A Theory of (Almost) Everything

Steven Cherry Hi this is Steven Cherry for Radio Spectrum.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the world is not only changing quickly, it’s changing at a faster rate than ever. Or does it just seem that way?

Surely we can all agree that the Industrial Revolution has changed everything. Or has it? One noted economist says there in fact were three industrial revolutions, and only one of them—the second one, from about 1870 to 1914, was important. In fact he largely discounts what we call the information revolution as insubstantial.

If you wanted to study the great trends and transitions of civilization—not just Western Civilization, but all of it—and break it down into epochs, and choose from the various transitions the five or seven most significant ones, and study the interplays of these transitions—which are causes of the others, and to what degree, and why some occur quickly and others—like the electric car—are postponed for a hundred years; if you wanted to do all that, it would take a lifetime of study.

In fact, you’d have to write ten or thirty books each one of which looks at some aspect of our world from a height of 30,000 feet, and then write an eleventh or thirty-first book that was the encapsulation of all that wisdom.

That certainly seems impossible. The last true Renaissance person, someone who knew pretty much all that was known at the time, might have been Aristotle, with asterisks for Franklin and Diderot, and maybe Bertrand Russell.

And yet, my guest today—who doesn’t know all that is currently known, but knows quite a bit about almost everything about technology, and the social and cultural changes that technologies have wrought, and what causes technological change itself, has done just that.

Václav Smil is a Czech-born Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba, a part of the world we don’t always associate with the Renaissance. He’s the author of more than 40 books in an enormously wide range of fields that includes energy and food production, environmental and population change, risk and public policy, and the history of technology and innovation.

His new book, which in some sense encapsulates all his prior scholarship, is Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made, published March 1st by Oxford University Press.

He’s also a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum and in that sense I’m very happy to have the honor of calling him a colleague.

Václav, welcome to the podcast.

Václav Smil Thank you, Steve. I wish I would know as much as you say. I know I.

Steven Cherry Well, welcome to the podcast. What you know is pretty impressive. And the book itself is quite impressive. The book focuses on what you call epochal transitions. You name seven of them: population agricultural practices, energy sources and conversion, industrialization and the rise of services, trade, wealth distribution, and the environment. Maybe you could say a word about what makes these transitions so special.

Václav Smil It is about what I call the real world, unlike the world of—which I don‘t participate in much—the Facebook and Twitter and Tick Tock or whatever else. I must be the last person on this planet without any Facebook. I have never tweeted. I don‘t even have a cell phone or a mobile phone. So this is the real world. You could abstract all the mobile phones and all Twitter, but you would still need … You could live comfortably without them, but you still need your wheat for your bread and steel for your bridges and big ships to bring all that stuff made in China to American and European shores. So what I try always to look at is what really makes the world go. What are the fundamentals, which were there yesterday, 50 years ago, 100 years ago? Which are here today and will be here with us for a long time to come so that I‘m looking at something which is a result of, you know, not permanent, but kind of semi-permanent or almost permanent, nd you always need. Simply the basics.

Steven Cherry You first divide the world between the premodern and the modern, and you put the line, as many do at about the year 1500 CE. And yet you note that growth and innovation existed before the industrial revolution, but incremental at best. And inertial in the main.

Václav Smil Absolutely. The [year] 1500 is of course arbitrary, I always feel … Actually, I‘ve written quite a bit about how much I hate the 0s and 5s. You know, like now we will decarbonize the world by 2050. Why not 2047? I mean, but this 1500, it‘s not my line it‘s generally in modern historical studies, people say 1500, okay, that‘s the average sort of incipient modernization—before that it‘s sort of, you know, the middle period, the medieval … Middle Ages, whatever you call it—because, you know, in many ways you could make better lines like 1648 (the the end of the 30 year war in Europe); you could start mid-18th century with the Encyclopedia writing in France. So different days, but it doesn‘t matter so much.

Simply, wherever you put it—1750 or 1650 or 1500—before that, the growth, whatever it was, and innovation, and there was plenty of it, was simply so incremental, so slow, and it took so long to translate it into something tangible in the economy. So somebody, quote unquote invented something. But it took hundreds of years before that something moved from China to Middle East and from Middle East, eventually to Europe. Well, now, of course, somebody invents something and within ten years, it‘s a new global product that everybody is buying. So this is the important thing that the innovation always existed. You get [it] always advancing. The economies are always growing. But the growth, those incremental fractions of a percent, and the rate of diffusion of innovation was very, very small.

Steven Cherry You mentioned that the biggest set of changes are represented by an example you give … actually two examples. The first of which is someone who has a child in 1820 and then her grandson 50 years later. Perhaps you could explain it.

Václav Smil Yeah, I try to look at something that goes to show the biggest of all breaks. And the biggest of all breaks is not—whatever, the nuclear age after 1945 or the invention of microchips—the biggest break is the 19th century because … I use this example of that little French girl born in early 19th century. Basically, she was born into a society that in many ways look not only like 1805 or 1815 right after Napoleon left, for St Helena, the society was much like 1715 or 1615 or 1515.

It was basically subsistence agriculture, economy; people worked with their hands, walked with their legs. There was no public transportation. Most people spend all their lives in villages. It was a hand-to-mouth existence. People shared beds, et cetera, et cetera. While by the end of the century, her grandson would be living in Paris, reconstructed, as we know, into these broad boulevards, with electricity everywhere inside the houses, with the subway, with cars being bought by rich people, with travel possible, people are going on vacations. People had these summer houses, Impressionists are painting and people are buying their paintings. It was a totally new world of incipient affluence. People are eating better. There was more meat, there was more sugar, there was more information.

Simply everything changed. So when she was born in 1815 or 1820, she was closer to medieval times while her grandson was pretty much close to our times. Because for him, you know, telephone, electricity, what he what he would be missing, of course, is this electronic stuff. But otherwise, you know, it was a lot of steel, mass transportation, mass communication … So this was the greatest break in human history, the 19th century.

Steven Cherry Different technologies develop or diffuse at very different rates. So for example, the jet airplane phased out ocean passenger travel in a little more than a decade, whereas the transition from farm labor going from human and animal labor to tractor-based took something like 80 years in the United States.

Václav Smil It‘s a matter of scale, you know. The most excellent example recently, of course, is the mobile phone. You have the infrastructure there. It took us a hundred plus years to build, you know, from the first time electricity-generating power plants in 1882, Edison. From 1882, we had like 120 years up to 2000 to build this infrastructure. So electricity everywhere. So you could plug your little transformer in and charge your phone. So all you have to do—at the apex of that infrastructure—you have to bring that little cell phone and you can make 100 million [of them] one year and 2 billion next decade and so on. But it‘s a different thing if you have to redo the prime movers in agriculture—to move from people and animals to tractors, you have to replace these things on millions and millions of hectares around the world in different conditions. The initial capital investment is great, you know; A person who is using an ox or a horse cannot just go and buy a tractor the next day. So you have to become sufficiently rich to afford that.

So, you know, this is the fundamental transition, like changing from animal and human labor to mechanization of agriculture, or changing from transportation—[from] just walking around or taking a stagecoach or riding a horse to developing the network of railways and then shipping companies and then airlines. These are these profound transformations that necessarily take decades and decades. Now, you mention, of course, that once we got jetliners, jetliners, eliminate the transatlantic crossings, within a decade. But, you know, it took us a while. The first flight and the first commercial flights were before the First World War. The first commercial airline, 1921, if I am right, or 1919, the Dutch KLM and you know, the jet flights in 1957. So even that took decades before he got from first commercial flying to jet flying. So most of these transitions take a long time.

Steven Cherry Some of these transitions exhibit what you call an S-shaped curve. I wonder if you could describe that a little bit and how common are they?

Václav Smil Well, it‘s a classical it‘s a classical growth curve. Namely, you start slowly, then you get into the period when things accelerate. And then, of course, you see the peak growth, and after the peak growth, you still grow but more slowly and eventually it saturates. The saturation levels, again, there is nothing universal about them. America basically is saturated. Let‘s say let‘s talk about what you see around.

You go like let‘s say I mentioned this mobile phone. So basically everybody has a mobile phone now. Even children like whatever. You know, you preschoolers, many preschoolers are they have a cell phone. So probably we are very close to saturation, whatever it is. You know, certainly not 100 percent, but it‘s probably 90 percent-plus. TV, who doesn‘t have a TV, color TV, big TV, whatever. So we‘ve saturated. It took us from, in the U.S., it took us to the 1930s by the pre-war TV was very, very minimal. So let‘s say in know from the late 40s to late 60s, by that time everybody had a color TV. On the other hand, some things saturate at very low levels. Everybody has—in America—everybody has air conditioning, has had air conditioning for probably a couple or three decades now. But very few people, relatively speaking, in Europe, have air conditioning. Another thing the Europeans don‘t have is a clothes dryer because electricity, most clothes driers are electricity-driven, powered. Because electricity is so much more expensive in Europe, most Europeans are still hanging their clothes outside, no matter if it‘s in Italy or in Germany. So saturation of the clothes driers in Europe will never be as high as in U.S. because of the differential prices in electricity. So there are different S-curves, different rapidities and forms of these curves, and different saturation levels. But just about every thing you look around the world, no matter if it‘s the ownership of this or that or, you know, different activities, tourism, buying things, saying that most of these things, the growth conforms to S-curves.

Steven Cherry Some of these curves are very interesting. You note in the book that by 1930, urban horses were almost completely displaced by electricity and the combustion engine. But the total tractor count was very low and the United States had more horses and mules in 1930 than it did in the 1890s.

Václav Smil You see, actually the number of … The U.S.—especially because of the mule population: In other countries people had oxen or horses, but poor farmers had mules, especially in the south. Actually the population of the number of horses and mules—that is draft animals in agriculture in the U.S.—peaked only at the end of the First World War. It depends how you count it really because not all of them are working, so let‘s not quibble: They picked it up in 1918, 1919 and 1920. That was the time with the largest number of animals, which was like, you know, two decades after the introduction of tractors. But first, tractors are very, very expensive. Nobody was buying them. Even through the 1920s and 1930s, much of the agriculture in large parts of the U.S. was horse- or mule-drawn. Even after the Second World War, there are quite a few states in the U.S., in the south, Alabama, Mississippi, where there were a large number of mules and horses, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture stopped counting the working horses in farming only 1963. So by 1963, basically less than half a million or. so working horses—they  stopped counting them because everything was tractors and combines. But it took, it took us from, let‘s say, you know, 1890s to 1963, even in the U.S.

Steven Cherry For some reason, I was reminded when I read that that the transition from film to digital photography and the fact that Kodak, contrary to popular belief, had many patents and digital photography and cameras, it was technically ready for the transition as much as any company. But its finances and corporate culture were incapable of making this transition because right up to the end, it was making more money than ever from its film businesses.  These transitions are pretty complicated.

Václav Smil And that‘s the story … Kodak is just one of many examples like that, when people had it at their fingertips, they could have … I mean, what they had was bulky and it wasn‘t ideal …. It needed lots more development. But certainly, as you say, they had it within the company to be better managed … They could have been the king of the heap. And where are they?

But the same thing is true about search, right? Look at Google. Google is now totally dominant. Google wasn‘t there at the beginning at all? Especially in the … it‘s always like that, you know, that many people missed the boards in the history of technology for the past couple thousand years. But it‘s more common recently when people starting, really innovating, they get the ideas they never developed it. And the latecomers grab it and become billionaires overnight.

Steven Cherry You note that the 100-year gap in the history of electric cars, that is to say, at the turn of the 20th century, electric look like the way to go. Edison certainly believed it. It was one of the few transitions he misjudged. You say that the transition from gas to electric vehicles, which we‘re only now starting, will take many decades to complete. Many observers think it will come now very quickly and certainly if we‘re to stay anywhere near the Paris Accords, 1.5 degrees, it had better come quickly.

Václav Smil But it is not coming quickly. If you look at this, they are coming, they are coming quicker than ever, that‘s for sure. And this will not be the abortive case like it was in the first decade of the 20th century. So they are coming. They‘ll keep coming. But if you look back, what is really instructive to look back at the forecast, because you see people are forecasting constantly all the time. Everybody is forecasting.

So you go back to 2013 or 2012 and the waves started and people said by 2020, how many electric cars we will have. You can see that every forecast issued for the number or penetration rate of electric cars, it should be in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017—all of these forecasts have been wrong by up to an order of magnitude. By this time we should have now twenty percent or seven percent, whatever, while in some countries it‘s zero point seven percent or half a percent or one percent.

Look, globally, I think best is the global figure, because you mentioned to the climate; if you want really to help the climate, you have to do it on a global scale. If you totally decarbonize in Switzerland or in Canada (37 million people) and China keeps blowing ahead, it makes no difference. You have to do it on a global scale. Globally, we have now 1.4 billion vehicles on the road—cars and trucks and busses and things that go. 1.4 Billion. We have 10 million electric cars at the end of 2013. That million is globally 0.7 percent. So, so fast it has gone. So if something has gone from basically zero in 2000 to zero point seven percent in 2020, it‘s not going to go to 50 percent in 2030. That‘s a kindergarten algebra.

Steven Cherry It‘s very hard to tease out the intertwined causal relationships between these grand transitions. For example, declining birth rates, which have greatly slowed down population growth, are usually thought to be largely a consequence of increased household income. But you note that the causal arrow can go the other way as well, and other factors are involved.

Václav Smil I wrote a little bit about it in the preface to the book. Why don‘t I have any graphs of these things? Because all these things, of course, are interconnected very intimately and in many, many, many nations. And so you could start doing these things, you know, use the arrow from energy to food and of course, there are many arrows, and the arrows [go] from energy to everything else and from population to labor force and labor force to economic productivity, and this is what people have been trying to do with all kinds of developed models going live to the limits of growth model in the early 1970s, which started at MIT in the late 60s with these world models. And I resisted.

And as I explained in the preface, I chose not to do any of these things because we should do ourselves a service. We should not simplify these things and do these nice little graphs. You know, there is an energy and arrow to environment and that‘s polluting it. And energy an arrow to food that‘s supporting the food production. It is so much more complex than we … We understand it‘s much more complex, but we really shouldn‘t be trying to graph it or simplify it because it‘s doing us a disservice. Then we are surprised that something emerges from this kind of whatever, as you Americans say from the left field. And that‘s what it is, that we always underestimate the complexity of complex systems and this gets us into trouble. I‘m not going to say anything about Covid because there we underestimated very well-known complexity, which we had to explain … which many of us were expecting.

In my 2008 book about global catastrophes and trends, I said, the next major pandemic is inevitable before 2021. And it was no great feat of forecasting because these things always come and go and we always underestimate these things and we are always surprised. So this is why I don‘t like the idea to simplify these links, because in reality they are much more complex than we envisage.

Steven Cherry I alluded earlier to the Northwestern University economist, Robert Gordon. He notes, as you do in the book, that growth rates—using measures like GDP—were very low, at times nearly stagnant until the Industrial Revolution. Your book puts it at approximately 0.01 percent per year for the first 1000 years of the common era and about 0.1 percent for the next 500 years or so. That‘s an order of magnitude, but it‘s still very low. During the Industrial Revolution, we‘ve seen rates of four percent, six, eight, even 10 percent claimed in China, but in the Western countries we‘re largely back down toward two percent. Gordon claims the low numbers are the norm, that the high rates were an anomaly and that we will be back down to one percent or even below that by the end of the century. What are your thoughts?

Václav Smil The world of economists is divided into … I mean, there are many divisions …. But in this instance there are simply two divisions. People who think like Gordon and I very, very much agree with him because I share his deep conviction that there are fundamental limits to the technical innovation and the speed of economic growth and to people like his colleague in the same faculty are the same university, Joel Mokyr, who thinks that invention will get us through everything into everything forever. There is no end to it and and that the future is brighter than ever.

I go with Gordon as a student of long-term development and technical advances. You can see it, you know, you can make only so many fundamental breaks. We still have a wheel. And that‘s some very damn-it-all invention there. And it‘s just very difficult for us to do better than a wheel. And we still have Edisonian electricity. Let‘s face it, in spite of all this all this hoopla about all this personal portable electronics, this is still an Edisonian system: There still is a generator and there still is a transformer and there is a transmission and there is a whatever, you know, low or high voltage and it‘s AC or DC, and that‘s all 1880s. And we haven‘t made any fundamental difference to this in 100 years.

And we still have an internal combustion engine and that‘s also 1880s. And we still are making steel and ammonia and aluminum in pretty much the same way as we were making it a hundred years ago today. So let‘s not exaggerate the rate of these technical innovations. And these technical innovations cannot drive because they kind of mature that S-curve forms and they mature and they level off. They cannot drive forever the economic growth or whatever, five or six or seven percent. So, yes, I‘m very much with Gordon that in the long run the societies will have to settle into much lower, much more supportable rates of growth, especially as they are getting older and especially as many of them now are dying out. How can you support that high economic growth when population shrinks by half a million people as it does now in Japan every year.

Steven Cherry There are people who think that machine learning and AI in general will produce some of the same dramatic changes that the steam engine produced.

Yes, of course. Of course. I know I‘m the wrongest possible guy to talk about this because here I am the deepest of deep skeptics. I‘ve seen it all. If you would ask Gordon about is he might be even more up on this than I am.

I just do not see an AI economy by next Monday and by next Monday, I mean 2030 or 2040. It will be very slow in coming because he has been very slow in coming. And there are some fundamental reasons why, because it‘s just not so easy. Look, you know, the fundamental metal of civilization is steel. A few years ago, I wrote a book about just about steelmaking. Nobody pays any attention to still the same kind of outdated old-fashioned stuff. But without steel, there is nothing in modern civilization. It is the fundamental metal. What do you need? You have to dig up tremendous amounts of iron ore somewhere in Canada or in Brazil and then bring it to big steel mills, which are mostly China and Japan, and then you have to dig up lots of coal and make lots of coal and put into blast furnace and smelt it. How the hell do you make it AI? This is a mass movement, mass scale. You make 1.6 billion tonnes of that stuff every year. This is not easily amenable to tapping into a computer.

Steven Cherry That question of high growth rates and whether they‘re anomalous makes me wonder about other things that might turn out to be just anomalies of a few hundred years or even 100 years instead of the norm. Two that come to mind are antibiotics and literacy. Are they anomalous or are they norms that will stay with us. And now there are other anomalies that we take for granted?

Well, you know, I just have to take on the last one, literacy, because, you know, that‘s … I would have never thought about it in this talk but this is my favorite topic, actually. And I‘m terribly biased because I‘m a man of old European culture. I‘m multilingual, and I read in many languages and I read voraciously everything which comes under my eyes, you know. So I would think already that literacy is over because the people now are just, you know, functionally illiterate. They haven‘t … I mean, who the hell these classics I mean, 19th century, early 20th century, even the even the mid 20th century classics, you know, how many people now, you know, in the U.S., you know, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, what does it mean to people, really? Forget about Zola and Dumas and Turgenev … forget about the Russians nowadays … So I mean, this has already happened, tapping into computer, relying on all these self-correcting things and whatever … people cannot spell.

For that reason, I retired in 2011, but long before that, I stopped asking my students to write essays because it was really painful to read their spelling they just couldn‘t spell. Why? They don‘t need to spell. Just simply the spell check will, you know, correct spelling. So literacy definitely. It may be very high, whatever it is, you know, 98 percent, whatever. But the real literacy is much lower than during the three generations ago. Grandparents, my parents, godparents, people are more deeply than they are now. Actually, I have absolutely no doubt about it.

Steven Cherry My mother‘s high school education, I think is better than a two-year community college degree is today. What about antibiotics? So far we have kept ahead of the mutations and and adaptations of germs, but maybe that won‘t last much longer.

Václav Smil Well, my son is an organic chemist working in the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research. So we talk about these things all the time. But as you know very well, the answer is very simple. For antibiotics, there is no money in it. You need it only for those seven, ten days and then you are cured and you don‘t need it. So it‘s not like your cholesterol, high blood pressure, things taking every day for the rest of your life. And the tomes and tomes and thousands of papers have been written about this in past twenty years. How we are running, we are falling back and how we should be developing more. And, you know, but everybody is just writing and very few people are doing it because there is no billion-dollar drug at the end of this story. So so far, as you said, we‘ve been just, you know, a little bit ahead also with some of these, especially South African forms of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis.

It‘s coming pretty closely, but so far we‘ve been running ahead …. But that‘s one of these, you know, 64-million or -billion dollar questions. How are we going to be able to do it, really? It requires a new model of drug invention and drug development. And as you have seen, now is this vaccine even in the emergency situation, the world is not ready yet to come really together and do some global sharing. And global development. It‘s still very much company by company, country by country.

Steven Cherry I have one further question following up the idea of economic growth and growth rates. GDP is a terrible measure of the economy for many reasons.

Václav Smil Absolutely horrible, horrible.

Steven Cherry I‘m going to name just three. It measures growth, so an earthquake or a tornado is a plus to GDP because we have to rebuild. GDP doesn‘t distinguish between, say, a coal generator that‘s ruining the environment and a wind farm. And finally, it doesn‘t properly account for things like Google search, which is virtually free to the end user, or the fact that a $600 television today is much better than a $600 television of 10 years ago. How would you like us to measure growth in economic activity?

Václav Smil Well, I thought about this for many, many decades because in my writings, I‘m not an economist, but when you write about energy, environment, food, you‘re running into this economic question all the time. And, of course, GDP, I mean, you cannot stress enough how horrible measure it is. The more crime in the city, you hire more policemen and there are more emergency room visits and the GDP goes up. I mean, it‘s absurd, plus of course, it doesn‘t measure properly steel versus people who are tapping into computers. People are tapping into computers, especially the lawyers, we award them whatever, a thousand bucks per hour for their quote unquote consultation; people who make steel, we say, oh, just schmucks making steel, we pay them $15 per hour or $25 …. So that‘s another part of what makes these GDPs of these countries bigger than we really think because people who run the show are awarding themselves more money than people who make steel or shoes.

But the problem is that when you think about these things and many people—many economists—have been very unsatisfied with this and they‘ve tried to come up with better measures, it‘s simply damned difficult to come up with a better measure than this totally inadequate, horrible money measure. That money measure, you know, that money can dissolve everything. They can dissolve steel and shoes and everything could be turned into dollars per hour. But if you made that steel, there is this effect of the steel on the environment or we have that lawyer who is constantly flying to meetings in Asia and has the effect on the whatever emissions of CO2. How do you make that into money? It‘s very easy because there is no common denominator and there are so many different activities. So you have difficulties in using the yardstick that could measure all of these things and you have difficulties converting it into some common denominator. So people try to, you know, kind of a sustainable measure of gross people, try to put the environmental ethic, convert [it] into money. None of these measures and people have tried many, many times in the past few years. None of these measures took to root. And GDP is still with us and I‘m afraid they‘ll be with us the next 20, 30 years. It‘s awful, but it‘s the best thing we have. It‘s terrible thing to say, but that‘s the way it is.

Steven Cherry You mentioned your book about steel. It‘s called Still the Iron Age: Iron and Steel in the Modern World. That book and the new book put me in mind of a question that a University of Pennsylvania economics professor asks his Econ 101 students on the very first day of class every semester. The question is this. If you could have a free income without work of $70,000 in 1905, you would have a grand house, you would have servants, a fancy carriage and so on. If you had a free income of $70,000 in 2005, 100 years later, you would merely have a comfortable middle-class existence, but you would also have refrigeration, air travel, Google, the aforementioned antibiotics. I‘m curious which you would choose?

Václav Smil Oh, definitely today. Because, you know, the odds of living …. The fundamental risk is the is the risk of premature dying. And so there is no contest there, you know. I may feel in many ways more comfortable in my mind as a man of the 19th century because it‘s the one I really admire and it created what we are. But it was essentially, of course, that there was no cure for tuberculosis and our children were dying prematurely. So in terms of how health advances also, it made tremendous advances, you know, between 1800 and 1900 and we made tremendous advances in health and public health. But still, it was a very dicey world where, you know, tuberculosis was mowing people down right, left, and center. And when we had no antibiotics and when simple operations that today are routine, even though, you know, the cancer operations, breast cancer, prostate cancer, there was only the very, very beginning. So definitely right now because the fundamental risk has been reduced to such a level that average life expectancy has increased by more than 50 percent during the last century.

Steven Cherry If I could return to the beginning of our conversation, is the world changing at a faster rate than ever, or does it just seem that way?

Yes, it seems that way. You may have read one of the essays I wrote for Spectrum recently was about the reception of pandemics that I calculated that there was one in 1957 and one in 1968. So I went back to population size and calculated how many people have been at least 10 years old in 57. So they have the memories, assuming that by age then you have some memories which you retain for later and how many people are alive in ‘68 and of course by ‘68 and the 2019, you got more than one billion people alive who should at least remember the 1968 pandemic. And I kept asking around, you know, and nobody remembers 1968 pandemic, even that one billion plus people who were at least 10 years old in 68. And there are a considerable number of people who were alive back then in the 1957 pandemic. The one in ‘68 was milder than the one we are now. But the one in ‘57, if you recalculate proportionally for the population of the world in ‘57 and now, it was much, not much, but substantially more infective and substantially more people died than the one now.

And you know, nobody remembers it. Why? Because it wasn‘t remembered, every new death wasn‘t reported almost every second on CNN. And that running thing at the bottom, how many people are infected, how many people died … It was the most reported pandemic ever. In ‘57—I went into sources—there was nothing in the economy growth reports. Nothing was closed. Schools are not closed. The planes are flying. Nothing was shut down. Yet proportionately, more people died in that one than in the pandemic right now. So this is to answer the question. Yes, you know, everything is now, you know, everything is overreported, overdone, exaggerated. Yet, you know, you look back, one week later and the big news from one week ago is gone and done. Nobody thinks about it anymore, so everything is more ephemeral.

Steven Cherry That‘s an interesting metric to answer the question by. But let me offer a counterexample. Well, we were discussing literacy and and your your hypothetical French grandmother. I‘m going to switch that up just a little bit and ask you … I mean, Marcel Proust, who was born in 1871, he would recognize and understand the medieval world better than he would understand the world of today or even the world of 1971.

Václav Smil I don‘t know, really. You see, the thing is that that we interpret too much really. And I‘ve been trying in my books … we try to come up to some easy, big conclusions like, you know, this is unprecedented, like, AI will come and you will change everything. You say, everything. Why can‘t we just simply say, okay, there is this new applied use of computers, which we call AI, you know, we say, “It will be a fundamental change, it will change everything.” So, you know, we try all these too much to get used too much. So I am trying not to be so deductive. I recognize, let‘s say, you know, that maybe I go overboard with the 19th century, although I don‘t think I do. I think that was a fundamental break in human history, but not everything has changed because as I say, you know horses … I remember, you know, even after the Second World War in Europe, there are quite a few horses around, even in European cities that are going down the road, not that many, but it also it just takes a long time. Nothing so fundamentally—so fundamental to relook at this again or the hindsight of several generations.

So I argue that we should not generalize so much. We shouldn‘t say, you know, it is so unprecedented because in so many ways. In so many ways, yes. But in so many ways, no. So my answer leaves many people dissatisfied because I refuse to say, you know, it‘s really so pathbreaking, so Earth-shattering really … I argue for the consistency. For yes, it changes rapidly, but still, in a way, it‘s a part of a long-run continuum. I‘m always mindful of history and I‘m mindful of not making too much of the recent advances. We need some perspective to look back at them, rather than to look ahead for them.

Steven Cherry Well, Václav, we‘ve barely scratched the surface of the new book, which has a thought-provoking observation on every one of its 300 pages, often more than one thought-provoking observation. Thank you for the complete body of your work for this capstone achievement and for joining us today.

Václav Smil OK, thanks, Steve.

Steven Cherry We’ve been speaking with Václav Smil, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Member of the Order of Canada, scholar extraordinaire, and author of a new must-read book, Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made.

Radio Spectrum is brought to you by IEEE Spectrum, the member magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, a professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity.

This interview was recorded February 17, 2021 on Adobe Audition via Zoom. Our theme music is by Chad Crouch.

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For Radio Spectrum, I’m Steven Cherry.

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