In 2019, the environmental scientist and energy historian Vaclav Smil published Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. In the book, Smil charts the expansion of everything from algae blooms and embryos, domesticated chicken breasts and corn harvests, mountain ranges and skyscrapers and air travel to the destructive power of human weaponry, the storage capacity of microchips, the rise and fall of trees, forests, empires, and the economic outputs of country after country. The commonality among them, Smil finds, is disturbing: after a period of rapid, often exponential growth, any number of unpleasant things can happen, including precipitous collapse. Growth was Smil’s fortieth book; he’s published seven more since.

The renowned physicist and inventor David Keith has called Smil “a slayer of bullshit,” and Growth reads like a 513-page assassination of one of civilization’s most cherished delusions: that a finite planet can accommodate infinite growth. Smil is quick to acknowledge the benefits of economic growth—dramatic gains in food production, life expectancy, energy access, and countless other indices of human progress. But unlike the Steven Pinkers of the world who downplay or ignore the costs of that progress, Smil emphasizes their central harm: “a multitude of assaults on the biosphere.” These range from the obliteration of global forests and terrifying declines in biodiversity to hundreds of gigatons of fossil carbon being released into the atmosphere.

“Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet,” he told the Guardian around Growth’s publication. “That’s all you need to know.” Smil was seventy-five when the book came out, eight years after he retired as a professor (now distinguished emeritus) at the University of Manitoba’s department of environment and geography. He was living with his wife in the humble, super-energy-efficient Winnipeg home he’d designed more than three decades earlier. For many, this would be a happy career denouement. But Smil’s action was rising. He was writing two or three books a year, delivering keynote speeches in international capitals, publishing articles and Q&As in prestigious publications. He became friendly with Bill Gates, who has blurbed most of his books since 2010, calling Growth not just a “masterpiece” but “Smil’s latest masterpiece.” (In 2017, Gates wrote: “I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie.”) In other words, Smil gave every indication of enjoying a surge of late-career fame that many Canadians had entirely failed to notice.

He also seemed to resent that fame. It was around the time of Growth’s publication that something, or rather several things, clearly began to shift, causing Smil to sour on his audience and the public at large. One of those shifts was the surge in climate catastrophes that marked the late 2010s. These helped spark a global wave of environmental activism whose slogans rang like a dumbed down echo of Smil’s writing. In 2018, Extinction Rebellion began paralyzing traffic in London with theatrical protests that spurred the UK into declaring a climate emergency. The following year, Greta Thunberg headlined the historic global climate strike of 2019. Millions of protesters flooded streets in over 160 countries, covering every continent. The epicentre of that strike was New York City, where Thunberg’s presence drew 250,000 protesters ahead of the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit. Here the echo became uncanny. On September 21, 2019, Smil told the Guardian, “Growth must come to an end. Our economist friends don’t seem to realize that.” Two days later, Thunberg told an assembly of world leaders gathered in the UN’s New York headquarters, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”

But Smil does not seem to appreciate Thunberg. He’s never expressed a word of encouragement for the movement she represents. To the contrary, since 2019, in books and articles and interviews, Smil has directed his bullshit slaying almost exclusively against popular climate-activist arguments: he called Bill McKibben America’s “leading climate catastrophist” in the magazine IEEE Spectrum; about the goals spelled out in the Paris Agreement—“People call it aspirational. I call it delusional,” he told the New York Times in 2022; and he has accused the climate scientists writing reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of inventing “a new scientific genre where heavy doses of wishful thinking are commingled with a few solid facts.”

This has made him more famous than ever. In his 2022 book, How the World Really Works: The Science behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going (a New York Times bestseller that has been translated into more than twenty-five languages—by far his most successful), Smil argued that “complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat.” The entire passage reads like a press release from Exxon—not because Smil is wrong about the enormity of the energy-transition challenge but because he doesn’t address the equally unthinkable cost of failing to meet that challenge. That one-sidedness is new for Smil. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Vaclav Smil continues pursuing the project he has chosen for his twilight years: convincing all those silly kids that they can’t do big things, by telling them ‘how the world really works,’” posted the energy journalist David Roberts on social media in a typical appraisal.

Smil recently stopped granting interviews to journalists. He does, though, respond quickly to interview requests. When I reached out last April to ask if we could speak for this profile, he replied less than two hours later with a seven-paragraph email that didn’t quite say no. We then exchanged a few more emails in the next twenty-four hours, plus five more one day in July, all of which he later said was private correspondence and which I will therefore only summarize as Smil expressing annoyance with: a) the ever-hounding press, which never fails to misrepresent his claims; b) the rise of woke culture; c) the self-aggrandizement of other academics; d) the contempt elites have for lowly Winnipeggers; and e) the shocking decline of his adopted country, which is already incapable of manufacturing so much as its own toothpicks and whose failure to notice him—despite awarding him the Order of Canada in 2013—hasn’t bothered him in the slightest, no sir, not one bit.

Coming from a person who’s written so eloquently, for so long, to such worldwide acclaim, on the greatest threat to our planet and our path to mitigate it, this correspondence raised a simple question: What happened?

Vacliv Smil was born in 1943 in a town in the mountains of Bohemia, Czechoslovakia. His father had many jobs, including as a policeman; his mother held many too, including as a bookkeeper for the kitchen of a psychiatric hospital. By the time he was old enough to chop the wood that heated their home, the Soviet empire had spiked the nearby German borderland with mines to prevent Czech citizens from fleeing. Smil has been clear about the lifelong impact of his Soviet upbringing. “I’m the creation of the communist state,” he told Science magazine in 2018. “Having spent 26 years of my life in the evil empire, I do not tolerate nonsense,” Smil told the Guardian in 2019. “I grew up surrounded by commie propaganda—the bright tomorrow, the great future of mankind—so I’m as critical as they come.”

But that empire did give him a proper education. After high school, Smil moved to Prague, where he studied natural sciences at Charles University, for a time living in a chilly, stone-walled former cloister. Over the next five years, he buried himself in studies, taking up to thirty-five hours of lectures a week for ten months a year. The taste of academic freedom was in marked contrast to the suppression of truth emanating daily from the Soviet state—a tension that surely helped form Smil’s lifelong contrarian impulse, the joy he takes in smashing conventional wisdom.

At a moment when Vaclav Smil could use his platform to maximum effect, he’s rolled his eyes and cozied up with the enemy.

Smil refused to join the Communist Party, which didn’t enhance his career prospects within Czechoslovakia. Educated Czechs were leaving the country in droves, but his wife, Eva, was still in the midst of her medical studies, so the couple elected to stay. Then came the Prague Spring uprising, brutally crushed by Soviet tanks in 1968, followed by the military occupation of Czechoslovakia by Russian forces. The pressure became unbearable. Vaclav and Eva fled to the United States in 1969, months before the Czech border was completely sealed for the next two decades.

The Smils landed in the town of State College, Pennsylvania, where Vaclav completed a doctorate in geography at Penn State in two years. After that, he took the first job he was offered in Canada, a professorship at the University of Manitoba. He and Eva moved to Winnipeg in 1972 and have lived there ever since. Smil taught classes at many levels, from first year to graduate, as the price of admission for a life dedicated to churning out books and scientific articles at a superhuman rate. Independence, financial and intellectual, was Smil’s reward for leaving his homeland. “That was not a minor sacrifice, you know?” he told Science. “After doing that, I’m not going to sell myself for photovoltaics or fusion or whatever and start waving banners.”

The quiet simplicity of his new life—a small, efficient home; a small family (the Smils have one son); a routine of walking, reading, and writing; habits of eating little meat and gardening when the season allows—was and remains a gold standard for Smil. Lowering our personal consumption is something he’s long advocated both on and off the page, an unsexy solution to climate change and other environmental catastrophes that has fallen on deaf ears. “There is a deep tradition both in the eastern and western traditions of frugality, living within your means and a contemplative life,” he told the Guardian in 2019. “Now there is this louder voice calling for more consumption and a bigger bathroom and an SUV, but it’s increasingly apparent that cannot go on.” It’s not hard to imagine how a person might feel after half a century spent arguing for one course of action while the world races blithely in the opposite direction.

It so happened that one of the environmental movement’s foundational texts came out in 1972, the same year Smil began teaching at the University of Manitoba. The Limits to Growth stirred global controversy by offering the first comprehensive analysis of humanity’s impact on the biosphere. It was essentially a layman’s translation of findings by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that generated computer models based on data from five factors: population increase, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. Feeding those inputs into their computer led the team’s model to conclude that, on a business-as-usual trajectory, ecological destruction would cause global civilization to collapse by 2100.

The newly minted professor was intrigued. Being Vaclav Smil, he taught himself to recreate the same computer program those MIT researchers had used. The result left him feeling deceived. “I saw it was utter nonsense,” he told Science. The model was cartoonishly simple, depending on a narrow collection of arbitrary assumptions with enormous margins of error. (To take one example, global population growth in 1972 was more than twice what it is today.)

So began a career of slaying bullshit. This has usually redounded to his credit. Smil ridiculed peak oil when it was popular, saw through the false promise of some biofuels early on, and has long decried carbon capture as a fantasy (“On the matter of scale,” he told David Wallace-Wells in 2019, it “is just simply dead on arrival”).

Challenges of scale have also led Smil to critique the promise of renewable energy, informing his long-held contention that decarbonizing the global economy will take decades longer than activists insist is possible. Throughout it all, it seems Smil’s goal is to inform the debate, protect it from extremists on all sides. “Solutions never come from extremes,” he told the New York Times. “What we need is the dull, factually correct and accurate middle.” But there’s a fine line between realism and cynicism, and sometime in the past few years, Smil crossed it. “You have to recognize the realities of the world,” he concluded in that same interview, “and the realities of the world tend to be unpleasant, discouraging and depressing.”

One more thing to keep in mind when assessing Smil’s withering critiques of extremists: forty-seven years after The Limits to Growth was published, his own book on growth would reach the same conclusion he had long ago debunked. “I believe that a fundamental departure from the long-established pattern of maximizing growth and promoting material consumption cannot be delayed by another century,” reads Growth’s final sentence, “and that before 2100 modern civilization will have to make major steps toward ensuring the long-term habitability of its biosphere.”

A confession: I find Smil quite relatable. Not in terms of literary output, to be clear. I’ve published three books on environmental issues, and each one nearly killed me. And I would do terrible things for a fraction of the publicity Smil rebuffs. But we have other things in common. For one, he reminds me of my father, who was also born in Czechoslovakia. Both are scientists who spent their adult lives teaching at Canadian universities. Both are most comfortable in the rational world of logic and quantifiable data but lose their footing when dealing with human irrationality. They are unsettled by expressions of pure emotion and so turn to “scientific fact” and numbers the way some turn to drink.

How else could Smil have arrived at the earnest conclusion that Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World, as he titled his 2021 book without a trace of irony? Does history not offer a compendium of scoundrels using numbers to tell a thousand lies? Was the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of denial and delay not based entirely on numbers? Did Smil himself not recount for Science magazine how Soviet propagandists once bragged of having raised passenger car production by 1,000 percent in a year? “I looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, but you started from nothing.’”

Boosters of renewable energy could fairly be accused of playing a similar shell game in service of wind and solar power—stories about the stunning growth of those industries often elide the fact that fossil fuels still provide over 80 percent of the world’s raw energy. Conversely, fossil fuel proponents who invoke their industry’s current dominance rarely acknowledge that renewables will become the world’s largest source of electricity generation by 2025. As the climate debate has exploded onto centre stage, propagandists of every stripe can find a statistic for their cause. Smil, tugged this way and that, may be reminded of life under communists: “They forever turned me off any stupid politics, because they politicized everything,” he told the New York Times. “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 . . .”

That’s a remarkable stance to uphold in light of the fact that the last Republican US president made a CEO of Exxon his secretary of state. The pace of the energy transition is now almost entirely a matter of political will; to pretend otherwise is its own genre of magical thinking.

You get the sense that all Smil really wants is to observe this strange world from above, like an alien describing someone else’s planet. Well, the man is eighty. Shouldn’t he be allowed to write in peace and quiet? But the times are such that nobody gets to stay above the fray, least of all someone like Smil. His expertise puts him in the middle of the most irrational fray of our century, one that veers from apocalypse to utopia and back again by noon on any given day.

It’s hard to think of an issue that suffers from a wider gap between words and action. Consider the Paris Agreement, which Smil never tires of mocking. Canada, which played a leading role in setting the 1.5-degree warming target, was the world’s fifth largest oil producer at the time, and today we have moved up to fourth; we have nearly doubled our oil production since 2010 and continue to expand that production faster than any country on earth except the United States, all while grandiose statements about decarbonization emanate regularly from the federal Liberals.

Such hypocrisies are, of course, a central concern of climate activists. So it would be strange for Smil to lump activists with politicians like Justin Trudeau—if activism wasn’t so rife with the romantic thinking Trudeau often seems to lift verbatim from that crowd, as in the “Just Transition Act” that he promised in 2019 (and finally delivered in 2023, rechristened the “Sustainable Jobs Act”).

In covering activist movements over the years, I too have been troubled by the damage passion sometimes does to reason. One of Extinction Rebellion’s core demands was for the Canadian government to eliminate carbon emissions by 2025. They always seem shocked when someone is arrested in pursuit of that laughable goal. But that was the whole point, I want to shout, you were deliberately breaking the law! The climate movement’s mantra that global warming can and must be kept below 1.5 degrees, despite the fact that we briefly crossed that line this summer as global emissions continue to increase, is another example of how, in Smilian terms, “the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast.”

There is a pronounced orthodoxy of opinion among the progressive left that sometimes reminds me of Soviet propaganda—imagine how it makes someone like Smil feel. Minister of environment and climate change Steven Guilbeault, himself a former activist, has made enemies of many former allies for embracing the compromise that comes with democratic governance; so too has US president Joe Biden, whose passage of the most significant climate legislation in history—the Inflation Reduction Act—hasn’t spared him the full-throated denunciations of environmental activists for opening new oil fields. This hostility toward complexity and compromise is, I believe, part of what’s driven Smil into the arms of the right. Because whether he knows it or not, that’s where he is today.

After Smil rebuffed my requests for an interview, I wrote to MIT Press, one of his publishers, to ask if they could help me understand how one man is able to sustain a publishing pace like Smil’s. They responded the next day, having run my request by Smil, and said I was free to publish what he told them:

So simple, how many times I told people that I just write my books and seek no publicity, do no TV interviews, do not blog, do not podcast, youTube, tweet etc. Why it cannot be simply acknowledged in the world where there is no shortage of eager publicity seekers and relentless self-promoters—and then just ignore me and move on to those who crave the attention: my books (number 50 was finished two months ago) are always there. And writing certainly does not take up all my waking hours, I read 60-100 books (I do not count science books) a year, I cook every day, keep the garden in shape, walk and (before Covid) lectured abroad (too much). In sum: nothing remarkable to report, no particular “process” or weird devotion, or strange rituals. Plumbers fix pipes, painters paint walls, hardly a stuff for profiling. I write books . . .

That might be fair enough if it were true. At this eleventh hour of civilization’s headlong collision with the biosphere, as ecological warning lights blink red across the planet and a new generation of activists and politicians pushes desperately to turn the ship around—at precisely this juncture when a man like Vaclav Smil could use his platform to maximum effect, he’s rolled his eyes and cozied up with the enemy.

On September 25, 2023, one week after the global climate strike about which he said nothing, Smil came to Vancouver to deliver what he plans to be his final public address to the country he feels has shunned him. The evening was organized by Resource Works, a Vancouver-based non-profit advocacy group with close ties to the extraction sector. They had booked a banquet hall at the Fairmont Hotel. The three sponsors—Shell, Tourmaline (the biggest natural gas producer in Canada), and the Explorers and Producers Association of Canada (an oil-and-gas industry association)—are fossil fuel behemoths. The organizers titled Smil’s lecture “A Reasoned Path.” If the evening’s sponsors were betting that his message would resonate with their own, they were soon rewarded.

The crowd of roughly 250 people was about what you’d expect at a fossil-fuelled dinner party: industry heavyweights, mostly white and male, with notable exceptions like Susannah Pierce, the president of Shell Canada, who would join Smil on stage after his talk to host an amiable Q&A. Three former premiers of BC were in attendance. After we’d all found our seats and the president of Resource Works had finished his introduction, Smil approached the podium and began talking almost before he’d turned around to face the audience. He speaks the way he writes: quick and conversational, his thoughts ready and ordered if a little too full of statistics. No notes. He plays up his curmudgeonly persona, with occasional theatrical facepalms to emphasize the inexpressible ignorance arrayed against him.

The only way to understand the energy transition is in global-historical terms, he said. “Right now, worldwide, 82 percent of primary energy is coming from fossil fuel. Quarter century ago, it was 86 percent. So you might say, ‘Okay, there has been some decarbonization.’ But you’d be wrong, because in absolute terms, fossil fuel consumption has massively increased in the past twenty-five years. We are running into carbon at a record level.” By that point, heads were nodding vigorously all around the room. Because Smil wasn’t saying this to induce a moral reckoning. He didn’t urge the president of Shell Canada to reconsider the company’s recent abandonment of clean-energy targets. (While he did mock carbon capture, which Shell has embraced, as “the stupidest solution,” at no point did Smil suggest a company like Shell had any role to play in lowering emissions.) Instead, he framed our stubborn addiction to fossil fuels as proof of the industry’s bright future. Even if the Western world does swiftly decarbonize, he assured us, the developing world’s billions of energy-starved citizens still “want to burn every bit of fossil fuel they can get their hands on. And they will do so.”

By the end, though, even his most appreciative guests were starting to look a little glassy eyed. It wasn’t that he’d gone on for too long, exactly. It was that everywhere Smil looked, he saw problems but never a solution. He was a knee-jerk bemoaner of human ignorance and missed opportunity. This extended throughout the Q&A period, when a number of people asked him, in vain, to name something positive they or the government could do, some tiny example of something that had gone right, or could. It became, for me, a sad act. Vaclav Smil, a man so capable of great scientific synthesis, whose vision has taken in a broader horizon than mine will ever know, was reduced to a bah-humbug self-caricature.

But still I had to ask, when my turn came: Didn’t America’s industrial response to World War II suggest that societies are capable of massive change, of a pace and scale that couldn’t be extrapolated from the recent past? He replied that climate change is not comparable to World War II. “Where is the mortal danger?” he asked. “We are not in mortal danger.” The incremental rise of atmospheric carbon, he said, was nowhere near as deadly as the Nazi war machine and never would be. Still fresh in my mind on that September evening was the spectacular destruction of the summer’s wildfire season that had driven 200,000 Canadians from their homes. I remembered watching the conflagrations in Kelowna, BC, and Lahaina, Hawaii; the evacuations of Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories, and the Greek island of Rhodes; I remembered thinking to myself at the time that climate journalists were becoming war correspondents.

Still, Smil was technically correct. Climate change doesn’t pose the immediate existential threat of an evil army and probably never will. But that’s exactly what’s so disorienting about climate change and ecological collapse. Nobody’s trying to kill us; we’re just accidentally doing it, slowly, to ourselves. It’s so unprecedented, it requires a whole new language. The consequences arrive not only via deadly disasters but in the slow drying of the Colorado River, the melting of Himalayan glaciers, the gradual impossibility of getting house insurance. It’s the very definition of boiling a frog: slower and less evil but ultimately just as lethal as war and far more irreversible. That’s what made it so disturbing to hear Smil ask that question. Our entire project now is to show that mortal danger exists.

The fight to protect our biosphere from the assaults of human industry is often expressed as just that—a fight, a battle for the future. Vaclav Smil has spent half a century provoking combatants on all sides to examine their assumptions. His legacy may serve as a reminder for everyone of that old saying: truth is the first casualty of war. But if your battle against wishful thinking leads you to become an unwitting spokesperson for the oil-and-gas industry, are you not among the victims yourself?

The O’Hagan Essay on Public Affairs is an annual research-based examination of the current economic, social, and political realities of Canada. Commissioned by the editorial staff at The Walrus, the essay is funded by Peter and Sarah O’Hagan in honour of Peter’s late father, Richard, and his considerable contributions to public life.

Arno Kopecky
Arno Kopecky is a contributing writer at The Walrus. He is the author of the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award–nominated The Oil Man and the Sea: Navigating the Northern Gateway and The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis. He has written for the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and The Tyee.
David Lipnowski
David Lipnowski (davidlipnowski.com) is a Winnipeg-based portrait photographer.