No. 49. Vaclav Smil, Environmental Scientist, University of Manitoba, Canada
The brilliant Czech-born Vaclav Smil has led a 30-year career of interdisciplinary contrarianism, writing hundreds of scientific articles and dozens of books attacking sacred cows of Western environmental and geopolitical thought. This year alone, he published four books and took on carbon sequestration and peak oil; Thomas Friedman’s flat world (“hard to believe how [he] could get it so wrong”); the environmentalist obsession with alternatives to fossil fuels; and the notion that the West could tear itself away from oil in a couple of years given the political will (“We are structurally cooked”). Bill Gates, enthusiastic funder of some of the exact innovations Smil deplores, often cites Smil and his “phenomenal” books.
Stubbornly clear-eyed about the human race’s sorry muck-up of the planet, Smil advocates radical energy conservation as our only hope — and even that is a distant one. “It’s doable, but doable only by catastrophe and crisis,” he said cheerily in October. “People will not voluntarily abandon their Hummers.”
Read more: Smil talks to FP about how the West got tricked into thinking it could overcome its gasoline addiction.
Reading list: Special issue of Granta on Pakistan (depressive does not begin to cover it); World War II and the American Dream, ed. by Donald Albrecht.
Best idea: An old standby: Economies should learn (again) to live within their means.
Worst idea: A new faith: Mass deployment of green energies is just around the corner.
China or India? After decades of writing about China, I must say India.
Kindle or iPad? Neither, I prefer my books between two covers.