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Joanna Szurmak Interview: Extending the Julian Simon Worldview (Part I: Worldview)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- June 23, 2020

“Only a relatively large population able to engage in a complex division of labour in the context of trade, industrialization and urbanization can reap the benefits of the feedback loop between technological innovation, increased economic prosperity, and population growth.”

“The most resilient solution for a cleaner earth and better climate, even with the spectre of anthropogenic climate change, is that of intensive growth thanks to, and not in spite of, a large population.”

– Joanna Szurmak (below)

Q. Joanna, you are a new name in the sustainable development field as co-author (with Pierre Desrochers) of Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change (2018). How did you get to that point?

A. I am new in most areas of scholarship familiar to MasterResource readers. If they happen to have an interest in how amorphous hydrogenated carbon can be made to behave like a semiconductor, they will find my publications from the late 1990s. I was then a budding materials scientist more interested in the basic physics of new materials than in their applications to devices…. not a great orientation to have in an electrical engineering department where I resided.

Faced with the prospect of up to seven years before earning my PhD on top of my hard-earned Master’s of Applied Science, I changed course entirely and became an academic librarian specializing in science and engineering. This way I could stay in academia while buying myself time to decide where and how to do “chairborne” rather than lab research.

Q. This new position put you on a history-of-science track, with intellectual and academic reach.

A. Eventually it did, but there was a delay of thirteen years of wandering through the wilderness as an academic librarian, as well as almost four years of being a stay-at-home mom. I knew back in the year 2000 that I wanted to pursue ideas at the intersection of history, philosophy, and sociology as applied to issues in science and technology. But I entirely missed the existence of the history and philosophy of science and technology programs at the University of Toronto, where I was studying in the 1990s, and at York University in Toronto where my PhD program is based.

Q. So this latent interest sort of set up what was to come next. I know Pierre Desrochers came into play.

A. I met Pierre by accident. He had to take a workshop I co-taught, and I encountered this interesting, rather intractable student. We had a follow-up meeting during which we realized we had many research interests in common.

Your long-time readers will know that Pierre has published widely on Jane Jacobs and the history of innovation, and he moved into a number of topics I found fascinating, such as food and energy policy. Since I shared his Julian Simon-inspired perspective, we found ourselves co-writing articles, columns, and book chapters.

Q. What influenced you prior to meeting Pierre to be sympathetic to the optimistic, freedom side of things?

A. In my case, there was a historical and personal reason to challenge misanthropic catastrophism I saw taking root around me: I grew up behind the Iron Curtain in socialist-run Warsaw, Poland.

One of my earliest memories was learning that there were at least two parallel stories to everything: The official narrative in which the government – for example – heroically achieved an outcome of the Five-Year Plan, and the reality of how the goods in question were produced in semi-private workshops.

I understood how under-the-counter incentives kept things moving, and how a stream of better-quality products may have made their way into the black market in the hopes of making a profit, while the run-of-the mill items ended up on the shelves of state-owned stores (however briefly, as the management was sure to “appropriate” and “redeploy” them in short order).

Q. You saw how private entrepreneurship worked without central planning.

A. It was obvious to me that the ideal of common stewardship, while beautiful in principle, failed short of igniting anyone’s imagination or desire to innovate, create, or even simply act. Personal responsibility and individual ownership, on the other hand, had the power to inspire and transform. Just as important, my childhood helped me to learn another lesson: Geo-political and economic realities shaping a place are always interrelated with the historical and cultural factors. Context matters and complexity abounds, making “obvious” answers incomplete.

When I found myself in Toronto, Canada, as a thirteen-year-old child of immigrants (not refugees, as my parents were adamant to make the move without the financial help of the Canadian government), I was a deracinated, Ayn Rand-reading individualist who could not sympathize with the casual put-downs of the market perpetuated by the intelligentsia of my new country but who was equally alarmed by the crony capitalism and the inefficiencies of the welfare state.

Q. Did you read Ayn Rand or other books that crystallized your budding view?

A. I certainly read a fair bit but little in economics. I did, however, read philosophy (including some Plato, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard), science and history of science, semi-popular syntheses such as Penrose’s Emperor’s New Mind and works by Pinker, E. O. Wilson, Dawkins, and others.

One of the advantages of having read large canvas syntheses was being aware of the power and horror of cataclysmic events of the past. Historical perspective remains helpful in evaluating the events of today.

Q. When did your reading start and accelerate?

A. In my teens, I read Ayn Rand’s We the Living. This partly autobiographic work had a powerful effect on me as I recognized the corrupt dictatorship she was portraying. But I strongly disagreed with her inconsistent and inauthentic solutions to the problems of daily life and human relationships. Similarly, Atlas Shrugged remained an interesting case study for presenting and test-driving an ideological system in a work of fiction.

Sadly, I did not run across Rand’s references to the work of Mises. Finding Mises then would have been a fantastic intellectual shortcut. Instead, the first libertarian thinker whose work pulled me in was Hayek, and it was much later through his work on the philosophy of science.

Q. What was your early thinking about what you wanted to be?

A. As a pre-teen, even before settling in Canada, I was preparing for the life of a writer and a public intellectual. However, with a new language and in a new cultural milieu, this career choice did not seem realistic by my late teens.

Possibly because I saw I would be heading for a science and technology education, I read as many literary classics as I could. This reading program was entirely self-guided and biased by my Eurocentric early years. I did a modest sweep of the French classics starting with Voltaire, moving on to a selection of works in English that included Austen, Conrad, Joyce and Orwell.

The third wave of classics focused on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and, finally, Solzhenitsyn.

Q. Any reading for fun or fantasy?

A. I fit in some science fiction, choosing from both the classics and the fun reads for those of us who find a toroidal planet-like object a thing of beauty: Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, some Asimov, more Heinlein, even more Niven, some Dick, and recently a fair bit of (Neal) Stephenson.

From time to time I returned to the Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem whose book Wizja Lokalna (title may be loosely translated as “observation on the spot”) was an odd mix of philosophy, satire, and social critique that never failed to remind me of how versatile fiction could be at underlining the absurdities of orthodoxies and ideologies.

Q. Were you a classical liberal, or libertarian, with or without knowing it?

A. Pierre would say that I was already a libertarian back in my teens, in 1985. I knew I was out of step with the political culture of the educated class in my new country, a mismatch that, with brief periods of détente, only deepened despite my honest attempts at studying and trying on of the various arguments and ideologies of those around me.

Q. What was the first project or piece you did with Pierre where you really felt like you were on an exciting new intellectual path, where you had a sense of belonging?

A. You have captured exactly how working with Pierre felt after years of navigating the mostly hostile intellectual waters. Our first project, dating back to 2013, incorporated the common interests we had identified during our first conversation: intellectual history, innovation, and the impact of Jane Jacobs on our intellectual landscape.

Pierre, a colleague of his, Samuli Leppala, and I collaborated on a chapter in a 2017 handbook titled The Elgar Companion to Innovation and Knowledge Creation: A Multi-disciplinary Approach. We wrote about the different theoretical perspectives on the role of urban diversity on innovation, a topic on which Pierre was an expert given a life-long engagement with Jacobs’s ideas. The fact that I did bring something novel to the work was a tremendous confidence-builder for me—and maybe for him too!

While we were researching and writing the Elgar chapter, Pierre and I plunged into writing a monster article on Jane Jacobs’s intellectual apprenticeship and her methodological paradigms for a special issue of Cosmos + Taxis edited by the Jacobs expert, Sanford Ikeda.

Peter J. Taylor, a regional science theorist who has made pioneering use of Jacobs’s work, has recently cited our methodology article. Being cited by Taylor may just be one of my proudest academic moments to date.

Q. Keep going, Joanna….

A. Another great collaboration – at least from the point of view of the fun we had researching the piece – was an industrial history of the cottonseed by-product development and its long-distance trade linkages. This was our first foray into writing economic history together. The skills I developed while working on the cottonseed paper paid off on our next project…

Part II tomorrow will focus on Joanna Szurmak co-authored book, Population Bombed!


  1. Joanna Szurmak Interview: Extending the Julian Simon Worldview (Part I: Worldview) - Climate- Science.press | Climate- Science.press  

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  2. Joanna Szurmak Interview: Extending the Julian Simon Worldview (Part II: Population Bombed!) - Master Resource  

    […] completes our two-part review (Part I here) of the development and worldview of Joanna Szurmak, whose work with Pierre Desrochers is at the […]


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