BY DANIEL C . MUNSON
How the World Really Works : The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We ’ re Going
By Vaclav Smil Penguin Random House , 2022 306 pages with notes
Economic experts are comfortable couching their prognostications using monetary yardsticks : GDP , deficits , growth rates , etc . Vaclav Smil ’ s How the World Really Works offers a discussion of this same economic subject using weights and measures , forces and atoms .
Smil is a Czech-born Canadian environmental scientist whose book is an engineer ’ s guide to modernity . In place of abstract monetary quantities , Smil offers tangible physical facts to explain the material progress and physical comfort of our times , going on to define and chronicle the development of what he calls the four tangible pillars supporting modern life : steel , cement , plastics and ammonia .
The author traces the dissemination of these “ pillars ” throughout the world , a history of often halting , irregular progress .
Smil ’ s work is dense , but by avoiding too much scientific and mathematical precision he has produced an engineering text accessible to all . He details the specific technical advances that explain our use of concrete and steel in such massive amounts to produce hydro power and transportation infrastructure , how jet and diesel engines , oil tankers and container ships enable international trade — trade that is currently dependent on the energy density of fossil fuels .
Controversy lurks in these details . Energy quantification leads to comparisons that throw a good deal of shade on the idea that “ alternative energy ” sources like wind and solar power can reliably provide the energy we need when we need it without significant advances in storage ( i . e ., battery ) technology , even detailing the extent to which these “ clean ” technologies depend on fossil fuels for their production . Smil also details the critical role that the engineering of fossil fuel-dependent ammonia-based fertilizers , pesticides , tractors , etc . have played in increasing agricultural output . He estimates that without this oil-dependent technology , the world ’ s farmlands could feed only three to four billion people , a number that stands in sobering contrast to the roughly eight billion currently fed . ( The recent protests in Sri Lanka concerning fertilizer regulation suggests Smil may have a point .)
The author has the usual fun with our inability to rationally assess risks , although he might concede that the math that permits the weighing of these risks is not simple . He examines our concerns for the biosphere , discarding some ( e . g ., running out of oxygen ) and focusing instead on water and runoff contaminants . He addresses the increased CO 2 and methane concentrations in the atmosphere and their effect on global temperatures , arguing that although temperature increases will change water levels , the more urgent water problem is usage efficiency . The United States does well in this regard , but other areas — many of them arid — are not as efficient as they could be .
The centrality of energy to modern life , when combined with its technical complexity , creates economic and political difficulties . “ Modern economics ,” Smil summarizes , “ has largely ignored energy .” This has led many advancing various “ carbonfree by 2030 ” -type goals to construct plans that the author views as “ the academic equivalent of science fiction .” Convenient assumptions are made that are at variance with both technological reality and human nature . He asks rhetorically whether the billion people in Africa will be willing to forego air conditioning and automobiles as their wealth increases . China ’ s billion people did not , but in adjusting their models to make their numbers work , many of our planners blithely assume that Africans will .
An interesting subtext to the book is the way in which important advances have often been made by unexpected people little recognized today . Scientists Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber were contemporaries living in Germany , and while Einstein ’ s advances are well known and lauded , Haber ’ s advance ( ammonia from nitrogen gas ) now feeds half the world . Smil sees in the Haber story a lesson that defies those he labels the catastrophists and the cornucopians : catastrophists busy themselves fretting our demise by extrapolating current trends , while cornucopians believe prominent techno-wizards will solve all our problems . More often , Smil argues , it is the unexpected , littlerecognized advance that can be scaled and improved that has bettered our lives .
The author sees scant evidence of humanity ’ s ability to learn from history or to plan around certainties like another pandemic . He leaves us with the hope that our policymakers can treat with caution the dire pronouncements of the catastrophists and the grandiose plans of the cornucopians .
Daniel C . Munson enjoys reading and writing economic and scientific history . His writings have appeared in Barron ’ s , Financial History and other publications .
40 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Spring 2023 | www . MoAF . org