Review of Vaclav Smil book by Mark Neely

Vaclav Smil, How the World Really Works:  A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future (New York:  Viking, 2022), 326 pp.

    Vaclav Smil, a member of the geography department at the University of Manitoba, in this well organized and clearly written book, argues that globalization and what he calls “the four material pillars of modern civilization,” plastics, steel, concrete, and ammonia, are central to understanding the problem of climate change.  The problem, simply put, is that all of them are carbon intensive.

     Ammonia is “the gas that feeds the world,” and without it as nitrogen fertilizer, it would simply be impossible “to feed at least 40 percent and up to 50 percent of today’s nearly 8 billion people” (p. 79).  And the problem for climate mitigation lies in the energy to make and deliver it to farmland.  Smil supplies the fascinating calculations that reveal that to put “a kilogram of roasted chicken on dinner plates” requires “300-350 milliliters of crude oil:  a volume equal to almost half a bottle of wine” (p. 58).  Scale that up to all the billions of plates of chicken in all the world and the energy requirement makes one gasp.

     Plastics may appear to be unhealthy for the planet.  But in fact they are essential to our health.  Look at what Smil finds in our hospitals:  polyvinal chloride.  It “is now the primary component in more than a quarter of all health-care products.”  These include “flexible tubes (used for feeding patients, delivering oxygen, and monitoring blood pressure), catheters, intravenous containers, blood bags, sterile packaging, assorted trays and basins, bedpans and bed rails, thermal blankets, and countless pieces of labware” (pp. 87-88).  Similar lists could be made for home and office.  And production of plastics of all kinds, not just polyvinal chloride, demands old-fashioned carbon fuels.

     Steel is essential to modern life; think, Smil suggests, of all those city “streets . . .lined by regularly spaced lighting poles made from hot-dip galvanized and powder-coated steel for rust resistance” (p. 90).  Energy required for steels is enormous.  Indeed, steel is so valuable that it is worth recycling.  To do that, one uses electric arc furnaces, and the electricity needed to power such a furnace uses “as much electricity every day as an American city of about 150,000 people” uses in a similar period (p. 92).

     Concrete (think of thousands of miles of interstate highways stretching out in front of your car to some far-off vanishing point) requires kilns that heat the constituent materials “to at least 1,450 degrees C” (p. 94).

     As for globalization, in an approach typical for Smil, he begins by describing the energy needed to propel wooden sailing ships with wind.  He follows with similar analysis of ironclads and steam and their successors, today’s floating-warehouse container ships and diesel.  He reminds us that not only products but also information have increased and circulated.  Art, too, he adds.  One of the benefits of a globalized world view is the literary works of Joseph Conrad such as Nostromo, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness, with their exotic locations linked to European civilization by “the era’s vast trade and travel” (p. 113).  Trade and travel move mostly by traditional energy sources

     His overall narrative approach is historical, and along the way the reader is offered a banquet of lore.  Clipper ships, for example, and other sailing vessels remained commercially competitive with steam-powered ships for a generation, because the latter had to devote so much of their carrying capacity to their own fuel in great bins of heavy coal.

     Historical statistics that prove such assertions are a feature of the book, and Smil himself made many of these calculations.  The numbers involved are enormous (again, recall all those lines of street-light poles you’ve driven by in your travels).  His work involves the ready use of such unfamiliarly great sums that Smil even provides a brief, clear, and genuinely useful Appendix on “Understanding Numbers:  Orders of Magnitude.”

    Make no mistake.  Smil recognizes the problem of climate change.  The Introduction to his book states:  “And how will we deal with unfolding climate change?  There is now a widespread consensus that we need to do something to prevent many undesirable consequences, but what . . . would work best?” (p. 5).  The answer to that question is simply not as clear to him as to many others.

     Any reader is bound to have reservations about some things Smil asserts.  The book contains a considerable amount of dogmatic pessimism about prediction and modeling.  Smil repeatedly takes a swipe at apocalyptic pessimism and utopian optimism. “[N]ow anybody can be a forecaster—even without any mathematical skills—simply by using plug-in software” (p. 206).  Some predictions “have hardly any quantitative component and are just wishful and exceedingly politically correct narratives” (p. 206).    He peppers that outlook with occasional stinging swipes at critics from “the organic green online commentariat” (p. 66) who “sing from . . . green hymnals” (p. 196).  He denounces studies that are “quantitative fables” and “computerized fairy tales” (p. 207).  He thinks it is simply “impossible” to “make long-range forecasts” (P. 213).        

     We can see in his sweeping denunciations the real key to Smil’s stiff-arming point of view.  It stems from the nature of today’s science and not politics or ideology.  For him the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius did all the important work as early as 1896 with a pencil-and-paper “quantitative estimate of the possible global warming effect” (p. 182).  “Clearly, we did not have to wait for new computer models or for the establishment or an international bureaucracy to be aware of” climate change, Professor Smil observes (p. 183).  He is an individualist, perhaps even a lone wolf (the Wikipedia article on him says he does not attend faculty meetings), but modern science is no longer based on a model of paradigm-shattering individual genius.  It is, like the reports of the IPCC, built on aggregated evidence from many individual scientists’ studies based on complex mathematical models requiring vast computer capacity and homogenized by scientific bureaucracies.  Even the great Arrhenius, as historian Spencer R. Weart points out in The Discovery of Global Warming, needed to consult another Swedish scientist Arvid Hogbaum before reaching conclusions.  Moreover, scientists do not make discrete discoveries to be singled out for praise later, one by one.  The scientists, whatever the singular brilliance of their technical work, are embedded in the general assumptions about their own society, economy, and times.  Again, as Weart points out, Arrhenius had no way of knowing and did not believe that human activity “could change the entire planet’s atmosphere, unless perhaps in some remote and fantastic future” (pp. 6-7 of Weart).  Humankind needed to know a lot more than Arrhenius knew in the 1890s to arrive at a realization of the threat of global warming.

          There are things in How the World Really Works that will rub CCL readers the wrong way.  For example, plastics, concrete, steel, and fertilizer could hardly be characterized as sentimental favorites among the many CCL members whose roots lie in the old environmental movement.  We have more confidence in computerized scientific modeling too.  Smil detests modeling and bureaucracy.  But he deals in fundamental mathematical understanding and in wide knowledge of technological process laboriously arrived at.  And what, we might well ask, is wrong with that?  We do need to know how the world really works before we master climate change, and that is all he really asks.

Mark E. Neely, Jr.

Member of the State College chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby

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