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.