Prime mover

Local scientist’s theories on globalization and energy consumption have wide influence


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UNIVERSITY of Manitoba scientist Vaclav Smil has had a good year. This weekend sees the publication of his 30th book and his fourth of 2010, Prime Movers of Globalization, from The MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/10/2010 (4555 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

UNIVERSITY of Manitoba scientist Vaclav Smil has had a good year. This weekend sees the publication of his 30th book and his fourth of 2010, Prime Movers of Globalization, from The MIT Press in Cambridge, Mass.

His following among world opinion-makers, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, continues to grow on a variety of subjects, especial­ly world energy consumption and global risks.

The current issue of the prestigious academic journal American Scientist contains a positive review by John R.F. McNeil, a leading U.S. historian, of Smil’s 2010 book Why America Is Not a New Rome. In fact, Smil has had seven of his books reviewed in Nature, the oldest science weekly, something few scholars have achieved.

Smil, 67, was born in Czechoslovakia and, fol­lowing a short stint in the U.S. to complete his doctorate, came to Winnipeg in 1972. He teaches in the faculty of environment. The Free Press caught up with him recently to conduct a brief interview by email.

Q: The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has influenced the globalization dis­cussion with his book The World Is Flat, which argues that the economic playing field is being levelled in the 21st century. Do you agree with his assessment?

A: The surface may seem to be getting flatter (the same brands, cars, e-gadgets, the world of Sony, Toyota and LG, are encountered from Seoul to Soweto). But underneath, the differences (eco­nomic but also cultural and, most distressingly, the religious ones) are actually getting greater.

This is not only in China and India (where the proverbial tide lifts all boats, but those of the new urban class float now relatively lot higher than decades ago) but for the past generation even in the U.S. and Canada, where inequality is increas­ing. Think of nearly 50 million Americans living on food stamps: hard to believe how Friedman could get it so wrong.

Q: In Prime Movers of Globalization, you write about the under-appreciated impact of the diesel engine and the gas turbine on modern civiliza­tion. Can you summarize their importance?

A: Any imported manufactured products (that is, the bulk of consumer goods sold in North America today) came either on a container ship and was then loaded onto a truck for the final delivery (all powered by diesels) or as jet cargo (powered by gas turbines). All intercontinental trade in coal, oil and natural gas, ores and fertil­izer goes in large vessels powered by massive diesels. All long-distance flight is powered by GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce gas tur­bines: from moving materials and products to moving people, the modern global economy rests on those two prime movers.

Q: Why are these engines more important than, say, the steam engine or the gasoline-powered automobile engine?

A: Both steam engines and gasoline-powered internal combustion engines are not powerful enough to propel massive container or bulk cargo ships (they carry commonly 250,000 tonnes of load) and are horribly inefficient compared to massive diesels, the only prime movers that can now convert half of all fuel into useful energy.

And no prime mover is more reliable than a gas turbine powering an intercontinental jet.

Q: How much longer do you think modern economies will rely on oil, and what do you think of some of the proposed alternatives, such as bat­teries and fuel cell or even solar and wind power?

A: That depends not only on how much coal, oil and gas we will move from resource to reserve category (resources of everything are still plentiful, but the cost of their recovery and the environmental impacts are a different matter), but also how much we will eventually consider enough. Canadians and Americans consume twice as much energy per capita as the richest EU countries or Japan — without, obviously, be­ing twice as rich, smart or happy. Besides, no al­ternative is, as yet, available at a scale needed to make a difference to the global supply, that is on the order of hundreds of gigawatts for electricity generation, and hundreds of millions to billions of tonnes of oil equivalent in terms of fuel supply.

Q: Do you call yourself an environmentalist?

A: Of course, but the first qualification for such a label should be an extensive quantitative understanding of nature. Without it, everything dissolves into emotional qualitative claims that may, or may not, have any real merit.

Q: What are your views of the local food move­ment or the so-called 100-mile diet?

A: An appealing and laudable idea — but within limits, as the numbers often stack up against it: Differences in climates, soils and labour costs make for some convincing comparative advan­tages, as well as for superior product quality, and large diesels often make the long-distance ship­ping cheaper than the energies that would have to expended for local production in poorer soils and less clement climates. Hence garlic from Gilroy (just south of San Francisco) and Shiraz from Southeast Australia make sense.

Q: In your recent book Global Trends and Catastrophes, you argue that modern civilization is not at serious risk of imminent collapse. But if you were going to place a bet, which country or countries do you think will dominate the world 50 years from now?

A: I never make long-range forecasts; I have written a great deal (and perhaps convincingly) how and why they always fail. Find somebody who, in 1980, predicted the combination of the Soviet demise, China’s rise and America’s trans­formation into the world’s biggest debtor. He or she would tell you who will be on top in 2060.

Q: What do you think is a bigger threat to western civilization — “asymmetrical” conflicts, as you call terrorist attacks, or some kind of viral pandemic?

A: In terms of fear, anguish and enormous expenses aimed at preventing another major attack, obviously the first. In terms of eventual global impacts, the second: A mere repeat of the 1918-1919 pandemics would mean (with today’s global population about four times larger than 90 years ago) at least a quarter-billion deaths.

Q: Are modern communications technologies, such as cellphones, the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, as world-changing as contemporary pundits say they are?

A: Yes on the surface, no as far as the founda­tions are concerned. The modern world rests on massive incessant flows of fossil energies, on constant extraction of minerals, on smelting and machining of metals, syntheses of plastics and applications of fertilizers. These physical founda­tions of our civilizations (entirely hidden, indeed entirely non-existent to the mind of an average texter) have nothing to with Facebook or Twitter.

No amount of texting will extract more oil, pro­duce more steel or ammonia, and without their constant flows, everything modern, including all e-devices, would go down in no time.

Q: Is technological change in fact speeding up, and if so, what impacts will this have on human civilization?

A: This is an all too common claim, entirely based on the advances in solid-state electronics (ever-tighter packing of transistors on a chip ac­cording to Moore’s law). There is no sign of any technical acceleration as far as huge swaths of industries and production and consumption pro­cesses are concerned: The same prime movers power most of our electricity generation as they did a century ago (large steam and water tur­bines) and most of our personal mobility (internal combustion engines), and the same converters heat our houses (furnaces) or cook our food (gas or electric ranges). Of course, their efficiencies are now higher, a result of incremental improve­ments, not of any accelerated innovation.

Q: In your book Why America Is Not a New Rome, you argue that comparisons between the modern U.S. and the classical Roman Empire are misguided. Why is this? And do you think that the often-heard predictions of U.S. decline are overstated?

A: I wrote the book because I was annoyed by constant comparisons of the two polities based on nothing but the propensity for tossing off seem­ingly captivating phrases. There are so many fundamental differences, starting with the fact that Rome was never that powerful as believed by the talking TV heads — and neither has been the post-Second World War America. The U.S. began its inexorable decline from a very high spot on the global ladder, so it will take a while before it gets to be just one of many.

Q: The communications theorist Marshall Mc-Luhan, who grew up in Winnipeg, argued that we are in an era where the primacy of the written word is ending. Do you agree? What do you think is the future of the book?

A: More than that: In so many obvious ways the age of the book is already over. Just start quantifying time spent on Tweeting, texting, in­cessant neurotic checking of messages, staring at miniature or wall-like screens and then gossiping about what was seen on all of the above. Or as Hal Crowther put it, modern minds are turning into suet.” target=”_blanks”>

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