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How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future

Book review by Prof Michael Kelly

This book is a very strong antidote of realism against both the relentless pessimism and the blithe optimism of our day. — Professor Michael Kelly

Book review — Vaclav Smil: How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future; Viking, Penguin Random House

This is a hugely important and very timely book. At a time when thinkers in the developed world are split between environmental catastrophism and unbridled techno-optimism, here is a firmly grounded analysis of the present day, informed by the previous history that got us here, and the likely short-term future. This history includes many failed predictions of the future which are quickly forgotten, as exemplified by population explosion fears on the one hand and unlimited nuclear power on the other just 50 years ago.  

Most of what we hear and read about today by way of prognostications and nostrums for the future will simply not come to pass. The complexity and inertia of the systems of the modern world – energy acquisition and use, food production, materials requirements for contemporary living – place strong constraints on the pace of change in any preferred direction. This is true even if all the world leaders should agree to move in any particular direction, say on a net-zero global economy by 2050, with a global command economy.

Vaclav Smil is an internationally acclaimed scholar, and has been working on energy, food and materials for decades: he has an encyclopaedic knowledge and penetrating insight.  When one talks about decarbonisation, what to make of the following facts about everyday life?   A medium sized (125gm) tomato put on an English table out of season has involved the consumption of 75mL of oil to get there, not much short of its own volume! The same ratio applies to a chicken (up to 1L of oil per kg of meat) and bread (0.6L of oil per kg of loaf). The four materials pillars of modern living are ammonia (half the world is fed on foods that have had the benefit of artificial fertiliser), plastics, steel and cement: the annual production of these are 150 million, 370 million, 1.8 billion and 4.5 billion tonnes respectively.   Note that silicon comes a long way down at 10 thousand tonnes per year!

The key sentence from the introduction is:

The gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast, but in a democratic society no contest of ideas or proposals can proceed in rational ways without all sides sharing at least a modicum of relevant information about the real world, rather than trotting out their biases and advancing claims disconnected from physical possibilities.”

The author is at pains to point out that he is not a pessimist or an optimist, he is a scientist: there is no agenda in understanding how the real-world works.

The seven chapters explain energy, food production, materials, globalization, risks, the environment and the future. Each and every chapter serves as a reality check on public discourse, and anyone armed with the contents of this book will be able to detect arrant nonsense dressed up as gospel by the ‘experts’.    

Globalization is not inevitable, but has led to greater efficiencies, but also greater risks – 70% of rubber gloves in the world were made in one factory in China. COVID-19 will have long-term effects on humanity, not available to the futurists of the past, and onshoring jobs from offshore may proceed in the cause of greater resilience.

Our perception of risks had always been very irrational.  We are many times more likely to die in a road accident or a fall at home than in a terrorist incident.

On matters of the environment, there is no free lunch in human living, but a reduction in the vast levels of food waste, and a more modest diet in the developed world for example could do more good than rapid decarbonization. Meanwhile the UN rightly prioritised the elimination of human poverty and hunger over environmental protection in their ordering of the sustainable development goals.  In fact, it is wealthy countries who are repairing the environment.

The future will be neither a nirvana nor a hell on earth, but an evolution of the past, a combination of our best endeavours hindered by obstacles and aided by serendipity.

What is also of great concern is the extent to which knowledgeable people are meretricious (my word) in misleading the less knowledgeable.   Why are the extreme scenarios (for good or evil) focussed on to the extent that they become taken up as the mostly likely future? This is particularly bad in the case of climate science studies and the way the results are portrayed in the media.

This book is a very strong antidote of realism against both the relentless pessimism and the blithe optimism of our day.

MJK Cambridge 29.01.2022