Book Review - How The World Really Works - New York Times

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Book Review - How The World Really Works - New York Times

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. ... -smil.html

Everything You Thought You Knew, and Why You’re Wrong
By Nathaniel Rich -- the author, most recently, of “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade.”
May 11, 2022

The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going
By Vaclav Smil

The title’s pleonastic fourth word is the giveaway. It announces the tone of Vaclav Smil’s 49th book: vinegary scorn for the irresponsible declarations of self-proclaimed experts, particularly those guilty of innumeracy, ahistoricism and other forms of wishful thinking that Vaclav Smil would never, ever fall for. You’ve heard a lot of prognostications about the state of the world. They’re bunk. Here, at last, is how the world really works.

Smil, who has taught at the University of Manitoba for half a century, rests his expertise on the strength of a polymathic pedigree nearly unmatched in North American academic life. Unlike Noam Chomsky — whose own breadth of expertise Smil ridicules in passing — Smil does not suffer polemics. Nor is he a forecaster, as he stresses repeatedly (with mounting exasperation). If anything he is an anti-forecaster, contemptuous of any prediction made about complex systems. Smil is a compiler of data, an indefatigable quantifier (to the 10th decimal), a summarizer, a pragmatist and a utilitarian. Or, as he puts it, “I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works.”

To do so, however, one must sort and prioritize — one must filter the world’s information through subjective criteria. Even utilitarianism lies in the eye of the beholder. Should policies designed to favor the greatest number of people, for instance, account for people not yet born? If so, how many generations of them? When it comes to such questions, critical as they are to climate policy, mathematical calculations yield inexorably to ethical ones.

Before venturing into such unscientific morass, however, one must get one’s numbers straight, and it is here that Smil excels. He addresses the book to lay readers who may have no idea how food reaches their plates, how energy animates their refrigerators or how likely they are to be T-boned on the way to Whole Foods. Sure, most of us could offer reasonable explanations — we could satisfy the questions of a first grader. But most of us would also wither under Smilian cross-examination.

In short order Smil summarizes the history of global energy, food, material production and trade. (Smil has dedicated books to each subject.) Salient details emerge. Canada, blessed with greater forest acreage than any affluent nation, saves money by importing toothpicks from China. No country possesses sufficient rare earth metals to support its economy. The world throws out a third of its food. Human beings today enjoy, on average, the annual benefit of 34 gigajoules of energy. Expressed in units of human labor, that is “as if 60 adults would be working nonstop, day and night,” for each person. Residents of affluent countries have it better: An American family of four has more hired help than the Sun King at Versailles.

During these expositional chapters, a bell keeps ringing, and its din soon drowns out the litanies of diesel fuel per kilogram units and ratios of edible mass to mass of embedded energy. It brings the grim announcement that every fundamental aspect of modern civilization rests overwhelmingly on fossil fuel combustion. Take our food system. Readers of Michael Pollan or Amanda Little understand that it’s morally indefensible to purchase Chilean blueberries or, God forbid, New Zealand lamb. But even a humble loaf of sourdough requires the equivalent of about 5.5 tablespoons of diesel fuel, and a supermarket tomato, which Smil describes as no more than “an appealingly shaped container of water” (apologies to Marcella Hazan), is the product of about six tablespoons of diesel. “How many vegans enjoying the salad,” he writes, “are aware of its substantial fossil fuel pedigree?”

It is best to eat local, but we do not have enough arable land to support our population, even in our vast continent, at least not without the application of obscene quantities of natural-gas-derived fertilizer. One must further account for the more than three billion people in the developing world who will need to double or triple their food production to approach a dignified standard of living. Then add the additional two billion who will soon join us. “For the foreseeable future,” writes Smil, “we cannot feed the world without relying on fossil fuels.” He performs similar calculations for the world’s production of energy, cement, ammonia, steel and plastic, always reaching the same result: “A mass-scale, rapid retreat from the current state is impossible.”

Smil’s impartial scientist persona slips with each sneer at the “proponents of a new green world” or “those who prefer mantras of green solutions to understanding how we have come to this point.” Still, his broader point holds: We are slaves to fossil fuels. The global transition that we’ve only barely, unevenly, begun is not the work of years but decades, if not centuries.

Smil’s book can best be understood as a work of criticism. He finds a worthy target in the inane rhetorical battle, waged by climate activists (and echoed by climate journalists), between blithe optimism and apocalyptic pessimism. He reserves his greatest vitriol for popular writers who either “argue that a sustainable future is in our grasp” or warn that “large areas of the Earth are to become uninhabitable soon, climate migration will reshape America and the world, average global income will decline substantially.”

Smil leaves the identities of such “increasingly strident or increasingly giddy” writers a mystery, however, because with a few exceptions (Jeremy Rifkin, Amory Lovins and Yuval Noah Harari are briefly mentioned), he declines to name them. Instead, we are invited to join his mockery of “mass media ‘news,’” the “new tech crowd,” the “armies of instant experts” and those who make statements like, “Let us all just sing from these green hymnals, let us follow all-renewable prescriptions and a new global nirvana will arrive. …” That does indeed sound like a naïve thing to say. Let’s hope that, one day, whoever said it will read Smil.

It is nevertheless reassuring to read an author so impervious to rhetorical fashion and so eager to champion uncertainty. It is possible, Smil reminds us, to devote enormous resources to fighting climate change without making empty promises about the consequences these efforts will have on our own lives. Smil’s book is at its essence a plea for agnosticism, and, believe it or not, humility — the rarest earth metal of all. His most valuable declarations concern the impossibility of acting with perfect foresight. Living with uncertainty, after all, “remains the essence of the human condition.” Even under the most optimistic scenario, the future will not resemble the past. We will have to navigate seemingly impossible conditions, relying on instinct and imperfect assumptions and our old familiar flaws (chiefly “our never-failing propensity to discount the future”). This may not be a particularly galvanizing conclusion, but it is, yes, how the world works.

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