Book Review: 'How the World Really Works' by Vaclav Smil Gets a Mixed Reception

Smil is not an optimist or a pessimist, but a scientist and a realist.

Book cover of 'How the World Really Works'

Penguin Books

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  • Title: How the World Really Works
  • Author: Vaclav Smil
  • Topic(s): Nonfiction
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Publish Date: May 10, 2022
  • Page Count: 336

I approach writing a review of "How the World Really Works," the latest book by Canadian scientist and author Vaclav Smil, with some trepidation. Many people I admire are not impressed with Smil right now, though mostly based on reading a New York Times interview rather than the book. What is far worse is that many people I absolutely detest are saying wonderful things about it and quoting it madly, though mostly based on reading an excerpt in Time magazine that ends rather too abruptly, and misses the entire point of the book.

I have read a lot of Smil, working through his long and dense books on energy and growth. This book is not very long and appears to be about tying up loose ends after a long career. Indeed, he notes in the introduction: "This book—the product of my life’s work, and written for the layperson—is a continuation of my long-lasting quest to understand the basic realities of the biosphere, history, and the world we have created."

Unlike the shills and deniers who read the Time excerpt, Smil is well aware of the dangers of climate change and the reliance on fossil fuels, noting we have understood the principles for decades but ignored the problem. "Instead, we have multiplied our reliance on the combustion of fossil fuels, resulting in a dependence that will not be severed easily, or inexpensively," wrote Smil.

He objects to both those who "embrace catastrophism" and also the techno-optimists like his biggest fan, Bill Gates. He notes perceptively that he has "little use for either of these positions, and [his] perspective will find no favor with either doctrine."

Smil starts with energy, a favorite subject: "Energy conversions are the very basis of life and evolution. Modern history can be seen as an unusually rapid sequence of transitions to new energy sources, and the modern world is the cumulative result of their conversions."

He also acknowledges the need to keep the global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is what creates the fundamental problem—the degree to which we are hooked on fossil fuels.

His first example is the food system, where he demonstrates how we are essentially eating fossil fuels. Most crops are dependent on nitrogen fertilizers made from ammonium, which is made from hydrogen, which is separated from natural gas through the Haber-Bosch process, described on Treehugger here. But there is also the fuel used to run the equipment, move, chill, and package our food.

Here, the most interesting example is chicken. He measures the energy to make the soybean feed; heat the barns; supply water and sawdust; and store, refrigerate, and cook the chicken, coming up with a total of 350 milliliters of diesel fuel per kilogram of chicken. I wrote a lot about the carbon footprint of chicken in my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," so I converted Smils' numbers to carbon dioxide (CO2) per average serving and come up with 540 grams of CO2 emissions, which is lower than the 800 grams I used in my book. But then he does tomatoes, which require the equivalent of 500 milliliters of diesel. Bread is almost as high.

He then asks if we can go back. Can we eat organic food, relying on organic wastes? Nope, there isn't enough poop in the world. He wrote: "Global crop cultivation supported solely by the laborious recycling of organic wastes and by more common rotations is conceivable for a global population of 3 billion people consuming largely plant-based diets, but not for nearly 8 billion people on mixed diets."

He does call for us to cut way back on the amount of meat that we eat in rich countries, better application of fertilizers, irrigating and running equipment with solar power, but still recognizing that "food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation."

Note he is not saying this cannot all be done; he is trying to wrap our brains around the scale of the problem. "Even if we try to change the global food system as fast as is realistically conceivable, we will be eating transformed fossil fuels, be it as loaves of bread or as fishes, for decades to come."

Of course, there are many other things that could be done to reduce the impact of food, including reducing waste, portion size, and eating seasonally and locally. We have been talking about them all for years, but the only thing that is actually moving the needle on how we eat is dramatic inflation in food costs caused by the war in Ukraine and crop failures due primarily to climate change. We have noted that earlier research on how just the emissions from food alone are enough to blow the 1.5-degree carbon budget. Yet we continue to feed our cars as well as people; no wonder Smil is a realist.

Then we come to the infamous four pillars of modern civilization in the notorious Time excerpt: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. We've talked about them all on Treehugger.

With ammonia, we could reduce our consumption if we all ate a meatless Indian-style diet, reduced waste, and used fertilizers more efficiently. But Africa needs more of it to get to food self-sufficiency. Smil hopes genetic engineering might let plants fix nitrogen the way beans do, or perhaps something less radical: "inoculating seeds with a nitrogen-fixing bacterium." I have also written that making ammonia might be the highest and best use of green hydrogen.

Steel is in everything, from buildings to cars to cutlery in our homes, not to mention "armies and fleets with their vast arrays of weapons are nothing but enormous repositories of steel dedicated to destruction." Most of it is recycled but there is greater demand than there is supply, so we still have carbon-intensive blast furnaces chugging away, with some experimentation with green hydrogen in Sweden and Germany, but it's not going away anytime soon.

And then there is concrete. Vast quantities of it are in buildings, highways, dams, and bridges. A single airplane runway can have 85,000 cubic meters of concrete. Smil wrote: "In just two years-2018 and 2019-China produced almost as much cement (about 4.4 billion tons) as did the United States during the entire 20th century (4.56 billion tons). Not surprisingly, the country now has the world’s most extensive systems of freeways, rapid trains, and airports, as well as the largest number of giant hydro stations and new multimillion-population cities." Even the concrete industry, with all of its so-called roadmaps to decarbonization, cannot do better than proposing carbon capture to deal with this.

Smil concluded his discussion of the pillars:

"Modern economies will always be tied to massive material flows, whether those of ammonia-based fertilizers to feed the still-growing global population; plastics, steel, and cement needed for new tools, machines, structures, and infrastructures; or new inputs required to produce solar cells, wind turbines, electric cars, and storage batteries. And until all energies used to extract and process these materials come from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in the production of these indispensable materials. No AI, no apps, and no electronic messages will change that."

In the end, Smil doesn't sound different from your usual Treehugger. He notes we know what to do to reduce energy use in buildings, industry, and transportation, but don't. "The best examples of these omissions and commissions are the indefensibly inadequate building codes in cold-climate countries and the worldwide adoption of SUVs," wrote Smil.

I will pull a long quote here, where Smil suggested we have no will to fix this quickly:

"Most notably, what remains in doubt is our collective—in this case global—resolve to deal effectively with at least some critical challenges. Solutions, adjustments, and adaptations are available. Affluent countries could reduce their average per capita energy use by large margins and still retain a comfortable quality of life. Widespread diffusion of simple technical fixes ranging from mandated triple windows to designs of more durable vehicles would have significant cumulative effects. The halving of food waste and changing the composition of global meat consumption would reduce carbon emissions without degrading the quality of food supply. Remarkably, these measures are absent, or rank low, in typical recitals of coming low-carbon “revolutions” that rely on as-yet-unavailable mass-scale electricity storage or on the promise of unrealistically massive carbon capture and its permanent storage underground. There is nothing new about these exaggerated expectations."

Smil isn't saying we need fossil fuels. He isn't saying we can't reduce our use of them, or even stop using them. He is saying it is hard and people are not willing to make the changes that have to be made, preferring to rely on techno-fantasies and distant timetables. He asks, "Will we, eventually, do so deliberately, with foresight; will we act only when forced by deteriorating conditions; or will we fail to act in a meaningful way?"

These are not unreasonable questions. And it is not an unreasonable book.

"How the World Really Works" hit bookshelves in May 2022. Available at bookshop.org and other retailers.

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