Vaclav Smil on Growth: Seeing the Trees, but not the Forest

Vaclav Smil is one of the world’s leading thinkers on energy, society and nature. He has just published a volume on growth across many scales and domains (“Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities”). As always, he presents an amazing richness of facts, often extremely enlightening. For example, he definitively shows that all thinking about ‘decoupling’ or ‘de-materializing’ economic growth is physical nonsense, and presents many surprising calculations. For example, smartphones consume much less energy than cars, but if we include all energetic inputs into making them, and take into account the vastly different number of devices, this difference becomes much less pronounced: Energy consumption is in the same order of magnitude, and probably differs only with a factor of one or two (p. 501). And this does not even consider the energetic costs of maintaining the network for enabling the services of smartphones! Smil concludes that there is an urgent need to move away from the established pattern of growth, and he is particularly scornful of the profession which preaches the mantra of growth: the economists. Economics is wrong about the analysis of growth (excluding crucial aspects such as energy from its theoretical analysis) and about technological optimism. Again, Smil presents an overwhelming empirical evidence why economics fails to explain and analyse growth in the real world.

Yet, I think that this great book falls short in two ways. The facts are like trees in a forest, and we are at risk of losing sight of the forest and where we really stand. First, Smil is too cautious in theorizing about growth, although he seems to suggest at least theoretical perspectives, and second, he does not explicitly discuss the systemic aspects of growth, and the potential of the systemic view to generate a universal theory of growth.

Apparently, Smil is reluctant about the systems perspective because the facts often do not support generalizations over many different types of systems. One important example is his discussion of scaling laws, where Geoffrey West and the Santa Fé people suggested universal regularities of scaling which would indeed apply for organisms and cities, for instance (such as comparing arteries and roads on an abstract level). There are too many variations, and even fundamental differences across domains in terms of basic mechanisms. But I think that Smil throws the baby out with the bathwater. In the context of this blog, it is remarkable that he has a full chapter on growth of artefacts, but does not analyse the systemic character of modern technology. In other words, he does not identify the technosphere as a separate analytical domain. This is a problem, because for the many examples of technological growth on the artefact level he tends to identify a generalization, which is the logistic curve, well-known to economists who study innovation in markets. Indeed, the reader gets the impression that it is the logistic curve which might be a candidate for a universal law of growth across all domains. Smil explicitly criticizes economic theories that assume that sequences of logistic curves might result into envelope trajectories of continuous growth. But that raises the question of the systemic interdependencies of artefacts, much emphasized in modern evolutionary theories of technology-driven growth (he tends to sideline heterodox economics, such as evolutionary economics).

In my view, growth of artefacts is not the same as growth of the system that is constituted by the artefacts. Smil’s example of cars illustrates this, as cars increasingly become ‘smartphones on wheels’, thus mutually leveraging energetic needs of maintaining the entire system of information-driven driving and transport: Will autonomous driving just become another instance of a huge and possibly catastrophic rebound effect, further boosting energy needs of transport? We need to move beyond the analysis of single cases, how many we might have, and start to theorize about the systems. For doing this, the concept of technosphere is most helpful, with all the important questions implicated. For example, Smil notices the fact that wild animals are now dominated by domesticated animals, but he does not consider that this implies the growing inclusion of the biosphere in the technosphere: modern chicken farms are technologies, not nature, and the chicken are artefacts created by selective breeding, genetic engineering and feeding them with lots of chemical inputs, such as antibiotics (something that he finds ethically problematic, but does not further theorize). I think that it is necessary to understand these systemic interdependencies, beyond analyzing the single artefacts, organisms and so on. For sure, Smil has a chapter on populations and societies. And there is the important section on ‘civilizations’ (pp. 442ff) where he adds together many observations on energy needs of different societies, related in an evolutionary trajectory that ended in our current modernity. But this mainly appproaches the topic in terms of measuring and comparing civilizational states, such as material and energy consumption per capita, or information processing capacities. There is no theory that explains this directedness of civilizational change. He diagnoses the “aussaults on the biophere”. But as long as we do not have a theory, it is easy to rearrange the facts à la Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now” grand narrative of human progress.

Smil shows that we need to be duly pessimistic about the future growth of energy consumption and the potential of renewable energy for switching to a sustainable regime (he is also critical of the concept of sustainability). But as long as we do not aim at identifying the universal drivers of growth, how can we find the way out of the forest in which we are currently lost? In this regard, the lack of systematic perspectives on the logistic growth curve may be even suggest dangerous delusions. This is where the maximum entropy perspective comes into play, as outlined by Axel Kleidon on this blog. Clearly, single organisms and populations of organisms never maintain eternal growth. But the biosphere did grow and continues to grow. Life on Earth has been growing forever, changing the geological face of the planet as envisaged by the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis. Again, this is missing in Smil’s book. What drives growth of life? One possible explanation is offered by the Maximum Entropy approach, which could unify theories of growth of the biosphere and of growth of the technosphere.

In a sense, it is simple. Smil rejects standard economics for neglecting the physical side of the economy. Well then, what are physical laws that govern economic evolution? This is a question that most people avoid to ask, because it seems to suggest that our human agency becomes irrelevant. But the simple fact is, as long we do not know how the engine of growth works, we cannot reengineer it. This is not changing artefacts, but the systems of which they are parts. If the type of physical systems such as the biosphere and the technosphere have universal structural properties that generate Maximum Entropy dynamics, this must be our starting point for all other more detailed investigations into specific subssystems, such as the transport system in modern economies. I think that Smil’s book could be straightforwardly rewritten from that foundational vantage point. We must avoid to be overly cautious in approaching empirical facts, although caution certainly is a scientist’s virtue. But sometimes we must be audacious and build on great conjectures.

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