There are a handful of moments when we feel the earth move beneath our feet. Something shifts, and we instantly grasp that there will be a clear delineation of before and after. Along with the September 11 terror attacks and the 2008 global financial crisis, the unfolding pandemic will undoubtedly stand as one of the pivotal moments of our time.
To halt the coronavirus’s rapid spread, and to give health care systems a fighting chance, governments around the world have introduced unprecedented measures that severely limit freedom of movement for billions of people. The daily toll of newly infected and dead has become a regular fixture of news reports. In Italy, where I live, the situation has been especially tragic; the country’s large elderly population is particularly vulnerable. More than 30,000 deaths had been recorded by early May, and the grim spectacle of military convoys removing coffins from Bergamo — its local cemetery now overwhelmed — will remain etched in the Italian public consciousness for years to come.
Unfortunately, many governments were slow to realize the scale of the threat; many authorities hesitated to act because of financial concerns. If public life comes to a standstill, so too does the economy. But perhaps the nature of exponential growth also helps explain the initial inaction. “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function,” the American physicist Al Bartlett famously said, and that’s because we’re used to thinking of growth and change in more linear terms.
We are facing both a global pandemic and a global recession of potentially catastrophic proportions. As political leaders and civil servants rewrite the rules of mainstream economic policy on the fly, in sometimes radical fashion, we have a rare opportunity to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
In re-examining the very notion of progress, we might do worse than to turn to Vaclav Smil for guidance. A distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Smil has spent decades conducting interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production, and nutrition. With Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, published last fall, he offers an extended, systematic exploration of the phenomenon of increase in its many manifestations — from the natural world (plants, crops, animals) to transportation (automobiles, steam engines), from energy converters (engines, turbines, hydroelectric dams) to the most complex systems (cities, economies, empires).
In this sweeping survey, Smil has no time for empty triumphalism, nor for “mesmerized” techno-optimists who see only “omnipresent signs of accelerated growth.” Instead, he delivers a blunt message, marshalling mountains of data and statistical analysis to argue that our “long-term survival” will require a “departure from the long-established pattern of maximizing growth and promoting material consumption.”
Before the Industrial Revolution — when we first saw massive gains in productivity, material progress through technology, and upsurges in agricultural and economic output — society more or less crawled along at a snail’s pace, unless it was stagnating or regressing outright. It took the ancient Egyptians over two and a half millennia to achieve a doubling of agricultural productivity, for example. The extraordinary growth rates we associate with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are the exception, not the rule. Yet modern civilization is predicated on the notion of constant, endless improvement — better technical performance of our machines and computers, increasing per capita income, and the constant expansion of the global economy.
Exposing the dangerous and often hidden paradox at the heart of this predication, Smil drives home some hard truths. By reminding us that economic growth is inescapably linked to a planet with finite, limited resources, he insists on reframing what are frequently abstract discussions. Smil places things firmly in the real world, where higher populations and increased economic activity require similarly increasing amounts of energy, food, and raw materials simply to keep it all going. Nowhere is the absurdity of the gospel of perpetual growth more apparent than in our go‑to yardstick for measuring economic vitality, the gross domestic product.
The modern notion of the GDP was developed by the American economist Simon Kuznets in the 1930s, but the concept went mainstream only after the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. By focusing exclusively on the numbers, Smil shows, it tells us nothing about the quality of the growth we worship; it pays no regard to social utility or human well-being. Further, it neglects to account for most externalities, notably environmental degradation like water pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and the impact of carbon emissions.
Historically, such externalities “were not an integral part of the cost of doing business.” But Smil isn’t much interested in tweaking the recipe for quantifying economic activity — adding a dash of green (like a carbon tax) here and a pinch of human flourishing (maybe a gross national happiness index) there. His sights are squarely set on exposing the folly of the assumption that underpins the whole system: more is always better.
The sheer breadth of subjects Smil covers, along with a surfeit of data, can be overwhelming. But nearly every page has a surprising fact or thought-provoking observation that forces you to adjust your understanding of the world. One such example: China consumed more cement in the three years between 2008 and 2011 than did the United States throughout the entire twentieth century.
One of the few bright spots amid the otherwise bad news of these past months was a pair of satellite images. Released by the European Space Agency, they show a drastic decline of air pollution over Italy, especially in the heavily industrialized north. In arresting fashion, they illustrate the direct link between economic activity (or inactivity, as is the recent case) and the impact on the environment and human health.
“The necessity to minimize the spread of a potentially pandemic infection,” Smil ominously and presciently writes, “may cripple the everyday life and economic performance of closely linked megacities on different continents.” Nobody is seriously proposing that we keep our economies crippled permanently; after all, taxes pay for the hospitals and the ventilators that we desperately need. But, like all moments of crisis, the pandemic is as much of an unprecedented test as it is a chance to approach things differently.
“Before it is too late,” Smil urges, “we should embark in earnest on the most fundamental existential (and also truly revolutionary) task facing modern civilization, that of making any future growth compatible with the long-term preservation of the only biosphere we have.” Especially now, it is difficult to imagine a more important or more worthwhile challenge.