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Vaclav Smil
Photo by David Lipnowski [BA(Hons)/08]
Conversation with a Visionary

Vaclav Smil

If you want to know what this University of Manitoba Distinguished Professor Emeritus has to say about the state of our world, just ask his biggest fan, Bill Gates.

It’s rare that Vaclav Smil agrees to interviews. The longtime environment and geography professor avoids the spotlight despite being thrust into its glare by accolades from thought leaders like Gates. The Microsoft founder calls Smil his favourite author, even reviews his books, and says he looks forward to the latest release like a fan awaits the next Star Wars movie. He has described Smil as “an original thinker who never gives simple answers to complex questions.”

That’s why entities around the world, from banks to bureaucrats, look to this renowned scholar for a window into the future. Long before he became a world authority on global energy issues, Smil was an inquisitive child growing up in a small town in the former Czechoslovakia, pondering inefficiency as he threw log after log into the three stoves it took to heat their home.

He is a contrarian of sorts, unafraid to tell it like it is. In his works, Smil shares insights into topics like the dangers of innovation (more efficient materials means lower prices so overall consumption rises), the side effects of increasing global wealth (more stable incomes mean more consumers), and the harms of wasting 40 per cent of what we grow (is it true we could feed 10 billion people by eating less meat and throwing out less food?)

He sat down with President David Barnard for a candid chat about what the world is doing wrong and what it takes to write so many books: 42 and counting.


PRESIDENT BARNARD: When you look back at your experience before you left your home country, what did you see yourself as?

VACLAV SMIL: Oh, there is nothing! There is nothing there. I was just a boy and I grew up in the mountains and went to university.


Did you anticipate being a professor?

No. I just liked to think about things and write books, you know. So it just happened. I had no experience like Bill Clinton, at age 14, who says, “I’ll become the President.” I had no ambition. I still have no ambition whatsoever. I seek no publicity whatsoever. I’m about as uninteresting a guy as it comes. I just do my work and that’s it. As simple as that. People always look for the stories. There is no story here. There is nothing here! I just cook my meals, go upstairs to my library, write my books.


I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

It is actually!


What do you read?

You name it, I read it. History, science, hard stuff, soft stuff, poetry, poetry in Russian, poetry in German. All kinds of stuff I read. I read randomly. But sometimes when I discover something interesting that I read in one book, then I say, “Okay, I will read everything the guy has ever written,” which I have done with several authors. I have read all of [Émile] Zola. I have read everything Zola has ever written. Every line. I’ve read all [Ernest] Hemingway. I couldn’t read all [William] Faulkner. I just couldn’t get through all Faulkner. Spanish history, history of French types, Chinese medicinal habits— whatever, you know, if it looks interesting, I read it.


Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Bill Gates?

He reads my books, it’s very simple. I write them, he reads them, because he’s one of the few remaining ones who reads books. Nobody reads books now. I go around the world and I talk to people and ask people, “So how many books have you read?” And you know what is the answer I get, even from these quote unquote educated people with degrees? Two a year. All these people sitting in meetings all day, right? Or they take body selfies, right?


What do you read a year, roughly—how many books?

I don’t count the work books, the science books. It depends. It varies from year to year. I think my top has been 110. My bottom has been 55 or something like that so probably I would average, over 20-30 years, probably like 70 or 80 a year. That’s about it.


Do you have a view on artificial intelligence and this sort of rapid expansion of AI?

You know, they have these weeding machines. They will weed because labour is expensive. The machines will recognize a weed as opposed to a young seedling, right? And it will pick up that weed. That’s not an AI. You simply feed into a machine a thousand different images of different weeds from every angle…and then they pick up the right one. Is that an AI? It would be an AI in your definition; in mine it wouldn’t be an AI. I mean it’s just a relatively simple learning program. The only thing is that you have to use these terrabytes to store these zillions of images of that plant from every angle so not to pick the wrong one. But there’s nothing intelligent about it really, right? Like us being beaten in chess by [Deep] Blue, there is nothing intelligent about it. The Blue simply remembered every move—they programmed every move ever made in chess over the past thousand years, right? It’s not AI really. We get to AI when the machine will stop thinking about, “Will this molecule fit that protein?” and then say, “Well no, I’ll stop that and I will read some poetry,” right? I don’t see getting there in anybody’s lifetime.


Not yours and mine probably.

This is one of these hypes. There’s so many of these—everything is a hype.


What do you think are some of the things that should be happening in the world? The big things that governments aren’t paying attention to?

Oh, endless. Endless lineup.


Give me two or three big ones.

We are totally unprepared for any pandemic. We always have been and we probably always will be, no matter how much we do. But we could do a little bit more, right?

Forty per cent of all food we grow we throw away. I mean, really? And nobody is trying to do anything about it. Nothing whatsoever. I mean, 40 per cent. Think of it. The amount of energy, effort, intellectual effort, gasoline, diesel fuel, and the abuse of soil, erosion.

Plastics in the ocean—in 20 or 30 years, there may be more plastic mass in the ocean than the mass of fish. And we are not doing anything about it whatsoever. Nothing, right? I go to the store, I usually carry my bags, but sometimes I forget. I buy a few items, and she starts double bagging in the plastic bag. I say, “Why would you double bag?” There are actually endless things in which we do nothing about whatsoever, you know. No matter if it’s plastic in the ocean, or pandemics, or our wasting food….


Tell me more about what’s happening on the energy front.

It’s just, you know, stupidity. We do everything wrong. We haven’t made a single correct move in energy. You say, “Oh, cars are getting more efficient.” True. Even a [Ford] F150 is more efficient than it was 30 years ago. But it’s more massive, right? People used to be 70kg. Now they are maybe 90kg but still, you don’t need 2 tons to carry 90kg. So, suppose we would not have made this mistake introducing SUVs and pickup trucks everywhere. Suppose we would have stuck with small cars and made them more efficient. Everybody would have Honda like I have. But so what?

It’s an old industry. Basically, it’s a maintenance industry. People have a car, they just, you know, use it and they buy another car. It’s not a growth industry. But look at flying. The single largest energy use and the single largest increase is flying. In Europe they’ve been flying for decades, like, for 29 euros from Amsterdam to Cyprus. We have airlines flying from 90 dollars. It’s unbelievable, right? We just waste because this is the most energy inefficient way of moving people. In a way, it’s really efficient looking at the distance, but otherwise….

We grow more food in more energy-intensive methods than before because half of the stuff is grown under plastic or in greenhouses. Every piece of vegetable, basically, you buy now is grown under either plastic or in greenhouses. What happens to the plastic after a year or two years, right? Torn to pieces. Thrown away. So, we waste energy on food; we waste energy on absolutely unnecessary travel.

Hydroelectricity is the best, the most sustainable—I hate that word, sustainable. That’s the best form of renewable energy there is today, right? Because it runs all the time. Wind—well, you know, even in Manitoba, it’s not there 75 per cent of the time…. People feel constrained to be publicly correct to build a wind turbine farm…. Why do we do these stupidities, right? Well, because we feel renewable energy is only solar and wind, right? Not hydro apparently. Most people don’t think that way.


Which is really too bad.

I know! It’s just incredible.


You mentioned you dislike the word sustainability.

Yeah, absolutely hate it because there is no such thing. Sustainability cannot be defined. Sustainable for what? Over next year? Over 10 years? Over a millennium? On a local basis, on a planetary basis? I mean, there are so many time and space dimensions to it you cannot define what is sustainable. If somebody is boasting that what they are doing is sustainable, it’s a total laugh. There is no sustainable thing.


Right.

You may be planting the most organic crop on the planet but the tractor is made of steel and aluminum and uses diesel fuel. So, give me a break. There is nothing sustainable. And it will not be for a long time to come.


You’re very widely read but you’re quite a private person.

I’m about as private as it gets. I will never have Facebook, you know? I mean, never. Never be on LinkedIn. Nothing! Nothing. You won’t find me anywhere, right? Let’s put it this way. I don’t understand why people are not private.


Of all the things that you’ve worked on, was there anything that was most surprising?

Oh, all the time. All the time. I hate ranking stuff. Everybody likes ranking.

I like the history of things. Fundamentally, so little is new when you go back, really…. I just can’t stand this clatter about unprecedented, innovative age. There has been hardly any innovation worth mentioning in the past 50 years. It’s always a secondary, tertiary. It’s all derivative.


What in the last quarter century would you say is innovative?

Certainly the genetic stuff. There is no doubt about it. CRISPR [an acronym representing a genome editing technology] may be overblown but you know, hey, it’s a powerful tool really. Sequencing of DNA. Genetics and epigenetics [the study of changes caused by modifying gene expression, not altering the genetic code itself]. Many of these things are still in the early days but they have a tremendous potential to go.


Do you have a self-discipline about work? Do you work for a certain part of the day or a certain number of hours?

If you don’t do your 500 words a day, you will never write a book really, right? People ask me, how do you write books? Just, that’s it: 500 words a day.


What else can you tell me about yourself?

I like cooking. I don’t understand people who don’t cook, like I don’t understand people who don’t want to be private. I mean, cooking is great.

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