Review: How the World Really Works

How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil. New York: Viking, 2022.

Summary: A scientific, data-based assessment of how our advanced technological global civilization has developed, the challenges we face, and what it realistically will take to address these challenges.

Can we get to “carbon zero” by 2050? Why has it been so hard to get everything from computer chips to PPE? Why didn’t the dire predictions of The Population Bomb come true? Vaclav Smil would maintain that to respond to these questions, we need to understand the science, the data, of how the world really works. And it is often the case in our public discussions, we have refused to take a hard look at the scientific realities and the technological possibilities.

Take the Population Bomb illustration for example. Back in 1968, Paul Ehrlich predicted massive deaths from famine resulting from overpopulation. At that time, the world population was 3.7 billion. Now it is over 8 billion, and no mammoth famines have occurred (yet). How could this be? It was the result of vastly increased grain yields resulting from hybrids and the intensive application of nitrogenous fertilizers manufactured with carbon-based fuels. Could we go back? Not easily–manure, the primary source of nitrogen before chemical fertilizers provides far less fertilizer, weighs far more and requires far more labor.

Or those shortages of chips and PPE. Facilitated by global supply chains, far-flung factories with lower wage scales, and container shipping, it was economically feasible to “offshore” manufacturing throughout the world. But is it wise, Smil asks, to manufacture 70 percent of rubber gloves in a single factory, or all our computer chips elsewhere? Manufacturing shutdowns and transport delays during the pandemic exposed this supply chain that all of us took for granted.

Smil challenges us to face the realities of modern life. Take our dependence on electric power. Apart from nuclear, carbon-fueled power plants offer the maximum of power-generating capability and reliability. Hydro, wind, and solar are both less efficient and reliable. And our increased energy usage offsets the gains we are making in renewables. Getting free of carbon-based power generation is not happening in places like China and India who are increasing their usage of such power.

Then there are what Smil calls “the four pillars of modern civilization”: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Ammonia is what feeds the world in terms of those nitrogenous fertilizers. The lightweight durability and moldability of plastic makes it widely used in everything from water bottles to airframes, yet also troublesome as it breaks down and infiltrates our water, and our bodies. The world runs on concrete in our highways and buildings, yet it also deteriorates over time as witnessed in bridge and high-rise collapses. Likewise, steel is ubiquitous in our building, various utensils, our vehicles, our tools and more. It is very recyclable. The fundamental truth we need to face is that, at present, the manufacture of all of these are massively dependent on fossil fuels. As yet, no renewable power sources exist to manufacture these.

Smil assesses our environmental challenges. These do not come in terms of oxygen, food, and water, basic constituents of life but in terms of decarbonization. He argues that none of the “zero carbon” goals even begins to wrestle with the “four pillars” of modern life, nor the challenges of electricity generation globally. This doesn’t prevent him for arguing that we must do what we can, from reducing waste in food production to converting to cleaner forms of transport and reducing energy use (such as installing triple-paned windows, and reducing meat consumption. But that won’t get us anywhere close to carbon zero and he excoriates the magical thinking of so many public pronouncements without substantive changes.

Smil includes a chapter on understanding risk, which seemed a bit of a diversion from the other subjects in the book, but also connects to his basic theme of how the world works. He illustrates that many of the risks we fear are less than the ones to which we are daily exposed–for example the risk of dying at the hands of a foreign terrorist are infinitesimal to that of dying from domestic gun violence of various sorts and that often we do not make policies on the basis of rational factors.

His final chapter deals with understanding the future, the flaws in all our future predictions (again, remember The Population Bomb). The reality is that we are navigating a space that is somewhere between apocalypse and singularity. While the future is uncertain, understanding in realistic terms our past and our present helps us recognize one thing–our actions do matter.

This is a daunting book, both in terms of technical detail and its dose of hard empirical reality–a bucket of cold water drenching our idealistic dreams of a carbon-free world. Smil does not say we shouldn’t work toward these things. Instead, I hear him saying, “Let’s get real and talk about how we are going to get there and how long it will take and what that will mean.” He resists pessimism, but also points tellingly to the lack of little more than empty promises on the global stage. He wants us to stop thinking we can evacuate to other planets. We’re not going to terraform Mars. As a scientist, he wants us to focus on how modern life in the only world we have really works.

Review: Buying Time

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Buying Time: Environmental Collapse and the Future of Energy, Kaz Makabe. Lebanon, NH: ForeEdge, 2017.

Summary: A study that looks at the world’s increasing energy demands and the environmental challenges these pose, and makes the argument that nuclear power, even with its risks, needs to be considered in the energy mix.

A number of years ago I led a group in my church in doing an environmental audit of the resources we used in the activities of our daily lives, the source of these resources, and what happened to these after our use. It was an eye-opening exercise for all of us, particularly as we realized how heavily dependent we are upon electricity. As I write, the light, the air conditioning in my home, the computer on which I am writing, the TV in the living room, the washer and dryer laundering our clothes, and the refrigerator preserving our food all run on electricity. That’s typical of most of our homes. Multiply this by our businesses and manufacturers, and the devices from phones to cars that require re-charging and you realize how highly dependent we are upon the reliable supply of electric power.

Kaz Makabe takes this a step further and looks at the integral relationship between energy supply and economic growth, and the rapid emergence of countries like China and India, as well as existing developed countries from the United States to the EU to Japan and South Korea. Clearly the demands for energy are going to grow. Furthermore, the “energy return on investment” (EROI) is crucial, and sources of energy that have low ratios of return can put a check on development, particularly if the overall mix drops below 8, which he proposes is an “energy cliff.”

The additional factor that must be weighed in all of this is environmental impacts. On the one hand, fossil fuels provide a high EROI–a lot of energy for the buck. But the environmental impacts from air quality that impacts the health of people, to CO2 emissions, that potentially impact the the health of the planet are leading many to conclude that a move from fossils fuels is necessary because of how much these contribute to human-generated CO2.

Yet there is a problem and that is that the other more “sustainable” sources such as wind and solar at their present stage of development cannot fill the gap, and certainly not with the economy of fossil fuel. This could lead to limited growth or even collapses as the effects of an energy shortage cascade through an economy.

Enter nuclear. Makabe, who lives in Tokyo in the shadow of Fukushima, argues that for all its problems, nuclear, and particular Generation IV nuclear technologies, need to be included in the mix of options we consider in a world of growing populations, developing economies, and potential or actual environmental perils. He does this with open eyes, surveying the history of nuclear power, and the accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. He notes the problems of regulatory structures, dated technologies, and inadequate safety protocols that led to each of these disasters.

He also explores newer technologies, some of which use the most hazardous products of our existing nuclear waste, and generate far less and safer wastes, are capable of modular construction at lower costs, and have design features for greater safety. He also chronicles how regulatory constraints, and the interests of those committed to older technologies from obsolete plants to manufacturers have slowed the implementation of Generation IV designs. Furthermore, taking plants offline following Fukushima, and slowing implementation in other countries has led to increased carbon emissions as fossil fuel plants have largely filled the gap.

In the chapter preceding his conclusion, Makabe argues that never has the need for innovation been so great, given the challenges the human species faces. He notes with concern the slowdowns in many fields such as antibiotics. He touches on a concern I’ve come across with increasing frequency, the displacement of humans by intelligent machines from jobs that could accelerate in the coming years. As we face all these challenges, he concludes that it is imperative in the field of energy that we “buy the time” our civilization needs for facing these changes with not only development of renewable forms of sustainable energy, but new nuclear technologies that provide the energy that allows us to stave off economic collapse or conflict for ever more scarce energy.

What I appreciate about this book is its calm realism. I’ve always scratched my head as I look at the question of implementing renewable energy and the challenge of providing enough energy to replace fossil fuel. Yet it seems many who argue for renewables want to take both fossil and nuclear power options off the table. Currently in my state (Ohio) 97 percent of our power comes from fossil fuels (83 percent) or nuclear power (14 percent). I do think that much can be done to incentivize renewable implementation and to encourage economies in usage. It does seem an error to subsidize fossil fuels, if we need to move from this source (kind of like subsidizing tobacco producers). But it does seem that if we were to try to even halve our use of fossil fuels, it would take us a very long time to get there at even our current energy usage if nuclear energy could not be considered.

What the book doesn’t address as much as I would have liked are what needs to happen to change both the regulatory environment and safety protocols to convince an apprehensive public to allow nuclear into their back yard. If new technologies cannot get built and licensed, and if implementation of safety protocols are not enhanced and monitored by those with an “arms length” relationship to the industry, it’s not going to happen, or it will happen shoddily if we get desperate enough. Reform of the industry and its regulation needs to accompany the economic and technological case Makabe makes.

What Makabe has given us are good reasons for doing that hard work, even as we take a hard nosed look at the challenges and risks in our energy future.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Harness the Sun

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Harness the SunPhilip Warburg. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.

Summary: A survey of the spread of solar power throughout the U.S. telling the stories of how different communities are utilizing this power source, and the technological, industry, and political challenges this growth faces.

I’ve had thoughts of installing a solar power array on our roof. We have a south-facing roof that gets lots of sunlight (when the sun is shining in somewhat-cloudy Ohio). Right now, we have a few more years on our current roof, and a few other projects ahead in line. But what I read in this book suggests that this is not a completely crazy idea, particularly if costs continue to drop.

Warburg surveys the different ways solar is being utilized around the country. He begins with his own experience of installing a solar array in his home in Massachusetts. He pointed out something I hadn’t realized–that solar is actually more efficient in cold weather when there is sun. His array has actually provided about 75 percent of his power needs.

He moves on from his personal experiences to the implementation of solar in the commercial world, from ball parks to big box stores. What all these offer are large areas of flat roof surfaces that can be covered with solar arrays. He narrates how communities are implementing solar to move toward a “zero net energy” state, particularly in the sunny west. Perhaps most inspiring, coming from a rustbelt town was how some communities, including Chicago, are using brownfield areas to set up solar arrays, involving far less clean-up than other purposes, and turning unproductive properties into revenue producing assets.

As he talks about the use of desert lands to set up arrays, he discusses the trade-offs that come with any technology, including the use of water to remove desert sand from panels, the impacts on wild-life, particularly in the use of concentrating solar power where an array of miracles are focused on a central point. Bird can literally be fried mid-air. Yet this also needs to be set against how many birds are killed by vehicles each year. There are other trade-offs in setting up solar arrays on Indian lands. On one hand, this is far healthier than coal-fired plants located near some of these lands, and yet other projects including casinos have a much better pay-off.

He also talks about the life-cycle of solar panels, which last 25 to 35 years optimally (some imports have had problems and lasted shorter times). One of the challenges is how to recycle these safely since they utilize some highly toxic materials. Yet it is important to offset these challenges with those of other technologies. Nuclear waste is far more hazardous. The environmental impacts of mining and burning coal and the costs of sequestering emissions also needs to be weighed. And all this brings Warburg to the economic challenges of solar, from its competition with other energy sources to the economic arrangements between power companies and array owners, sometimes individuals.

Whether or not you are convinced (I am but don’t want to argue about it) that anthropogenic (caused by humans) emissions of carbon dioxide are contributing to global warming, the case this book argues makes sense to me. One estimate is that the solar potential of the U.S. is one hundred times our power needs. Rooftop solar alone could provide one-fifth of our power needs. Compared to coal or even natural gas, it is a far “cleaner” power source, which has health impacts as well as environmental impacts. While some solar startups like Solyndra have failed, a number of others have created jobs in manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of arrays. I also like the idea of not being completely reliant on our power company (we’ve nicknamed them Awfully Erratic Power), which primarily generates power from coal.

I would have appreciated some resources (beyond his own experience) for consumers (residential and commercial) contemplating solar. Perhaps that is another book but a chapter or appendix would have been helpful. Overall, I appreciated the highly informative yet balanced survey of the field of solar power. It makes a case that I hope our new administration pays heed to. Our carbon-fuel interests, as powerful as they are, represent only one economic community of interest, and frankly, we risk ceding leadership in this field to other nations if we only heed the interests of the big coal and natural gas. In my mind, that wouldn’t be so great.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.