“(In 50 years) Canada will be what it always has been, economically the 51st state, socially a place awkwardly unsure of itself and without any true national cohesion.”
Vaclav Smil is currently being touted as one of the world’s most important thinkers, and you’ve probably never heard of him. But that’s exactly the way he wants it.
Hailing from the former Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor in the faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. To date, he has authored 26 books which cover a broad range of topics including the environment, politics, science, and food.
He is what I call an “academic heavyweight.” His ideas are big, and most importantly, they are highly influential.
How influential is Smil? Well, one of his biggest fans and supporters is none other than Mr. Bill Gates. On Gates’ personal website he consistently releases glowing reviews of his books. Gates has been quoted calling his work “phenomenal,” and believes “although there are a lot of important books about energy, as an author Smil is in a class by himself in terms of breadth and depth.”
These are the types of reviews that get people reading your work. The Smil buzz led me to read one of his latest works, Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. I was thoroughly impressed by his writing, and research. Of particular interest for me was his assessment of where the world’s superpowers will likely be in 50 years.
Writing on China, Smil says:
There is the intangible but critically important power of ideas. No aspiring superpower can do without them, and it can be argued that they are as important as economic or military might. In this respect, China has no stirring offerings…who would line up, if such an option were available, for the Chinese equivalent of a green card? (p.140)
Regarding the US, he believes they are a gradually declining empire, and thinks they need radical change; but refuse to admit it:
There is no commitment among the policy-making elites to address at least some of these matters in a practical, effective fashion, and as long as that commitment is not combined with a mature willingness among the country’s population to live at least closer to their means, to curb the worst excesses, and think and act as if the coming generations mattered…It is very clear they are living on borrowed time and yet has no imminent intentions to do otherwise (p.153)
Despite a growing fan base, and increasing media attention, Vaclav Smil has positioned himself as a sort of anti-celebrity, and he clearly dreads the spotlight. In a 2010 piece for the Globe and Mail entitled The Man Who’s Tutoring Bill Gates, he stated outright that media interviews are “pointless”, and that he just “wants to be left alone to write his books.”
Through my interaction with Smil (via email) I picked up on the same vibe. When I asked Smil if he could potentially delve a bit deeper in his answers he simply replied:
This will do, no deep delving, I have been turning down nearly all requests for written interviews and all requests for TV appearances, I feel no need to advertise myself, I just prefer to do my work and once it gets published people can read it and make their own opinions.
Considering he is turning down nearly all interviews, I’m thankful that Vaclav decided to give me the scoop. And, after much internal debate, I have come to admire his outward reluctance to pursue individual accolades for his work.
Vaclav Smil might not be someone you want to invite to your party, but he is certainly someone worth having in your library
There is much I WANNA KNOW from Vaclav Smil, perhaps I will have to let his work do the talking.
Disclaimer: At first I didn’t think I would be able to use the following interview. Vaclav Smil evidently did not put much effort into answering my questions. However, after re-reading and re-analyzing his answers I personally feel like they are worth a look. His critiques are biting, and his opinions unwavering.
* * *
Ryan Kohls: Foreign policy magazine named you as one of the top global thinkers in 2010. Who would you say are your top global thinkers? And who inspires you today?
Vaclav Smil: Any such lists are inherently suspect: they reveal something, but I am not sure what precisely.
RK: In your book, Global Catastrophes and Trends, you forecast where the world’s superpowers will most likely be in 50 years. Could you comment briefly on Canada’s potential role in the world?
VS: I never forecast, I merely survey some key possibilities. Canada will be what it always has been, economically the 51st state, socially a place awkwardly unsure of itself and without any true national cohesion.
RK: What conclusions have you drawn about human nature from your years of study, research, travel, and observation?
VS: A topic for 17 books.
RK: Of all the places in the world that you could have settled down, Manitoba is quite surprising. What drew you to the place, and the university?
VS: Why do people assume that everybody should live in some “world-class” places such as those nightmarish cities like Toronto or New York?
RK: In the preface of your book, Global Catastrophes and Trends, you say that your “intent is to illuminate, not to prescribe”. However, it seems that the world is full of people who are only too anxious to prescribe, many wearing a scientific cloak. In your opinion are these people generally misguided in their attempts or do they contribute a valuable, though limited, service?
VS: No, they only aggrandize themselves; none of them can be smart enough to prescribe what billions of others should do, that is so patently arrogant.
RK: Is the high price of gasoline across Canada any surprise to you? What do consumers in Canada need to know about the future of gasoline?
VS: Not at all, since 1973 we have had a world price of crude oil, the only exceptions are those countries who heavily subsidize the fuel (Saudis above all); and, of course, Alberta and Saskatchewan benefit.
RK: In Global Catastrophes you conclude that terrorism poses a very miniscule threat to our world, especially in comparison with other potential disasters. With the death of Osama Bin Laden one could see how it would lessen further, but with renewed killings from Al-Qaeda do you think terrorism could increase its global threat in the coming months/years?
VS: Terrorism will be always with us, in one form or another.
RK: A lot of your press focuses on your relationship with Bill Gates. He has been a great admirer of your work. What’s your take on his work, specifically in regards to his philanthropy and the fight against poverty and disease?
VS: What better to do than spend one’s riches on charitas?
RK: In you assessment of China you include its cultural lack of appeal as one of the downfalls to its complete world dominance. In America’s case their mass cultural appeal remains as strong as ever. Will this keep the US relevant regardless of their economic might?
VS: Remains to be seen, they are trying so hard to make themselves economically irrelevant that anything is possible.
RK: Your life must be extremely demanding and exhausting. What do you do in your spare time to relax and have fun?
VS: A total misperception of reality: I have plenty of spare time.
RK: Lastly, any favorite musicians or groups you listen to?
VS: Anything classical.
For more information on Vaclav Smil:
1) Go read his books.
Love it! Vaclav is a class-act. His poignant replies indicate that he wants us to think through a few things before posting 140 characters of recycled irrelevance on Twitter. Well done Ryan. Good for you for not giving up on the interview.
Really interesting exchange!
Wow… unease was palpable in this interview… I could taste it. It bothers me when someone as obviously intelligent as Smil are so standoffish about sharing what they know.