Memories of Kirk Smith

You should always at least try to meet your heroes, especially when they are as immense as Kirk Smith, so when I attended a conference in Berkeley in 2011 (one of my last long-haul work flights), I wrote to him to see if we could meet. Characteristically generously, he said yes, and we made a date for a pizzeria near the University. I went, but couldn’t find him: I wandered around, staring into the faces of strange men, but none were him. Finally I just sat down and had a lovely meal with a total stranger who had been amused by my staring at him (I was wondering if he was hiding Kirk under his beard). I later learned from Kirk that he was with Lee Schipper, another towering giant of energy studies: Lee had just been diagnosed with the disease which would eventually kill him, and the two close friends were facing the news together.

I eventually did meet Kirk once, at IIASA near Vienna in Austria. He was lovely, sharp, critical, generous, at the time utterly obsessed with his new international collection of methane emissions data. Characteristically generously, he shared the data with me and my colleagues, wanting to know if we could find the same correlations (or lack thereof) between methane emissions and well-being indicators we saw with carbon emissions. [We did the analysis but found no correlations at all, so didn’t include the analysis in subsequent publications.]

I remember that during this meeting he was very open and self-critical, stating that “I wish I had never come up with the concept of health co-benefits of climate mitigation in the first place! All policy-makers hear is that someone in another ministry will eventually want to clean up the mess. All people hear when you say co-benefits is that it’s someone else’s job to reduce emissions.” I was amazed at his openness with his critical reflections, and his determination for science to matter, for someone in government to take it up and act on it. Both of these traits would serve myself and my colleagues in the IPCC well …

I admire Kirk for his multiple pioneering contributions to energy, health and climate science, and to his determination to criss-cross disciplinary boundaries as though they were nothing but threads to be woven together for greater knowledge. I continue to teach his work on theorizing the Environmental Kuznets Curve, where he insisted on understanding human/economic relations to pollution types through the prism of human health (the “environmental risk” lens). To me, this contribution alone would guarantee him a permanent place in the pantheon of great scholars of the Anthropocene, but he did so, so much more.

I’ll end by sharing the slides I use in teaching. Smith & Ezzati 2005 remains one of the papers I will always include, because it communicates core insights about human interactions with the environment, through the prism of health. Rest In Power, Kirk.



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Julia Steinberger

Immigrant, Swiss-American-UK ecological economist at the University of Lausanne. Research focus on living well within planetary limits. Opinions my own.