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.