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Margaret Wente

The man who's tutoring Bill Gates … Add to ...

The most-published and least-known thinker in Canada doesn't want to be interviewed. He says he has 77 deadlines to meet (perhaps an exaggeration, but probably not) before he flies off to a scientific conference in Europe. Besides, he thinks media interviews are pointless. He detests our sound-bite culture, which shrinks enormously important and complex subjects into meaningless bits of info-kibble. "All I want is to be left alone to write my books," he insists.

That may be one reason why hardly anyone in Canada has heard of Vaclav Smil. But Bill Gates has. He believes Prof. Smil is one of the smartest guys around today. He plugs several of Prof. Smil's recent books on his website, and says that he has "opened my eyes to new ways to think about solving our energy and environmental issues."

The sometimes irascible Prof. Smil hangs his hat at the University of Manitoba (which may be another reason everyone east of Winnipeg ignores him). He is a distinguished professor in the faculty of environment, but really, he is an incorrigible interdisciplinarian. His interests encompass the broad areas of energy, the environment, food, population, the economy and public policy. He seems to know a lot about almost everything. He has published 20-something books and hundreds of academic papers, and has another four books coming out this year. He is (almost) resigned to the fact that our great debates about energy and the environment are largely pointless, because they are hugely distorted by politics and sadly uninformed by basic facts. We are a culture of scientific ignoramuses.

For example, take the notion (heavily promoted by Al Gore) that we could wean ourselves off fossil fuels in a few years if only we really wanted to. This is about as realistic as the notion that we could fly to the moon on gossamer wings if we really wanted to. Some day it may be possible - but not any time soon. "We are structurally cooked," he recently explained. "Every new technology takes 40 to 50 years before it captures the bulk of the market. As of today, there are no clean-energy technologies that can replace fossil fuels on a large scale."

Prof. Smil is an expert on the history of technological innovation. He points out that the U.S. energy industry - which includes production, processing, transportation and distribution, coal and uranium mines, oil and gas fields, pipelines, refineries, fossil-fuel fired, nuclear, and hydroelectric power plants, tanker terminals, uranium enrichment facilities, and transmission and distribution lines - constitutes the world's most massive, most indispensable, most expensive and most inertial infrastructure. Its principal features change on a time scale measured in decades, not years. That's why "we're going to be a fossil-fuel society for decades to come."

A lot of us don't want to hear that. Yet the facts don't care whether we like them. Prof. Smil methodically sets out to show that the facts do not support either the romantics, who think we'll be saved by wind turbines, or the techno-optimists, who think that electric cars are right around the corner. Along the way he demolishes peak oil theory, biomass for fuel, carbon sequestration, and various other energy myths. He believes that weaning ourselves away from fossil fuels would be a good thing. But we need to understand that the transition from fossil fuels will be complex, protracted and nonlinear, and will require enormous investments. "Wishful thinking," he writes, "is no substitute for recognizing the extraordinary difficulty of the task."

Meantime, he argues, there's plenty we should do to reduce demand. North Americans are the energy hogs of the world. Our industries are super-efficient, but our lifestyles are ruinous. "Most of the energy in North America is just consuming - Wal-Mart, shopping centres, government offices - or personal consumption: houses, cars, flying to Hawaii, gambling in Las Vegas," he said during a recent appearance at Canada's Perimeter Institute. "We could live affluent lifestyles with half as much energy. Are people so unhappy in Kyoto or Lyons? Is it such a terrible punishment to live in Bordeaux?" He himself drives a modest car and lives in a super-energy-efficient house. "If the world wants to replicate the two biggest wasters in the world, the U.S. and Canada, there is no hope for anybody." What is the likelihood that people will cut back voluntarily? "Very slim."

Prof. Smil, born and educated in the former Czechoslovakia, has the kind of hard-headed skepticism you often find in Eastern Europeans. He and his wife, Eva, landed in the United States in 1969. But Canada was more congenial, so they settled here in 1971. As someone who was rigorously schooled in all the sciences, he regrets people's widespread ignorance of science, technology and basic economics. As he told energy writer Robert Bryce, "Without any physical, chemical, and biological fundamentals, and with equally poor understanding of basic economic forces, it is no wonder that people will believe anything."

Prof. Smil's 24th book, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next 50 Years, has just been published in Canada. It offers a numbers-heavy but compact guide to all the main things we should be worrying about (or not), from natural disasters to population trends. Although he deliberately stays away from predictions, he concludes from the evidence that climate change is nowhere near the top of the list. What is? A genuine flu pandemic, which, he says, is a 100 per cent certainty. What we can't predict is how bad it will be. Prof. Smil is no alarmist, but he warns that even a least-worst-case epidemic "would pose challenges unseen in most countries for generations."

Bill Gates has read it, and says it's great.

 

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