Meet Vaclav Smil, the man who has quietly shaped how the world thinks about energy

Paul Voosen in Science:

SmileAs a teenager in the 1950s, Vaclav Smil spent a lot of time chopping wood. He lived with his family in a remote town in what was then Czechoslovakia, nestled in the mountainous Bohemian Forest. On walks he could see the Hohenbogen, a high ridge in neighboring West Germany; less visible was the minefield designed to prevent Czechs from escaping across the border. Then it was back home, splitting logs every 4 hours to stoke the three stoves in his home, one downstairs and two up. Thunk. With each stroke his body, fueled by goulash and grain, helped free the sun's energy, transiently captured in the logs. Thunk. It was repetitive and tough work. Thunk. It was clear to Smil that this was hardly an efficient way to live.

Throughout his career, Smil, perhaps the world's foremost thinker on energy of all kinds, has sought clarity. From his home office near the University of Manitoba (UM) in Winnipeg, Canada, the 74-year-old academic has churned out dozens of books over the past 4 decades. They work through a host of topics, including China's environmental problems and Japan's dietary transition from plants to meat. The prose is dry, and they rarely sell more than a few thousand copies. But that has not prevented some of the books—particularly those exploring how societies have transitioned from relying on one source of energy, such as wood, to another, such as coal—from profoundly influencing generations of scientists, policymakers, executives, and philanthropists. One ardent fan, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in Redmond, Washington, claims to have read nearly all of Smil's work. "I wait for new Smil books," Gates wrote last December, "the way some people wait for the next Star Wars movie."

Now, as the world faces the daunting challenge of trying to curb climate change by weaning itself from fossil fuels, Smil's work on energy transitions is getting more attention than ever. But his message is not necessarily one of hope. Smil has forced climate advocates to reckon with the vast inertia sustaining the modern world's dependence on fossil fuels, and to question many of the rosy assumptions underlying scenarios for a rapid shift to alternatives. "He's a slayer of bullshit," says David Keith, an energy and climate scientist at Harvard University. ive Smil 5 minutes and he'll pick apart one cherished scenario after another. Germany's solar revolution as an example for the world to follow? An extraordinarily inefficient approach, given how little sunlight the country receives, that hasn't reduced that nation's reliance on fossil fuels. Electric semitrailers? Good for little more than hauling the weight of their own batteries. Wind turbines as the embodiment of a low-carbon future? Heavy equipment powered by oil had to dig their foundations, Smil notes, and kilns fired with natural gas baked the concrete. And their steel towers, gleaming in the sun? Forged with coal.

"There's a lot of hopey-feely going on in the energy policy community," says David Victor, an expert on international climate policy at the University of California, San Diego. And Smil "revels in the capability to show those falsehoods."

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