Growth at all costs?

Growth. From Microorganisms to Megacities
Forfatter: Vaclav Smil
Forlag: MIT Press (USA)
CONSUMPTION / Can we continue today's practice of continuous economic growth? Can our own society with overconsumption be transferred to the world's new billions of future citizens?


Society is characterized by the debate between pessimists and optimists, where the optimists have so far had a significant head start. This is despite the fact that we realize that over-consumption is based on a system that treats the biosphere as an assembly line of goods and services to be consumed. At the same time, nature and atmosphere are used as a rubbish dump, where old goods are dumped in the form of pollution, plastic and exhaust gases. But we are growing, in terms of both the number of things and things we no longer want, in height and width. And we will be more.

A very unique book attempts a comprehensive analysis of the concept of "growth". Czech-Canadian environmental / energy historian Vaclav Smil uses 600 pages to review everything we know about growth and "growing." Through six chapters he covers everything from nature to the social and to much of what exists in technical and important appearances. It is about life on earth and what we as human societies have managed to create. In other words, we are moving from the bacterial invasion to the transformation of energy into increasingly potent forms, the development of megabytes and the entire complex global economy.


Along the way, we see how great kingdoms and civilizations arise, grow and possibly die or radically change shape. We get a lot of statistics on everything from livestock living conditions in modern large scale farming to fascinating population studies. We get an insight into Japan and China's challenges, we are in the field of economic theory and statistics, and we are updated lately in the civilization debate. In such a comprehensive book, every historically and socially engaged reader will find a lot of interest and can skip what lies outside the sphere of interest. The book ends by asking what might come after things can't grow anymore. The planet's biochemical laws mean there is a limit to everything.

Nature and atmosphere are used as an old rubbish heap
goods are dumped in the form of pollution, plastics and exhaust gases.

Smil is a renowned academic with countless books and publications, and he uses his vast historical knowledge to put things into quantifiable analysis. This is his method: documented historical facts first, then some (cautious) conclusions afterwards.

That is why the most optimistic supporters of green growth, perhaps myself included, have something to think about when reading this book. Smiles are skeptical of what he calls ahistorical predictions and claims.


According to Smil, we have been through three major energy transitions. Now we strive to get to the fourth. The first occurred when we thawed the fire, which enabled us to release energy from the sun by heat treating nature's own products. Then came the transition to agriculture, which transformed solar energy into cultivated food and released man so that it could engage in pursuits other than self-storage. Then came the industrialization and use of fossil energy sources. Coal, oil and gas gave us an energy supply that was adventurous.

New energy

Now we are facing the fourth transition, where we are looking for sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide, and where we want to use the sun's capacity in more direct ways.

Throughout history, we have succeeded in using denser and more powerful sources of energy. When we used timber to heat the house, large areas were needed to keep it going. Through graphs, Smil shows us how coal and oil have much higher energy density, and how they produce more energy per gram while also coming from fairly compact veins and springs. It is therefore demanding to move to more dispersed renewable sources, such as bioenergy and solar and wind parks. Had nuclear power not been considered too expensive or too risky, it would have been a good transition, as the energy density is very good.

The planet's biochemical laws mean there is a limit to everything.

The transition from timber to fossil energy sources took almost a hundred years. Now wind and sun are entering the market, but according to all available statistics and despite percentage growth, they still form a small part of our energy mix. Smiles are realistic and believe that the transition to a completely renewable society will also be a slow process if we are to rely on historical experience. If that is true, we can bid farewell to the Paris target of staying below a 2 degree average global warming by 2050. And this is true even if we now emit less CO2 per unit of energy used, since we always use more and more, all the while we are getting more and more.

A warning sign

Smile's pessimism ends in a warning. We must debate today's growth-fetishism more critically. We overload the biosphere. In a world where the middle class is growing fast, most people want to reach a material level they see elsewhere, and with which advertising feeds us. The Chinese in this picture, according to Smil, are now trying to become even more American than the Americans themselves. It doesn't promise well. Smile is also not optimistic on behalf of economics. There are ecological economists out there, including those who proclaim non-growth or negative growth, but they have little impact and modest impact.

I read online that in 2008 Al Gore gave a speech saying that every 40 minutes enough sun falls on the earth's surface to meet 100 percent of the planet's energy needs for a full year. Gore therefore believed that it was possible for the United States to produce all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2018.

This is, as I read Smile, really stupid. It throws eyes on us, and we do not understand how difficult it is to get to this, or how much time, work and investment it takes.

Fortunately, Smil has many fans, both in academia and in the entrepreneurial sector. One of them is Bill Gates. A couple of years ago, Gates invested several billion dollars in research and development to accelerate this necessary transition.

Here at home we have a large pension fund, based on the third revolution. It is, in my opinion, only to use it to speed up the fourth. We should not have growth at all costs. We're going to have a transition. We're having a bad time. Only for that reason is Smil's book important.

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