Smil, Vaclav 1943-
Smil, Vaclav 1943-
Born December 9, 1943, in Plzen, Bohemia; immigrated to United States, 1969; son of Vaclav (a policeman) and Marie Smil; married Eva Fidler (a physician), December 14, 1967; children: David. Education: Carolinum University, R.N.Dr., 1965 (natural sciences); Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D., 1972. Hobbies and other interests: History, opera, language, cross-country skiing.
Office—Department of Geography, N306 Duff Roblin Bldg., University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada. E-mail—[email protected].
Educator, writer, and interdisciplinary scientist. Environmental affairs and energy consultant, 1966-69; University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, assistant professor, 1972-76, associate professor, 1976-80, professor, 1980-99, distinguished professor of geography, 1999—. Consultant to World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation, U.S. Congress, U.S. Agency for International Development, and International Development Research Center. Member of editorial board, China Quarterly. Lecturer. Military service: Czechoslovak Army, Military Geographic Institute, 1966-67.
Joseph Levenson Award, 1995, for China's Environmental Crisis; Royal Society of Canada fellow, 1997; American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Understanding, 2000; Winnipeg Rh Institute Foundation Medal for excellence in research, 2001; Pennsylvania State University Centennial Fellow.
Energy and the Environment, University of Manitoba (Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), 1974.
China's Energy, Praeger (New York, NY), 1976.
(Editor, with W.E. Knowland) Energy in the Developing World: The Real Energy Crisis, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1980.
(With Paul Nachman and T.V. Long II) Energy Analysis in Agriculture: An Application to U.S. Corn Production, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1983.
Biomass Energies: Resources, Links, Constraints, Plenum (New York, NY), 1983.
The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1983.
Carbon-Nitrogen-Sulfur: Human Interference in Grand Biospheric Cycles, Plenum (New York, NY), 1985.
Energy, Food, Environment: Realities, Myths, Options, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1987.
Energy in China's Modernization: Advances and Limitations, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1988.
General Energetics: Energy in the Biosphere and Civilization, John Wiley (New York, NY), 1990.
Environmental Change as a Source of Conflict and Economic Losses in China, Committee on International Security Studies of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Cambridge, MA), 1992.
China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development, M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY), 1993.
Global Ecology: Environmental Change and Social Flexibility, Routledge (New York, NY), 1993.
Energy in World History, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1994.
Cycles of Life: Civilization and the Biosphere, Scientific American Library (New York, NY), 1997.
Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.
Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2000.
The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2002.
Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2003.
China's Past, China's Future: Energy, Food, Environment, Routledge (New York, NY), 2004.
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2006.
Energy: A Beginner's Guide, Oneworld Publications (Oxford, England), 2006.
Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, The MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2008.
Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, The MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 2008.
Oil: A Beginner's Guide, Oneworld Publications (Oxford, England), 2008.
Energy Myths and Realities, MIT (Cambridge, MA), 2008.
Contributor of more than 130 articles to scientific and business journals. Contributing editor, Current History, 1992—.
A specialist on global energy and environmental concerns, Vaclav Smil is considered an expert on the environment of China, and he has written extensively on that subject. His The Bad Earth: Environmental Degradation in China, a 1983 work that calls attention to serious environmental problems in that country, was initially seen as overstated; since then, however, Smil's assessment has gained acceptance as clear-sighted and thoroughly documented. As Science writer Richard P. Suttmeier observed in a review of Smil's later study, China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development, more open contact between China and the rest of the world has highlighted China's environmental record and has "vindicated" Smil for "issuing his warning call."
Suttmeier pointed out that, though many economic reforms occurred in China in the nine years between publication of The Bad Earth and China's Environmental Crisis, "its environmental quandary has become more severe." In China's Environmental Crisis, Smil offers a comprehensive analysis of contributing factors to this quandary. He deals frankly with population growth and the effects of China's one-child-per-family population policy, loss of agricultural land and deforestation, water use, energy supply and demand, and other issues. Critics welcomed the book as an important and focused analysis. China Business Review contributor Vanessa Lide Whitcomb commented that "Smil's arguments are peppered with persuasive reminders that China's environmental degradation should be of concern to other countries, as China affects regional and global air and water quality." Norman Myers, in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, considered the book a "splendidly detailed assessment, backed by abundant data and rigorous analyses." Suttmeier commented favorably on Smil's demonstration that China's environmental problems are unique, and commended the author's comprehensive and deep understanding of an exceptionally complex issue. "Anyone interested in China, in U.S.-China relations, and in international environmental issues," he wrote, "will want to examine what Smil has to say."
Smil has earned high praise for his other works on environment and energy. Global Ecology: Environmental Change and Social Flexibility, according to Environment reviewer Paul J. Runci, "looks at science's current capabilities and shortcomings in assessing global environmental health." Smil concludes that technological remedies alone will not be adequate to address human energy needs, but that large-scale socioeconomic changes must occur. "Smil clearly views global ecology more as a crisis of human social institutions than as an environmental crisis per se," Runci wrote.
In its eighty-two essays, Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization also covers a broad range of interrelated subjects; as Smil notes in his introduction, "Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to another in order for stars to shine, planets to rotate, plants to grow, and civilizations to evolve." Many reviewers hailed the book as a fascinating and readable overview of the ecology of energy. Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor admired it as a "wonderful quantitative survey of energy," while Foreign Affairs writer Richard N. Cooper deemed it a "concise and fascinating—if occasionally technical—account of the sources and uses of energy of all kinds." Joel Darmstadter, in Environment, considered the book a generally "rewarding" treatment of its subject but added that Smil neglects some important topics, such as "the role of markets and policies as they affect energy supply and use." Darmstadter also expressed disappointment that the book does not offer a discussion of renewable energies. Journal of Environmental Education reviewer Richard R. Jurin, who admired the book's "fresh and interesting yet encyclopedic approach," noted that Smil's chapters on preindustrial and modern civilizations are particularly interesting. "Smil does a wonderful job of explaining energy accounting, yet he maintains a neutral perspective" as well as a "unique and enlightening style" that, in Jurin's view, would prove useful for students and educated laypersons alike.
Smil explores issues relating to global food production in both Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production and Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century. In Enriching the Earth, he traces the history of what is considered the most important agricultural development of the twentieth century: the development of crop fertilizers based on ammonia synthesized from nitrogen and hydrogen. Philip and Phylis Morrison, praising the book in American Scientist as "an authoritative mix of ecology, biochemistry and chemical engineering," wrote: "Broad and imaginative, meticulously argued and fully documented, yet lively and readable, this surprising book … opens a door wide to a dimly lit corner of high-tech, to offer us a new understanding of major change." Paraphrasing Smil's central point—that "the greatest catastrophe that the human race could face this century is … a global conversion to ‘organic farming’ that would set a limit to the human population able to be sustained by existing arable land"—Nature contributor John Emsley praised Enriching the Earth as a "highly readable" book that serves as "an ideal corrective to the misleading ideas we are constantly being fed by the organic food movement."
Current and future agricultural policies are the focus of 2000's Feeding the World. The book, which received highly respectful reviews among the scientific establishment, considers various threats to the global food supply and offers solutions for securing and improving agricultural production in such a way that the planet could maintain a healthy population of nine billion—the United Nations' "medium" projection for maximum global population. Smil deals with such issues as soil erosion, depletion of fishing stocks, increase in meat consumption, and the potential effects of global warming on agriculture. "We have quite a few incremental, unglamourous, but ultimately highly effective means to deal with the challenge," he writes, noting that we should not depend primarily on new technologies but should concentrate on "more efficient use of existing resources." Smil urges renewed attention to such methods as drip irrigation, use of green manures rather than synthetic fertilizers, and environmentally appropriate food and animal production. Several reviewers were disappointed that Smil did not include plant biotechnology in his analysis; as Michael B. Cohen observed in American Scientist, the author's "intention is clearly to highlight the potential of existing technologies that are being underused or ignored in the midst of all the excitement over crop genetic engineering and genomics."
Though Cohen felt that Feeding the World does not pay adequate attention to either biotechnology or to social issues affecting food distribution, other reviewers minimized the book's flaws. Adrienne E. Clarke wrote in Science that "the book provides a valuable contribution to current understanding of this critically important topic." Walter P. Falcon, in Population and Development Review, hailed it as "one of the best new volumes on the world's food situation in some time" and "informed geography at its best." He noted that "Smil's capacity to pull together relevant materials from the physical and social sciences in ways that both delineate the important questions and suggest sensible answers" is the book's greatest strength. And Journal of Economic Issues contributor Thomas R. Degregori, praising Smil as "an author who always informs," concluded that "Feeding the World is absolutely essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the subject."
In two books—Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact and Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences—Smil argues that the modern world was created at least in part by the mindset generated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the huge advances in technology. Creating the Twentieth Century examines the rough half-century between 1867 and 1914 (sometimes called the "Second Industrial Revolution") and concludes that the period between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War I marked a break with the rest of human history because of its introduction of energy-based technologies. "Smil identifies a number of characteristics of this era of discontinuity which he feels make it so profoundly different from anything before or since and which give it so enormous an impact," stated James Hull in the Canadian Journal of History. "He sees it as unique in part because it is science-based, which previous eras of technical change, including the first industrial revolution, were not." At the same time, Hull continued, the impact this period had on modern history far outweighs anything else that has happened since, including the information revolution realized with the introduction of the microcomputer: "More recent changes—in particular computer-related technologies—are just part of the inheritance from this fundamental discontinuity."
The period begins with many different technologies introduced in the late 1860s, including dynamite and the typewriter, and it concludes with Henry Ford's realization of assembly-line production—the epitome of the modern American factory. However, many other innovations were introduced in the period. "Smil's history," declared Roger Luckhurst in English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, "also brings a wholly different perspective on what might be considered important inventions of the time. How about Osborne Reynold's calculation of the smooth laminar flow of fluids through pipes? ‘Reynolds numbers’ help determine streamlining of boats and aircraft and reduce vibration. Or how about the Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis? This allowed the development of nitrogen-enriched fertilizers, which led to massive increases in crop yields. Smil argues that this is the single most important invention of the era, allowing the global population to increase throughout the twentieth century without catastrophe."
Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties examines the twenty-first-century consequences of how these innovations have been realized. "We have seen experiments with the deregulation of energy markets, as well as the California energy crisis, the Enron energy debacle, and massive grid failure and power outages in the northeast United States, Scandinavia, and Italy," wrote Science contributor Daniel L. Kammen. "Amidst these changes came the Gulf Wars and the 11 September 2001 attacks—events that highlighted the energy-security linkages that stem from American fossil fuel energy entanglements around the world." "Although not a cornucopian, Smil argues that resource availability issues will not drive our transition to a sustainable energy future," James J. Winebrake stated in his American Journal of Agricultural Economics review. "Instead he argues that the fragility of the biosphere will dictate the need for alternatives. Because important environmental services are quickly being compromised by fossil fuel-derived environmental impacts," Winebrake concluded, "human civilization will need to turn to alternatives not because of dwindling resources, but because our biosphere (and thus our existence) will demand it."
Smil once told CA: "I cannot imagine pursuing a traditional scientific career devoted to a well-defined, circumscribed topic to be visited in ever-increasing depths for several decades spanning the completion of Ph.D. and retirement as professor emeritus. I am too fascinated by countless links among unruly, complex, fuzzy and changing realities to try to be the expert responsible for a particular pigeonhole. My books and papers reflect this deep personal bias: I have written on topics ranging from the greenhouse effect, grand biospheric cycles, and acid rain to the Oriental perception of beauty and Japanese economic efficiency, from Iowa corn farming and the OPEC oil maneuvering to coronary heart disease, Western mortality, and Chinese food. And yet these disparate items are all linked by my interest in the behavior of complex systems, in following, unraveling and exposing the connectedness of environment and human actions. And most of the time these writings carry the common denominator of energy, whose conversion is the existential foundation of every happening in the universe."
He further stated, "But this holistic approach, although it has been making some inroads in contemporary scientific writings, is running against the strengthening trend of narrow specialization: checking the increasingly impenetrable titles of papers appearing even in general science journals is the easiest way to confirm this perhaps inevitable but certainly unfortunate shift. I intend to continue writing against this current: it is often difficult (as the book publishers ask: ‘And what is precisely the intended market?’—and do not like to hear any well-educated person who wants to ponder some complex wholes) but always interesting. My goal will remain to explore the complexities of fundamental civilizational relationships involving energy, food, environment, economy, culture, and public policy—and to offer some commonsensical suggestions about the ways to proceed."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Biology Teacher, April, 2003, Luke Sandro, review of The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change, p. 310.
American Historical Review, April, 1996, Henry Steffens, review of Energy in World History, p. 451; February, 2007, Paul Israel, review of Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact, p. 167.
American Journal of Agricultural Economics, August, 2001, Ben Senauer, review of Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century, p. 790; August, 2005, James J. Winebrake, review of Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties, p. 810.
American Scientist, May, 1999, review of Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization, p. 269; November, 2000, Michael B. Cohen, review of Feeding the World, p. 558; July, 2001, Philip and Phylis Morrison, review of Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production, p. 360.
Association of American Geographers, September, 1996, review of Global Ecology: Environmental Change and Social Flexibility, p. 583; September, 2003, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 753.
Bloomsbury Review, March/April, 1997, Patricia J. Wagner, review of Cycles of Life: Civilization and the Biosphere, p. 11.
Booklist, December 1, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of Energies, p. 638; September 15, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 188.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December, 1993, Norman Myers, review of China's Environmental Crisis: An Inquiry into the Limits of National Development, p. 50.
Business Library Review, February, 1996, review of Energy in World History, p. 165.
Canadian Journal of History, autumn, 2006, James Hull, review of Creating the Twentieth Century, p. 441.
China Business Review, January-February, 1994, Vanessa Lide Whitcomb, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 21.
China Review International, spring, 1994, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 250.
Choice, May, 1995, review of Energy in World History, p. 1471; June, 1997, review of Cycles of Life, p. 1687; May, 1999, review of Energies, p. 1637; March, 2003, G. Stevens, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 1206; May, 2004, J.C. Comer, review of Energy at the Crossroads, p. 1696; April, 2006, G.E. Herrick, review of Creating the Twentieth Century, p. 1423; December, 2006, A.M. Stauss, review of Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences, p. 664.
Civil Engineering, January, 2004, Ray Bert, review of Energy at the Crossroads, p. 70; January, 2006, Ray Bert, review of Creating the Twentieth Century, p. 71; August, 2006, Ray Bert, review of Transforming the Twentieth Century, p. 72.
Economic Books, spring, 1990, review of Energy in China's Modernization: Advances and Limitations, p. 24.
English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, spring, 2007, Roger Luckhurst, review of Creating the Twentieth Century, p. 229.
Environment, May, 1995, Paul J. Runci, review of Global Ecology, p. 29; November, 1999, Joel Darmstadter, review of Energies, p. 44; November, 2003, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 41; May, 2004, Joel Darmstadter, review of Energy at the Crossroads, p. 45.
Environmental Politics, February, 2005, Horace Herring, review of Energy at the Crossroads, p. 147.
Far Eastern Economic Review, September 8, 1994, Doug Bandow, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 46.
Foreign Affairs, May, 1999, Richard N. Cooper, review of Energies, p. 135.
Futurist, September 1, 2003, "Environment and Resources," p. 60.
Geographical Journal, July, 1998, review of Cycles of Life, p. 236.
Guardian, April 8, 1999, review of Energies, p. 11.
Historian, spring, 1996, review of Energy in World History, p. 708.
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, fall, 2007, Jamie Pietruska, review of Creating the Twentieth Century.
Isis, December, 1995, Richard L. Hills, review of Energy in World History, p. 626; December, 1999, review of Energies, p. 796; December, 2003, Elizabeth Haigh, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 758.
Journal of Asian Studies, February, 1994, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 179.
Journal of Comparative Economics, March, 1990, Jan Prybyla, review of Energy in China's Modernization, p. 158.
Journal of Economic History, June, 2006, Zorina Khan, review of Creating the Twentieth Century, p. 535.
Journal of Economic Issues, March, 2001, Thomas R. DeGregori, review of Feeding the World, p. 210.
Journal of Economic Literature, September, 1995, review of Energy in World History, p. 1499; March, 2004, review of Energy at the Crossroads, p. 335.
Journal of Environmental Education, winter, 2000, Richard R. Jurin, review of Energies, p. 41.
Journal of Interdisciplinary History, spring, 2007, Robert Friedel, review of Creating the Twentieth Century.
Nature, March 6, 1997, review of Cycles of Life, p. 35; April 5, 2001, John Emsley, "Going One Better than Nature?," p. 633.
New Scientist, March 15, 1997, review of Cycles of Life, p. 42.
New York Review of Books, September 23, 1993, Jonathan Spence, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 15.
Pacific Affairs, fall, 1995, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 424.
Population and Development Review, December, 2000, Walter P. Falcon, review of Feeding the World, p. 827.
Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1998, review of Energies, p. 50.
Quarterly Review of Biology, December, 1998, William J. Jewell, review of Cycles of Life, p. 484; September, 2003, Daniel R. Brooks, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 373.
Science, July 30, 1993, Richard P. Suttmeier, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 627; July 28, 2000, Adrienne E. Clarke, review of Feeding the World, p. 555; June 8, 2001, Julia Uppenbrink, review of Enriching the Earth, p. 1843; December 12, 2003, Daniel M. Kammen, "A Century of Oil, a Future of Options," p. 1896.
Science Books and Films, November, 1993, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 230; June, 1997, review of Cycles of Life, p. 135; September, 1999, review of Energies, p. 203; May, 2003, review of The Earth's Biosphere, p. 111.
Scientific American, June, 1991, Philip Morrison, review of General Energetics: Energy in the Biosphere and Civilization, p. 130; August, 1994, Philip Morrison, review of Global Ecology, p. 94; April, 1999, review of Energies, p. 128; January, 2001, review of Feeding the World.
SciTech Book News, April, 1991, review of General Energetics, p. 18; December, 1997, review of Cycles of Life, p. 44; March, 2006, review of Creating the Twentieth Century; September, 2006, review of Transforming the Twentieth Century.
Technological Forecasting & Social Change, June, 2005, "Book Review," p. 645.
Technology and Culture, July, 1995, James C. Williams, review of Energy in World History, p. 690; July, 2007, Ian Petrie, review of Creating the Twentieth Century, p. 638.
Times Literary Supplement, September 10, 1993, review of China's Environmental Crisis, p. 6.
University of Manitoba,http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/ (February 21, 2008), "Vaclav Smil, FRSC."