Invention and Innovation by Vaclav Smil [8/10]

Super-technology-analyst Vaclav Smil has the wonderful capacity and ability to burrow into details and yet scan from the highest possible heights. His “analyses” are either weaponized (anti-renewable folks loved him but now he’s smashing nuclear power!) or derided as myopically extrapolating from the past. I see him as a marvelous provocateur to be read and absorbed and then carefully digested. “Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure” is his latest no-holds-barred mixture of historical adventure and bristling polemics. Decrying what he sees as a current fad for overestimating the pace of innovation, Smil starts by recounting the histories of three “inventions that turned from welcome to undesirable”: leaded gasoline, DDT, and chlorofluorocarbons. Then he unfolds the histories of “three inventions that were to dominate – but do not”: airships, nuclear fission, and supersonic flight. Then, three “inventions that we keep waiting for”: travel in a (near) vacuum, nitrogen-fixing cereals, and controlled nuclear fusion. Each mini history is a tour de force of unpacking data analytically, cogently, and authoritatively. Smil’s final chapter is his now-familiar rant that decarbonization targets and hopes are hopelessly ambitious, at least based on any history.

Some of Smil’s recent prolific output has seemed to flirt with excessive emotionalism. Make no mistake, Invention and Innovation is at heart a diatribe, a familiar one, but the historical underpinnings are a pleasure to absorb and his unexpurgated opinions certainly add to our current debates about the future. Recommended.

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