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Malthusianism Reconsidered: Desrochers on Smil

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- October 22, 2020

 “Civilization’s advance can be seen as a quest for higher energy use required to produce increased food harvests, to mobilize a greater output and variety of materials, to produce more, and more diverse, goods, to enable higher mobility, and to create access to a virtually unlimited amount of information.” (Smil, Energy and Civilization, quoted below)

“Fortunately, basic numbers don’t lie, and what they convey is that, in the context of market economies, past Promethean writers proved much more right than their opponents.” (Desrochers, below)

Pierre Desrochers (Department of Geography, Geomatics and the Environment, University of Toronto Mississauga) is one of the world’s leading scholars in the fields of energy and sustainable development. A generation ahead of Desrochers is Vaclav Smil, a renowned expert in energy history and technology whose profuse writings document his energy worldview–at least most of it.

So what to think when Desrochers takes a hard, critical look at Smil’s latest two books (of 20), Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (MIT Press: 2019) and Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017)?

Quotations from Desrochers’ double-book review, The Paradoxical Malthusian. A Promethean Perspective on Vaclav Smil (Special Issue Economic Development and Energy Policy) follow.

On Vaclav Smil’s Scholarship

“Professor Smil is a throwback to the kind of erudite central European scholar exemplified by eminent social scientists such as Max Weber, Joseph Schumpeter, and Ludwig von Mises whose enormous output was once described in jest as based on the belief that “encyclopedias might very well just vanish from the shelves.”

“… Professor Smil’s breadth and depth of technical knowledge on anything remotely related to energy is truly astonishing. Idiosyncratic, he is a self-described “old-fashioned scientist” who prefers “hard engineering realities” to “interminably vacuous and poorly informed policy ‘debates.’”

“[Smil’s] basic outlook is that our economy, societies, civilization, and ultimate survival all depend upon the availability of energy sources, our ability to harness them, and the efficiency with which we are able to convert them into useful things.”

“Always aware of the complexity of human systems, inherent uncertainties, and the limits of human knowledge and understanding, he has throughout his long career steered clear of detailed predictions and policy recommendations.”

“Smil is a man of integrity who, when deriving inescapable conclusions from undisputable facts, has never shied away from criticizing what he deems wishful thinking and energy policy snake oil, along with their delusional or dishonest peddlers (e.g., peak oil, biofuels, the hydrogen economy, Germany’s Energiewende, Amory Lovins, and Elon Musk).”

Some Issues With Smil

“I argue that Smil’s ideological blinders, as expressed in GrowthEnergy and Civilization and elsewhere, prove too overwhelming to him. Like most of us, he ultimately can’t resist the temptation to torture the evidence until it confesses his pre-ordained pessimistic conclusions, thereby inviting this more optimistic—and similarly one-sided—rebuttal.”

“Smil’s thoughts and assessments … occasionally display surprising paradoxes and contradictions. As a young man trapped on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, he refused to join the Community Party and later studied in detail the abysmal environmental outcomes delivered by central planning. Yet, he has long disparaged conspicuous consumption, unlimited free trade, and free-market economists while sometimes sounding as though he would relish the opportunity to redesign our economies along less energy-intensive lines.

“A proponent of reducing humanity’s resource footprint through smaller and more efficient homes and cars, he is critical of large-scale urbanization because it facilitates wealth creation and results in greater per capita energy consumption.”

” … a political refugee who made a good living in Canada and a long-time member of the academic globe-trotting elite, he could never side with prominent American environmentalists who called for immigration restrictions in the name of curbing economic growth, yet his policy recommendations would ultimately deny the opportunities he has enjoyed to most of humanity.”

“To this Promethean writer, the most surprising paradox in Professor Smil’s work is his persistent Malthusianism, for it not only flies in the face of much empirical data, but it also contradicts his own earlier writings on limits to growth, Peak Oil and the history of technology as synthesized in his 2017 book Energy and Civilization: A History.”

“To a Promethean reader, Growth is more akin to a grandiose Malthusian legal brief than a balanced assessment of an ancient and perennial debate…. Yet, Professor Smil also knows that the core arguments put forward by neo-Malthusians over the last two centuries have not withstood the test of time in market economies.”

“Like many present-day environmentalists, Smil’s claims of massive environmental degradation are ultimately based on rather extreme and controversial scenarios and analytical frameworks such as the sixth mass extinction or the Stockholm’s Resilience Center’s planetary boundaries. Needless to say, such catastrophist claims have a long history. “

Economics Matters

“While Professor Smil obviously understands the power of economic incentives, he frequently expresses doubts about the outcome of free markets. In Growth he laments the cramped living conditions of broilers (i.e., chickens raised for meat) and pigs, but understands that farmers cannot be profitable with lower densities.”

“To someone like Smil who views human societies through neo-Malthusian lenses, the price system is obviously inadequate. To others, however, prices remain the best way to factor in innumerable trade-offs in order to achieve a rational (i.e., economic) allocation of scarce resources out of an incredibly large number of possible combinations. Market outcomes are therefore not determined by ruthless displays of corporate power, but by a never-ending discovery process driven by consumer demand in which existing and new technologies and materials are continuously pitted against each other.”


“Needless to say, Professor Smil’s . . . targets are rather Angry Birds [video game] and ‘other inane apps,’ ‘unneeded junk,’ ‘poorly built, odd looking, and esthetically offensive’ McMansions, desires to ‘out-American America in ostentatious consumption,’ and failure to appreciate natural beauty. Yet, one can easily imagine how Smil’s thinking, like that of many other Malthusians before him, might motivate less sophisticated minds to oppose lifting people out of poverty and promote coercive population control.”

“Another problem that seemingly rattles [Smil] a great deal is that houses, appliances, personal vehicles, and many other devices keep getting more numerous, bigger, and more complex over time.”

Public Policy

“[Smil’s] relative lack of interest in public policy intricacies, casual dismissal of basic economic insights, and often cursory discussions of the impact of incentives and institutions on individual, corporate, and societal behavior have sometimes been deemed problematic.”

“While environmental regulations and public education campaigns undoubtedly played a role in cleaning up the environment of ever wealthier societies, what Smil and other prominent neo-Malthusians have long failed to grasp is that market-based economic development has always contained the seeds of both improved standards of living and environmental remediation.”

A Plea to Professor Smil

“Like nearly all prominent neo-Malthusians before him … Smil elected not to directly engage with the key insights of his more optimistic opponents. Knowing his work ethic, then, would it be too much to ask him to consider devoting one of his future book projects to a more systematic debunking of the ideas of people whose predecessors proved much more correct than those on his side of the sustainable development divide?”

One Comment for “Malthusianism Reconsidered: Desrochers on Smil”

  1. robert cochrane  

    Always appreciate a qualitative analysis for its own sake but, like Smil, prefer numbers; show me where he’s wrong with some numbers.


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