Saturday, September 03, 2022

How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

 How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil. Viking, London, 2022, 326 pages.

Review by Ed Meek

Vaclav Smil would like a few words with you about “the science behind how we got here and where we’re going.” He’s had enough with people making outlandish predictions, warning us about the apocalypse and telling us to go green while having little idea of where their energy comes from, how their food is produced, how the world really works.

Smil is the author of over forty books, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a distinguished professor emeritus of the University of Manitoba. He assures us that we have enough, air, water and food to survive as a species for some time to come. Nonetheless, he admits that climate change is a universal problem and so far, we have not been up to the challenge. Smil says we need signed global commitments rather than pledges that may never be fulfilled. At the same time, he goes into some detail to convince us that we are not about to stop using gas, oil and coal anytime soon. In the US, we do not have the infrastructure to do so and in many other places in the world, Africa, India, China for example, people still need inexpensive sources of energy like coal. Moreover, it is fossil fuels that enabled us to develop our economy and affluence, our ability to build and to heat and to air-condition our homes and businesses, to transport people, food and materials, and to feed our growing population.

As Smil points out “a poor understanding of energy has the proponents of a new green world naively calling for a near-instant shift from abominable, polluting, and finite fossil fuels to superior green and ever-renewable solar electricity. But liquid hydrocarbons refined from crude oil … have the highest energy densities of all commonly available fuels, and hence, they are eminently suitable for energizing all modes of transportation.” Smil tells us that airplanes, ships and heavy-duty trucks are not about to be powered by batteries in the foreseeable future.

In addition to fossil fuels providing us with most of our energy, they are integral to our food production. They “power all field machinery.” They are used to transport, store and irrigate crops. They are also used to produce the farm equipment and machinery, the fertilizers and the agrochemicals. Not to mention the construction and powering of greenhouses. Cutting back on eating meat will help reduce carbon emissions but it won’t come close to eliminating them. Even the production of vegetables requires fossil fuels. Take tomatoes, grown in “Plastic-covered…greenhouses,” and shipped by truck to markets. What about fish? Fishing boats are powered by diesel fuel motors.

Smil wants us to understand that ammonia combined with gas in fertilizer has allowed us to increase yields of crops. Plastics, made from fossil fuels, are everywhere. From bottles to packaging to parts of cars to toys to equipment. Nylon, Teflon, medical equipment, electronics. We can’t get away from oil, coal and gas products. Other key elements to the world we’ve created, steel and concrete, are produced by burning fuels at high temperatures. “Another product derived from crude oil is asphalt.” Think of all those roads and highways in the world. Not only current ones, but those that will be created.

All of these elements are tied into globalization and capitalism that result in transporting food and products around the world. During the pandemic we found out how overly dependent we are on products from China and other countries.

Smil goes on to consider the environment and the risks and challenges we face in the coming years. He has a measured confidence that we will eventually deal with the challenges we face but it won’t be easy and there are no guarantees. Smil reminds us how bad we are at predicting the future and how we just don’t know what those challenges will be. In the early 1900s there was a fear that entropy would destroy the world: As Eliot put it in his poem “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends/not with a bang but a whimper.” In the 1960s we faced the threat of nuclear war and warnings of a population explosion.

Now, climate change is referred to as an existential problem by our President. David Wallace Wells, (Uninhabitable Earth), Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg all seem convinced we are doomed. Even eternal optimist Bill McKibben is losing faith in the future.

In the past couple of years there has been a voice of hope about the future coming from writers like Michael Mann (The New Climate War) and Saul Griffith (Electrify). They make the case that we can engineer our way out of this complex problem. Simon Mundy in Race for Tomorrow sees people all around the globe adjusting and dealing with climate change. Yet the overhauling of the way we live will not come as easily as setting unattainable goals or telling people to just electrify everything.

For a no nonsense look at the world we live in and the challenges we face, Vaclav Smil’s fascinating book is a must read.

1 comment: