Book Corner 2022.36

by Vaclav Smil

Numbers fill almost every paragraph of this book, and it was honestly hard not to glaze over a lot. This is the fault of myself and not the book; a book like this is all about numbers, as it’s about facts, how the world “really” works, after all.

The “four pillars of modern civilization” for Smil are: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Overall this book is about that material, tangible, real-world “stuff” of civilization; and Smil casts snarky asides at every opportunity towards microprocessors, smartphones, AI, and anything else that isn’t “stuff.” We need the “stuff”, continuously, and in abundance, and the non-stuff isn’t going to save us.

You might recognize cement, steel, and plastic as literal building blocks of civilization; but just in case you can’t see how ammonia fits into the top four, it’s due to importance as fertilizer. And abundant synthetic fertilizer was a crucial input to Earth’s population boom. Simply put, “nearly 4 billion people would not have been alive without synthetic ammonia.” More existentially important than silicon wafers, to be sure.

Cement? “Yet another [!] astounding statistic is that the world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century.”

And as for fossil fuels, and hopes for our conversion to renewable sources of energy? “Until all energies used to extract and process these materials come from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in [their] production.” It’s the oil and natural gas that get us all this steel, cement, plastic, and ammonia. Electric cars are great. But renewable electricity is not going to be able to perform the herculean job that fossil fuels do today in terms of producing the material that makes our world go round.

Smil is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a scientist, and it comes through. It is refreshing to read someone who neither is gung ho about how we’re gonna solve everything, nor ready to lay down and die. He thinks we’ll muddle through. But here he cuts through the “muddle” of misleading information that comes from both optimists and pessimists.

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