How the World Really Works

Global climate change is an unprecedented challenge for the world.  To meet the challenge, we need to make unprecedented changes in the ways we live, work, produce, and consume.  

In a new book called How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, renowned energy scientist Vaclav Smil writes that we seriously underestimate what will be needed, how difficult it will be, and how long it will take. He thinks aggressive targets set by governments around the world, like reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, are delusional. And he’s skeptical of both the apocalyptic forecasts of climate doomsayers and the rosy predictions of techno-optimists.

Smil says he’s neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but rather a scientist “trying to explain how the world really works.” How the World Really Works takes a deeply informative look at how we produce and use energy, food, and some key materials that are essential for modern life. It explains in stark terms why the changes we need to make are going to be so difficult and so lengthy. It left me feeling daunted and deflated but, in the end, still somewhat hopeful.

Vaclav Smil is one of the world’s leading energy scientists.  Now 78, Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. His study of energy in all its forms, uses, impacts and transitions has led him to become a multidisciplinary scholar with interests in environment, population growth, food, economics, and public policy. He’s also a prolific author who’s written more than 40 books.

I reviewed one of Smil’s previous books, his magnum opus Growth, here.

Cover of How the World Really Works

How the World Really Works:
The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going
By Vaclav Smil
Viking, London, 2022

Our civilization depends on fossil fuels

As an energy scientist, Smil looks at the development of human civilization not from a political, cultural, or economic perspective but from an energy perspective.  In this view, the rise of human civilization is best understood as the result of our increasing ability to transform more energy from more sources more effectively into more useful forms. 

Humans have gotten very, very good at this. According to Smil, in 1800, at the outset of the industrial age, the amount of energy available to humans from all useful sources averaged 0.05 gigajoules (GJ) per capita. (A joule is the standard measurement unit for quantities of energy. A gigajoule is one billion joules.)  By 2020, that quantity had increase to 34 GJ per capita, a 700-fold increase.

The vast majority of that increase has come from fossil fuels.

Not only do we depend on fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation, but also for agriculture and for the manufacture of what Smil calls the “four pillars of modern civilization:” steel, cement, plastics and ammonia.

Smil goes into great detail about the fossil fuel “subsidies” that we need to grow enough food to feed 8 billion people. He even calculates the amount of diesel fuel required per loaf of bread or kilogram of chicken. These subsidies include the fossil fuel needed to run farming equipment, irrigation pumps, and most importantly to produce the ammonia used to make fertilizer. He cites studies showing that 40%-50% of the world’s population depends on ammonia for its food production.

“We can’t feed the world without relying on fossil fuels,” Smil says.

Likewise, he explains how steel, cement and plastics require enormous amounts of fossil fuel to produce.

There may be new methods of producing these materials that do not rely (as much) on fossil fuels – for example using hydrogen instead of coal to heat the blast furnaces used in steel production – but they are neither economical enough nor scaled up to meet today’s demands.

Smil is not arguing that we should not develop and switch to such alternate methods, quite the contrary. What he does emphasize, though, is that these industries that have taken decades, in some cases over a century, to develop, simply cannot make such dramatic changes in the space of 10 or 20 years.

Germany is a great example. In the last two decades, Germany has made impressive progress transitioning to renewable energy for electricity generation. Wind, solar and hydro generation now account for about 40% of Germany’s total generation, up from just 11%. Yet the share of fossil fuels in the country’s total primary energy usage has only dropped from 84% to 78%.

There’s a long road ahead.  

Forecasting is difficult, especially about the future

Another theme of How the World Really Works is that our ability to accurately forecast the future state of the entire biosphere is limited. Smil notes that climate models have gotten much better over the years, but they’re still based on multiple layers of assumptions that may or may not prove to be correct.

Smil is not disputing the overall direction or danger these models are pointing to, but he doesn’t believe they’re accurate enough, or that we know enough, to say that we have only the next 8 or 10 years to act decisively before a climate apocalypse.

“To believe that our understanding of these dynamic, multifactorial realities has reached the state of perfection is to mistake the science of global warming for the religion of climate change. At the same time, we do not need an endless stream of new models in order to take effective action. There are enormous opportunities for reducing energy use in buildings, transportation, industry and agriculture, and we should have initiated some of these energy-saving and emissions-reducing measures decades ago, regardless of any concerns about global warming.” [p. 187]

Similarly he thinks that aggressive targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by specific amounts within a specific number of years are ridiculous, especially in the absence of clear plans and binding international agreements. And he’s quite scathing about projections that rely on technologies that don’t yet exist outside research labs, such as direct air carbon capture. Again, he’s not saying the goal is wrong but that such targets are so obviously unreachable that they harm the credibility of governments and climate activists. 

Far better to take pragmatic, unglamorous steps right now that will both help us reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and be better for everyone even without global warming. For example, in agriculture he says there are enormous opportunities in improved agricultural practices like crop rotation, reducing food waste, and eating less meat, particularly beef.

He’s neither an optimist nor a pessimist about our future. I think he sees this as the only correct position for a scientist, but it’s not a hopeless position either.

“Being agnostic about the distant future means being honest: we have to admit the limits of our understanding, approach all planetary challenges with humility, and recognize that advances, setbacks and failures will all continue to be a part of our evolution and that there can be no assurance of (however defined) ultimate success, no arrival at any singularity – but as long as we use our accumulated understanding with determination and perseverance, there will also not be an early end of days.” [p. 226]

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Smil’s writing may not fit everyone’s taste. It’s dry and academic peppered with regular snarky outbursts. But How the World Really Works covers so much ground in just 230 pages that I think it’s well worth reading.

It could be easy to get depressed reading How the World Really Works. Smil is unsparing in his criticism of unrealistic targets and projections. And his extensive research shines a merciless light on the enormity of the job ahead of us.

He’s clearly impatient with those who are ignorant of the complex energy dynamics of our world, in other words, most of us. For example, after calculating the amount of diesel fuel required to grow and bring to market a single tomato (a little over 80 ml, or 5-6 tablespoons for a medium-sized tomato), he says,

“When sufficiently impressed by the fossil fuel burden of this simple food, you can … add two or three additional tomatoes, some soy sauce, salt, pepper, and sesame seeds, and enjoy a tasty salad. How many vegans enjoying the salad are aware of its substantial fossil fuel pedigree?” [p. 62]

The book is in some ways a counterweight to Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. I think Gates does an equally thorough job describing the challenges of global climate change, but he’s definitely a technology optimist. (I put myself in this camp too) Smil never mentions Gates by name but much of his critique applies to that outlook.

Even though I’m more optimistic or maybe just more hopeful than Smil, I think he’s done us a great service in writing How the World Really Works. First, he forces us to confront how deeply embedded fossil fuels are in almost every aspect of our work and lives. Second, he refuses to make a false choice between the binary extremes of either climate apocalypse or technological salvation. In this regard, he’s aligned with the late Hans Rosling who argued in his book Factfulness, that the truth usually lies in the “messy middle.”

Finally, he points out the opportunities we have in front of us right now to take actions that can make a meaningful difference.

Thanks for reading.

Related Links

This Eminent Scientist Says Climate Activists Need to Get Real
Interview with Vaclav Smil in The New York Times Magazine, April 22, 2022

This entry was posted in Books, Energy, Environment, Science and technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How the World Really Works

  1. Lory says:

    Sounds very balanced and informative. It is thought-provoking to consider how entangled fossil fuels really are in our lives. A long road ahead indeed…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review. Definitely thinking of reading the book.

    Liked by 1 person

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