How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil – Book

Bill Gates recommends books for me to read. Well, okay, not just for me but for millions of people who subscribe to his Gates Notes and to the letters from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Sometimes I recommend books to him, in the comment section on his Linkedin page. I assume he takes my suggestions seriously. (Just kidding.) He may never look at the comments. So, it was at the behest of Mr. Gates that I decided to include Vaclav Smil’s book, How the World Really Works, written during COVID home isolation, on my reading list. Now that I have finished Smil’s book I can’t say that I loved the things he had to say, but he is a polymathic professor at the University of Manitoba and my elder. (only by two years) He has several areas of expertise, all related to knowledge that is important to solving climate change, ocean pollution, and uneven distribution of fresh water. Although you may experience a Smil downer, the theses in this book must be taken into account as we try to approach getting to zero carbon emissions while still housing, feeding, and quenching the thirst of a global population that is still growing (despite lower rates of reproduction in many nations).

By methodically and numerically talking us through the 4 pillars of modern culture, steel, ammonia, cement, and plastics Smil shows us a series of daunting tasks. It is illuminating to read about how completely fossil fuels are entangled in almost every aspect of making these four key products that cannot be easily replaced. 

“The real wrench in the works: we are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determination of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years.

Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances.” (pg. 5)

Smil takes us through the intricacies of agriculture and of fertilizing soil. Without fertilizers to replenish nitrogen in our soils we would never be able to grow enough food to feed the 8 billion people who now inhabit the planet. This is where ammonia comes in. It is important in helping nitrogen take a form that plants can use. 

Smil says, “None of the people reading this book will relocate to Mars, all of us will continue to eat staple grain crops grown in soil on large expanses of agricultural land, rather than in skyscrapers imagined by the proponents of so-called urban agriculture, none of us will live in a dematerialized world that has no use for such irreplaceable natural services as evaporating water or pollinating plants. But delivering these existential necessities will be an increasingly challenging task, because a large share of humanity lives in conditions that the affluent minority left behind generations ago, and because growing demand for energy and materials has been stressing the biosphere so much and so fast that we have imperiled its capability to keep its flows and stores within the boundaries compatible with its long-term functioning.” (pg. 3)

Makes you want to prove Vaclav Smil wrong, doesn’t it? Before you set out to do that you had better read the book. He has done the math for you. First chapter covers Energy Fuels and Electricity, second chapter covers Food Production: Eating Fossil Fuels, third chapter covers Our Material World: The Four Pillars of Modern Civilization. fourth chapter covers Globalization Engines, Microchips, and Beyond, the fifth chapter covers Understanding Risks: From Viruses to Diets to Solar Flares and the sixth chapter covers Understanding the Environment: The Only Biosphere We Have.

In the last chapter Smil talks about how we are swinging between apocalypse and the singularity. 

“Apocalyptic visions of the future–with assorted hells offered by major religions–have been strongly revived by modern promoters of doom, who have been pointing to rapid population growth, environmental pollution, or now, increasingly, to global warming as the sins that will transport us to the netherworld. In contrast, incorrigible techno-optimists continue the tradition of believing in miracles and the delivery of eternal salvation. It is not uncommon to read how artificial intelligence and deep learning systems will carry us all the way to the “Singularity.” (pg. 213)

Vaclav Smil is basically telling us that there are far too many places and procedures that still rely on fossil fuels to get to zero or to decarbonize even by 2050. He also chastises us for not having done our due diligence over the many decades that we have known about climate changes like global warming, damages to our oceans and the unequal distribution of freshwater resources. We could still, if we worked together design a plan that might involve, for example, making sure soil in Africa has adequate supplies of fertilizer and fresh water to grow their own food and enough steel and concrete (made with cement) to build housing that will protect them from hot spots. Given that we cannot all agree that we need a wider, more global plan our situation looks bleak but Smil believes that earth will stay livable for many years to come.

Is this a wake up call or and admonition? Have we done too little and left things until too late? We will have to live it to learn it. Meanwhile, I assume and hope that environmentalists will keep plugging away. If they stop believing we are in big trouble.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson – Book

From a Google Image Search

How does a well-adjusted Queen of the Netherlands meet a half Comanche mourning Texas father on the autism spectrum who spends his days hunting for the wild hog that snatched his baby and ate it, and who still manages to be one of the sanest people in any room? What is the Queen of the Netherlands doing in Texas? These two unlikely characters meet as the Neal Stephenson novel, Termination Shock begins with a crash.

Neal Stephenson has been a favorite author of mine since I read The Quicksilver Trilogy, also a tale with keys scenes in Dutch cities. Stephenson writes unique science fiction, often long and complex, teaching me things that ignite my mind and entertain me. He mixes the plausible and implausible, always making running commentary on the human condition, buried in all that complexity somewhere.

Perhaps after seeing Kim Stanley Robinson publish The Ministry of the Future and Bill Gates publish How to Avoid a Climate Disaster the time seemed right to weigh in with a plot Stephenson had already been working on.

TR Schmidt (one of several names), a wealthy Texan, is the real reason Frederika Mathilde Louisa Saskia, the Queen of the Netherlands (familiar name Saskia) is in Texas. She has been invited to a Conference/Demonstration/Extravaganza. Apparently, in this not-so-distant future, America is the laughingstock of the world, but a wealthy Texan who owns an enormous tract of land can do just about what he likes. It turns out that TR is tired of the world’s inaction on climate change. The world is getting hotter, the ice at the poles is melting faster and the seas are rising higher. TR’s land is outside Houston. What he has in common with the Queen of the Netherlands is that they both live in low places along coastlines, as is true of all the other leaders invited to the conference (Singapore, Venice, certain island nations in the South Pacific). 

TR is a man of action. This conference is not about forming a think tank. He already has a plan based on one summer when Mount Pinatubo erupted and the whole world cooled off. TR has a way to use that model to cool the earth for a few years while more permanent solutions can be put into effect. His Pina2bo structure is finished. These people are here to witness activation of the apparatus. 

One problem with his new process is that it is a geoengineering approach, opposed by those who favor green solutions. Another problem is that this process has certain “knock-on” effects that some nations won’t like – namely China and India, two very large and powerful nations. China and India are rivals. China is trying to swallow India at the Line of Actual Control one gulp at a time. This parallel story line of a young Sikh man named Laks who comes to be known as Big Fish connects with the TR and Queen Frederika story line eventually. TR is trying to cover countries that will be left out of his original cooling scheme because of things like prevailing winds, and is using isolated locations perfect for building and employing his apparatus. Internet rumors say that if Pina2bo continues to function the Punjab, the breadbasket of India, could lose its monsoons making farming impossible. No one on the internet is showing the maps that describe TR’s plans to cover all areas on the planet with cooler temperatures, thus slowing the melting of the ice caps and the rising seas. TR knows that if he stops now there will be an equal and opposite reaction called termination shock.

This is not a climate change textbook lesson, but, as usual, Stephenson teaches us many things, including some esoteric geography and some ancient martial arts. Kim Stanley Robinson talked about geoengineering. He mentioned but did not stress using particles in clouds to reflect more of the sun’s cooling back into space. Neal Stephenson concentrates almost entirely on geoengineering. Stephenson is a great describer and explainer. You will get the picture. 

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson – Book

This is a book but also politics – From a Google Image Search – Entertainment Weekly

In order to profit from The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson you must get through the first chapter – the catalyst for all that follows. Frank May is the only survivor of an extreme heat wave event that kills 20 million people, an entire village, in India. We don’t even learn his name until much later in the book. There are reasons.

Robinson skips around a lot which helps move this fictional/nonfiction book, full of what could be very dry science, along. India, in reaction to that enormous heat wave tragedy tries to recreate the ashy clouds of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption which blocked the sun for almost two years. The strategy India settles on of creating a layer of  a reflective substance (several are under consideration) which would reflect some sunlight back into space thus cooling the earth’s atmosphere temporarily is an actual tactic being considered by climate scientists. The Children of Kali, also in India, decide to go ‘dark’ and use more violent strategies.

In order to make the billionaires listen up and force these greedy souls to give up fossil fuels, massively effective plans will be required. The Ministry of the Future, a UN project headed by Mary Murphy from Zurich, Switzerland, never openly supports violent action. But Mary’s Assistant Chair, Badim, has no such compunctions and he has Mary’s permission to head a ‘dark’ arm of the agency. It is so ‘dark’ that even as the book ends we have no clues about the tactics used by Badim’s group, but you might want to learn about Pebble Mobs.

Mary Murphy’s machinations are not secret at all. Through the Ministry, Robinson’s book offers up one idea after another – the state of the art ideas, the far out ideas and ideas unpalatable to many – that could be used to lower the temperature raised by global warming and for sequestering the carbon dioxide (carbon) that is to blame. A story that is basically a climate textbook is made readable by making it a personal story with characters who interest us, and by flashing around the globe. We might be in India in one short chapter, or in China, or at a committee meeting, or experiencing the kidnapping of Mary Murphy, or in Antarctica, or Russia, or in the Alps, or San Francisco, along the new wildlife corridors, presenting an audacious financial plan to the world’s central banks. It’s a whirlwind for the most part, belying how slow actual change may be, but it’s exciting and it makes the reader believe that we could do this; we could save the planet.

The Ministry for the Future is a fiesta of climate ideas. If it gets a bit Kumbaya near the end, after all our recent coronavirus isolation, some communal esprit might be welcome. Mary Murphy’s mantra is “lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win.” We might need to stop losing and use some of Robinson’s pirated ideas if we want to have any hope of winning. Every person on the planet should read this book.