non interview with smell, and I thought I’d preface it by just admitting that I’m a big time fan. I counted him I have 13 of his books, here are five of them, I just pulled off the shelf. And you can see they’re pretty well marked up energy and civilization, a history by smell, energy myths and realities from 2010, which I’ve quoted from several times, his new book is called or one of the newer books, I think he has two or three coming up in this year alone. Numbers don’t lie. But I thought I’d just talk very quickly, about two of them that are my favorites. The first being power density, which came out in 2013. It’s called power density a key to understanding energies, energy sources and uses. And it was SMIL. And Jesse ASA Bell, who really made me understand the the essential, that essential nature the essential metric rather of power density and why it matters. And what is power density, it’s a measure of energy flow, that can be harnessed from a given area volume or mass and that has informed pretty much everything I’ve written since I’ve really fully understood what it means and in this book, power density, he goes through the gravimetric, volumetric and aerial power density metrics and talks about why they matter and that led me to coin this idea that iron law power density which is the lower the power density, the higher the resource intensity, so I recommend of all of his books if you don’t have any, I recommend these two power density and then this one creating 20th century technical innovations of 1867 to 1914, and their lasting impact. And it’s a really remarkable book about the different inventions that were created between the end of the American Civil War and the First World War, including electricity, the auto cycle and Diesel cycle engines, haber bosch process by which we create synthetic fertilizer, telephones, it just walks through them. And I’ll say this and it’s not uncharitable, but don’t read smells books, for the writing. He’s not a not a gifted writer in his prose, but incredibly deep thinking in the way and it’s rather dense text. I’ll say that as well. And I don’t take that as a criticism if you’d like. But you know, he’s packing so much data so much understanding as because he’s a polymath, he understands so many different things that you have to read it and sometimes you read it several times to get the gist of what he’s talking about. And he will intersperse a lot of scientific jargon. And he always uses si de SI units. So you need to be facile when it comes to SI units if you’re going to get the full impact of what he’s talking about. So those are the two recommendations power density, and creating the 20th century. But since SMIL, isn’t here for me to ask him these questions, I thought, well, I’ll just read a few excerpts from the New York Times interview because it does give him a sense of who he is and how little patience he has for a lot of the modern dialogue around around energy power and the climate change discussion. So the interview is by David Marchesi, or David Marquez from the New York Times, and it says, The really in the title of Vaclav Smil ‘s latest newest book, how the world really works, the science behind how we got here, and where we’re going, is doing some heavy lifting. And then here’s the key line implicit in the renowned energy scientists usage is the idea that most of us are uninformed or just plain wrong about the fundamentals of the global economy. And then smell in the interview goes on to really make it clear that the interviewer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So the one of the first questions is about this. The fundamental argument in your new book is that to have a serious discussion about an energy transition, we, that gets us away from burning fossil carbon, we need a shared knowledge, acknowledgement of the material realities of the world and smell replies, the most important thing to understand is scale. Amen. Absolutely. And my fourth book, power hungry I say the four imperatives, power density, energy density, cost and scale. That’s what came up 1020 10. But then smell goes on. He says the IPCC they’re talking about Net Zero. They don’t say zero, they said Net Zero, leaving that cushion 1 billion, 5 billion 10 billion tons of co2, we will still be emitting but taken care of by carbon sequestration. Is it realistic that we will be sequestering so rapidly on such scale? People toss out these deadlines without any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem? decarbonisation by 2030? Really? And so the interviewer asked this next question says, Well, what about understand the problem of setting difficult goals but aren’t goals necessary? And smell replies? And again, this kind of, you know, dismissive tone, which I can almost hear his voice saying this, he says, What’s the point of setting goals which cannot be achieved? People call it aspirational. I call it delusional. And then he goes on the interviewer cites Mark Jacobson of all people.

I mean, the frankly, I will say the ignorance of the interviewer to cite the most discredited scientist when it comes to the issue of renewables and power systems, Mark Jacobson from Stanford whose work has been roundly debunked. cites Jacobsen story saying, well, Jacobson says we have most of the technology we need to produce power renewably and keep the grid secure and stable by 2035. SMIL replies, doesn’t use doesn’t mention Jacobson, who by the way, filed a slap suit that he had to pay the attorneys fees on, has been ordered by the court to pay the attorneys fees on which I wrote about recently. You can find that in the article I wrote in quillette in March. Anyway, so the interviewer asked about Jacobsen, and, and smell replies, check the China’s statistics the country is adding every year gigawatts of new coal fired power. Have you noticed that the whole world is now trying to get hands on as much natural gas as possible? This world is not yet done with fossil fuels. So the interview continues, and the interviewer says, Well, we are facing an imminent catastrophe and climate change. And he says, this makes me think of a paper you wrote about the future of leader of natural gas in which you referred to Bill McKibben as Americans who by the way, I’ve invited to be on the podcast. I’ve emailed him three times he didn’t never reply. You referred to Bill McKibben as America’s leading climate catastrophist. Is he wrong? mill replies, what is eminent in science? You have to be careful with your words. We’ve had these problems ever since we started to burn fossil fuels on a large scale. So, you know, I think, again, he’s talking about scale, then the next question is about, aren’t you suggesting but you aren’t suggesting that because we haven’t done enough in the past, and we don’t need to do something in the future. And SMIL says, No, I’m just telling you that this is a totally unprecedented problem. And people don’t realize how difficult it will be to deal with and he goes on, please note that the Paris Agreement has no legally binding language. And then, one of the last few questions I’m skipping through a lot of the interview, it’s a book covers about nine pages here. The interviewer asked, Does your understanding of the science around Energy and Climate Change compel you in any particular political directions, which I thought was really in this answer is really remarkable. SMIL says, No, I used to live in the western most part of the evil empire, what’s now the Czech Republic? They forever turned me off any stupid politics because they politicized everything. So it is now unfortunately, in the West, everything’s politics. No, it is not you can be on this side or that side. But the real world works on the basis of natural law and thermodynamics and energy conversions. And the fact is, if I want to smelt my steel, I need a certain amount of carbon or hydrogen to do it. The Red Book of Mauer Putin speeches, or Donald Trump is no help in that. We need less politics to solve our problems. We need to look at the realities of life and to see how we can practically affect them, man, that’s good. And then one of the other questions here is about photovoltaics and solar. And SMIL says he’s in favor of solar. He ignores a lot of the issues around solar and photovoltaics and poly silicon supplies. But nevertheless, he says, to have full of photovoltaics on a large scale, you have to have interconnections. He says the US has a poor active grid. He says putting a photovoltaic panel on a roof is very easy developing a system around photovoltaics for the whole country, very difficult. No country in the world today runs itself on pure photovoltaics. And so the the question or the interviewer says, well, not today, maybe tomorrow, it smell this is the last question that he replies to not tomorrow. He says, again, it’s the scale, you see, you have almost become a victim. Speaking to the interviewer, it’s inevitable because you were living in it, you were soaked in it, you were in New York City, this pushing people to one side or the other. We don’t need people, we don’t need pushing to the sides. What we need is the dull, factually correct and accurate middle, because only from that middle will come the solutions solutions never come from extremes. So it’s a remarkable interview. And I recommend that you look it up. It’s again published in the New York Times on April 22. And it demonstrates smells kind of his attitude toward publicity and toward a journalist, I guess, like me, who would be asking him questions that he’s just doesn’t have time for. So he didn’t have time to be here today. But I thought well, and he didn’t want to my our emails, exchanged email exchanges to be made public. So I’m honoring that, you know, I have tremendous respect for Vox love and with the work that he does, and how prolific he is. I’m you know, I I’ve written six books, I

think that’s, you know, sometimes I pat myself on the back, he’s written something like 40 and he’s producing at an amazing rate, and it just demonstrates the, you know, his, his intellectual capacity and his really his genius, I think, and I don’t use that word very often, but so I’ll wrap it up there, because Vox loves not here to say anything else. But I recommend his two books of the many that he’s written my favorites of the 13 that I have the 13 books that I have a Vaclav Smil, creating the 20th century and power density. And I’ll stop right there. I’ll thank my guests about slops mill for not being here. But even though he wasn’t here, I can still talk about him and be a be a fan. And I think you should be fans as well. So stay tuned for the next episode of the power hungry podcast. Until then, see ya.


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