Andy Revkin invited me to his on-stage interview [instant replay here] of Vaclav Smil, a “historian of technical advances” and “intellectual agent provocateur”, at a public session of the “Quantum into Chaos Festival” (url) at the Perimeter Institute of Advanced Physics in Waterloo, Ontario near Toronto. Thus off to Waterloo late this morning and back to Toronto this afternoon. Andy said that Smil would be provocative and thought that I would enjoy his presentation. Smil has an interesting online speech from 2006 here in which he severely criticizes many popular “solutions” to present energy dilemmas as mere arm-waving.
There were about 120 or so people in the audience. Andy and Smil were onstage, Andy asked questions and Smil talked. As a blogger with an audience of my own, I thought that I would try to scoop Andy on his talk and thus here is my report on the afternoon.
Question 1 – Andy observed that many present Cassandras (not his term) took the position that the present generation was in a unique crisis, but that many previous generations had also viewed their period as being in a unique crisis. He asked Smil whether we were being excessively “chrono-centric”. Smil observed that he refrained from forecasting because such efforts tended to be wildly off-base. He noted that successive UN population predictions had lowered and that it was not a given that world population would ever reach 9 billion. Smil’s answer, I think, was that the present generation did face unique challenges, but so did other generations.
Question 2- Andy contrasted two states of mind towards present challenges: those who thought that we had already driven over the cliff (and were in suspended animation awaiting collapse, a la Wile E. Coyote, a cartoon character) or those who felt that technological improvements could solve things. Smil asked the audience who had heard of Marcellus shales (in the past 10-20 years, dramatically improved fracking technology has enabled the development of low-porosity natural gas shales, one of the things that has led to low current natural gas prices.) No one had (not counting me, I had). Smil thought that both were right and both were wrong: there were real and thorny energy problems and that technical innovation on the scale necessary to revamp the world’s energy economy would not be quick enough or substantial enough to sustain present lifestyles; while he also thought that there were many plausible changes in lifestyle and adaption that would avoid the catastrophe scenario.
Question 3- what if energy were as cheap as paint e.g. overnight there was some sort of magic photovoltaic that gave cheap electricity? This led into a discussion of China. Smil contrasted the ambitions of China with Japan, a theme that he returned to on several occasions. Japan was his idea of how to live in an energy-constrained world: people careful with their consumption of food and fuel. He said that China had entirely different ambitions: they planned to emulate U.S. lifestyles, viewing the last 2 centuries as a temporary down-cycle, that they intended to live big.
Question 4, 5 – What about climate” Is it a pinch point? Smil didn’t think so. He observed that neither Hansen nor anybody else in 1998 had predicted 10 years of no temperature increase. He thought that other potential world crises needed to remain on the agenda, including pandemics on the scale of the 1918 influenza pandemic and nuclear war (accidental or otherwise), noting the potentially dangerous situation in Pakistan. He noted here that the present US debt dependence on China and the Middle East was unsustainable and questioned how the new health care programs would be funded, given the present inability to fund existing federal programs. Even more borrowing from China?
Question 6 – what policies would he recommend for leaders? He observed that “people don’t like statistics”, but many issues need to be framed quantitatively in order to understand them. He used Japan and France as examples of societies that used half the energy of the US (and Canada) and still had successful and flourishing economies. He observed the rapidity of change: in the 1950s, the majority of French households lacked indoor toilets; and closer to home, that the amount and wastefulness of energy consumption had arisen in a couple of decades – in the 1970s, most Canadian households in his neighborhood (Winnipeg) had one car, while now they had 2.5 or so cars; that the average US new house had increased from 1250 sq ft to 2600 sq ft and the typical custom built house ws 5000 sq ft.
Question 7- Do we need to outgrow the idea of GNP growth? Should we be measuring how well people are doing? They discussed past surveys of happiness – people in the late 1940s and 1950s seemed to be just as happy or happier than their more profligate descendants in the 1990s and 2000s. This led into a discussion of what single policy could change things most – asked of the audience. One person answered – stop eating meat. Smil’s view was that people should eat a lot less meat (like the Japanese) observing the energy intensiveness of beef, in particular (not just direct energy, but also fertilizer).
Question 8 – what about “clean coal” i.e. putting CO2 back underground? Smil thought that this was infeasible on a scale large enough to make a difference. He did some quick calculations from which he observed that putting enough CO2 underground to make a difference would be volumetrically equivalent to present day oil production, which has an enormous infrastructure that has taken generations to develop. He didn’t view this as practical, while, at the same time, observing that governments were going to do it anyway.
Question 9 – what about photovoltaics and wind? He didn’t see them as providing the answer. (He elaborated about this at more length in the 2006 pdf.
Question 10 – So how do we manage with a world population of 9 billion? Smil – live more like the Japanese. As a start, drive Honda Civics instead of SUVs; he didn’t like Yukons or Hummers.
Question 11 – what would the world be like in 2100? He wouldn’t predict. He noted that nobody in 1985 would have predicted that the fall of Russia; the rise of economic China or that the U.S., then a creditor nation, would by 2008 be the largest debtor nation in the history of the world; or that an Afghanistan-based terrorist attack on the US would cause trillions of dollars of expenditure and after-effect turmoil.
Question 12 – something about Paul Ehrlich. I can’t read my notes and don’t exactly remember the answer. It did lead into a discussion of genetically modified plants – in particular, the possibility of self-fertilizing plants that fixed nitrogen and used less water. He observed that eating is our first requirement and that if wheat fixed nitrogen like soy beans, that would have a big impact on agricultural possibilities.
Question 13 – something about ozone. Smil observed that the ozone treaty dealt with a very simple problem and should not be regarded as a precedent for CO2. He said that only two companies made the CFCs in quantity and each of them could make as much money making the substitute, whereas the CO2 situation was obviously different.
Question 14 – what should young people do? Read more. Read more literature. Smil said that he had just re-read the entire works of Zola (cold prairie winters must have something to do with that.) He said that reading transmitted civilization and bemoaned the scientific illiteracy and innumeracy of the present generation. Smil lived in Manitoba, loved the fresh air – saying that the nearest smokestack was in Norilsk. I suspect that I was one of only a few in the audience who knew that Norilsk was a large nickel-copper smelter in Siberia (69N, 88E) and I daresay the only person in the audience who knew that it was almost exactly halfway between the Briffa tree ring sites of Yamal (70E) and Taimyr (102E). Smil said that he hated the traffic between Toronto Airport and Waterloo.
I chatted briefly with both Revkin and Smil after the lecture, then drove back through the traffic that Smil hated, stopping at my nearby Starbucks, happily watching the busy traffic on Danforth Avenue while I sipped.