From how food is grown to how we generate power, Vaclav Smil’s new book outlines the basic technologies that keep society going and commands us to know them better
2 February 2022
IN SUCH a complex world, no one can be expected to understand everything. But for energy expert Vaclav Smil, there are limits. In his view, it is inexcusable that most of us don’t know the first thing about the basic workings of modern life and the technologies that keep us all alive. It’s not all rocket science, he says. “Appreciating how wheat is grown or steel is made… are not the same as asking… somebody to comprehend femtochemistry.”
Smil deplores the way that Western culture disproportionately rewards work that is removed from the material realities of life on Earth. Most of all, he is concerned that the general public is abandoning its grip on reality. How the World Really Works is Smil’s attempt to redress the balance, showing the fundamentals of how food is grown, how the built environment is made and maintained, and how all of this is powered.
Smil believes it is worth understanding what might seem like outdated technologies given that the building blocks of our lives won’t change significantly over the next 20 to 30 years. Most of our electricity is still generated by steam turbines, invented by Charles Parsons in 1884, or by gas turbines, first commercially deployed in the late 1930s, he writes. And many of the trappings of the industrial world still hinge on the production of ammonia, steel, concrete and plastics, all of which currently require fossil fuels for their production. Even the newest technologies – AI, electric cars, 5G and space tourism – get most of their energy from fossil fuel-based turbines, says Smil.
Alternative methods are on their way, of course, but they will take decades to fully establish. Coal displaced wood relatively easily in the early 20th century, but it will probably take longer to bring in renewables because global energy demand is now an order of magnitude higher.
Given the irrefutable evidence of climate change, does this mean that Western civilisation, so hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels, is doomed?
Perhaps, but Smil would prefer that we concentrate on practical solutions, rather than wasting our energies on complex socio-economic forecasts. In his view, such forecasts will get less accurate over time because “more complex models combining the interactions of economic, social, technical, and environmental factors require more assumptions and open the way for greater errors”.
How the World Really Works neither laments the possibly imminent end of the world, nor bloviates about the potentially transformative powers of the AI Singularity. Indeed, it gives no quarter to such dramatic thinking, be it apocalyptic or techno-utopian.
Instead, in an era where specialisation is seen as the pinnacle of knowledge, Smil is an unapologetic generalist. “Drilling the deepest possible hole and being an unsurpassed master of a tiny sliver of the sky visible from its bottom has never appealed to me,” he writes. “I have always preferred to scan as far and as wide as my limited capabilities have allowed me to do.”
He chooses to explain the workings of the world as it is today, from energy to food, materials, the biosphere, globalisation and the perception of risk. He covers sizeable ground that other commentators ignore. It is a grumpy, pugnacious account that, I would argue, is intellectually indispensable in the run up to this year’s COP27 climate conference in Egypt. In short, How the World Really Works fully delivers on the promise of its title. It is hard to formulate any higher praise.
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