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: Just Immigration

Just Immigration

Just ImmigrationMark R. Amstutz. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2017.

Summary: A carefully researched work on American immigration policy, various Christian responses and why they generally fall short and the necessity of nuanced advocacy that recognizes the competing values of compassion, the rule of law, and the requirements of justice.

Immigration is perhaps one of the most contentious public policy issues facing the United States (and other nations today). While some want to “build the wall” others are announcing that they are “sanctuary cities” or at least “sanctuary churches.” Immigration policy is incredibly complicated as the competing demands of immigration for business, for study, for reuniting families, for representing diverse populations, for providing asylum and accommodating refugees, and dealing with the unauthorized entry of people, some for nefarious reasons, and others simply to work.

The popular perception is that our immigration system is “broken” and needs radical attention. Yet in terms of sheer numbers, the United States in recent years has admitted more immigrants than any other country (although some other countries have higher per capita immigration rates). Because of our oceans, we have been less involved in recent refugee resettlements than many European countries. All of this moves many Christians to insist we need a more just and compassionate immigration policy, one that is much more consistent with a biblical commitment to “welcome the stranger.”

Mark R. Amstutz takes a much more careful look at American immigration than most have, and challenges American Christians in this work that they need to do likewise. He begins by a careful and extensive description of how the American immigration system works and the various agencies involved with immigration. From this, Amstutz summarizes the strengths and shortfalls of the current system. For strengths, he sees a system that is relatively generous in admissions, that prioritizes family ties, that seeks to be inclusive in its use of diversity visas, is committed to due process protections, and shows special concerns for the persecuted and abused. At the same time, we provide inadequate numbers of work visas for our work force requirements, chain migration concentrates immigration numbers on family-based visas, while at the same times delaying family reunifications, sometimes up to twenty years, we have inadequate employment verification processes, inadequate tracking procedures for nonimmigrant visitors, weak border security and problems in our judicial processes. The biggest challenge is how we deal with unauthorized (or illegal) immigration, which is where concerns for compassion bump up with real questions about the undermining of the rule of law when laws are not enforced, while many unauthorized immigrants (11 million or so) “live in the shadows.”

Amstutz sees two competing theories concerning immigration that undergird the differences people have. One is a cosmopolitan approach that sees us all as one people sharing the planet and minimizes the nation-state. The other is the communitarian that recognizes the world as a series of nation-states with the right to regulate borders. This ultimately leads to conflicting priorities that acknowledge that any person should have the right to emigrate at will, but that no one has a right to be admitted to another country.

After overviewing the theoretical constructs brought to this discussion outside the church, he turns to the thinking of Christians in the Roman Catholic Church, with evangelical, and mainline Protestant bodies. In general, what Amstutz found was some biblical theology around immigration, and then public policy advocacy that did not particularly connect to their biblical convictions. In general, very few statements provided any extended moral analysis of American immigration policy, and that while most came down heavily to advocate compassion for immigrants and refugees, and amnesty for unauthorized immigrants and their children. Few dealt with the issues around law enforcement and the rule of law in anything more than passing references. Furthermore, most were directed to the political process, and in many cases little attention was given to congregational education. Amstutz acknowledges that there is often a wide divide between leaders and their congregational base.

Amstutz holds up as a model of the kind of statement that can be effective, he points to the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops statement on nuclear arms during the 1980’s. This statement took several years to draft, involved careful biblical and theological work, and careful moral analysis based on extensive research on the nuclear arms and strategy. An eye was given both to catechesis in the church and public advocacy and because of this careful work, the document did shape public discourse on nuclear arms and may have contributed to nuclear disarmament.

This is the best book I’ve found on this topic for several reasons. One is that it provides good, detailed information on how our immigration system works, in its strengths and weaknesses. Also, this is a good book for those who want to take a hard look at what the Bible says about this issue who have concerns both about compassion and about justice, including the rule of law. It is valuable in assessing the various statements that have been made by church bodies about immigration.  Amstutz is thoughtful about what can realistically be accomplished, in talking about “proximate justice.” It is a book that can equally challenge those on the compassion side and those on the law and order side of the discussion, and may provide a meeting place for those who want to work toward proximate solutions that recognize both concerns.

Perhaps the most challenging message of this book is that we often have responded in public discussions on this issue out of poorly formed biblical frameworks and moral sentiments–that we have not done the hard intellectual work to make a constructive contribution at a policy level, or to provide teaching that doesn’t simply feel like the propaganda of the left or the right. We often simply have wanted to do something, to advocate for something, to resist something. Might it be that our “ready, fire, aim” approach to these things accounts for the counterproductive character of the conversation? Could it be that the careful work of study, moral analysis, and then thoughtful advocacy and service is what’s called for?


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

Review: Christians and the Common Good

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011.

Summary: Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy.

The title of this book may be perplexing to some for different reasons. For some, their experience is one of Christians seeking their own good, or simply their own idea of the good, which smacks of privilege. For others, the perplexing thing may be the idea of a “common good”. In our current climate of polarized, indeed Balkanized politics, it seems that few people are talking about a “common good”–policies and community practices where both responsibility and benefit are shared by all constituents to a significant degree.

Charles Gutenson, in a book written during the debates on the Affordable Care Act proposes an approach by which Christians may advance proposals informed by their faith that genuinely advance the common good, not just their own. He argues that one gets there by reading the whole Bible to discover God’s intentions for how a people are to live together, not simply the few “government passages” (Romans 13 and Luke 20 in particular) that Christians often reference as the beginning and end of their political philosophy. He contends that this teaching is not to be woodenly applied in a context very different from the biblical one. And he proposes that the life and ministry of Jesus is the definitive expression of how the Triune God would have us live in imitation of him.

He follows these foundational claims with an extensive survey of scriptures from both the Old and New Testament concerning everything from Jubilee and gleaning laws to the continued protection of widows and orphans in the life of the church. A basic thread is a loving concern for the needy among us. It seemed to me that 2 Corinthians 8:13-15 was a particular “control text” for the approach he advocates:

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: ‘The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.’ ” (NIV)

He contends that it is not enough that the church act along these lines but that this is also a good principle to inform public policy. Often, he argues, private means are simply not sufficient to address the scope of public need, as important as private efforts are.

With this in mind, he thinks the following policies are in line with a biblically-informed concern for the common good: safety nets like unemployment, certain forms of welfare and Medicaid, a progressive (rather than regressive) tax structure, an honest reckoning with the issues of race and protections from racial discrimination, Social Security and Medicare safeguards to care for our elderly, minimum wages that provide a living wage, or absent that, tax breaks that recognize the benefits others enjoy by keeping wages low, earned income credits, access to health care, estate and inheritance taxes, bankruptcy laws, anti-monopoly laws, efforts to strengthen families, and addressing global poverty.

Clearly, Gutenson advocates what would be a “left of center” social policy and he admits as much. He takes a muted approach to the “culture war” issues of homosexuality and abortion. The strength of his case is the argument that a flourishing society seeks the flourishing of all, and not just some, of its people. It looks out not only for one’s own interests but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It recognizes the role that the public power of government may play when the private power of some interests gains benefits at the expense of others, especially those on the margins.

What troubles me is that while the author welcomes more conservative voices and recognizes that solutions to our pressing social problems will require a degree of collaboration absent at present, he is decidedly silent on some issues that I think require attention, such as the recognition of the deep injustice we commit against our children when we consistently ask the government to spend more for the services we want than we are willing to pay, leaving the debts to those who come after us. Also, redistribution of resources via taxation can help or hurt the poor. Why not for example provide tax incentives to companies who offer living rather than minimum wages? I’m troubled that some of these proposals go beyond emergency relief (such as unemployment benefits) to ongoing relief rather than economic opportunity fueled by economic development.

Nor does he say anything about fundamental electoral reform including re-districting reform and campaign finance reform. As it stands now, most elected officials in state and federal government do not have to be concerned about “the common good” because of the way their districts are drawn. And this further marginalizes people by race and economic status. The rich are basically able to buy their office, or that of those who protect their interests.

Where Gutenson’s voice is welcome is in its clarion call for Christians to pursue the common good, and to wrestle with the “whole counsel of God” on these matters to gain God’s heart for the common, and not just our own good. This can be helpful for thoughtful Christians wrestling with the role of Christians in public life, who want to go beyond proof texts and political pundits to constructive engagement.