“Get real.” How many times has this response been heard back when someone, often yours truly, suggested something that was impractical to the point of being fanciful. These brilliant ideas might work in a fevered brain, but never in the real world.
Getting real is the underlying theme of Vaclav Smil How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going (Viking 2022, 229 pages plus notes, $20 hardcover). Smil, a distinguished professor at the University of Manitoba and prolific author of scientific studies, makes a compelling case for moving beyond the hyperbole and sensationalism surrounding much of what we hear and read about global warming and the inherent evil of anything and everything involving fossils. fuels.
Smil sees two extremist and therefore unnecessary positions advocated in response to this “crisis”. One, with which we are bombarded daily by the 21st century version of yellow journalism, he labels “catastrophists” because of their strident predictions of impending doom within the next decade or two. Think of that teenager in Sweden with anger management issues.
The other he calls, quite cleverly, the horns of plenty. This group assumes that our modern science will simply invent something to make the problem go away. Perhaps the dumbest of their ideas is that we all move to Mars to escape our ruined planet.
Given his goal of debunking all of this pseudo-science, Smil doesn’t seem worried about being slandered as a “denialist,” the epithet catastrophists throw at anyone who questions anything in their creed. After all, he has the research and publication record to establish his bona fides in this area.
I found his most important contribution to the debate is his identification of four important products used in our world to sustain and enhance life. He calls them the pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, cement, steel and plastics. Each in its own way is essential to almost everything we rely on to sustain our daily existence. Note that it does not include silicon, cellular networks or their ilk; its focus is on the material world.
It includes chapters on the risk hypothesis, globalization and environmental change. His data suggests that globalization is on the decline as international trade accounts for a shrinking share of the global economy. I liked his presentation on the risk hypothesis in which he refocuses us on more precise calculations of the real risk by taking into account the impact of exposure to these risks. It also asks us to differentiate intentional risks from unintentional risks and react accordingly.
It presents catastrophists with an unpleasant truth: the only way to phase out fossil fuels in electricity generation is to convert to nuclear power. Choose your poison, he told them. And he goes after vegans/vegetarians by saying that the parts of the world most at risk of famine (sub-Saharan Africa for the most part) need more meat and milk in their diets, especially those of children. It is full of bad news for the radical left.
There are things we can do to affect that at the margin. Americans waste large amounts of food, almost a third of consumption according to Smil’s calculations. Reducing our waste would free up more for the rest of the world. He also criticizes Americans for our penchant for driving gas-guzzling SUVs, whose higher gas mileage negates any savings currently expected from electric vehicles. And then there’s China, the real environmental culprit behind the world’s increased use of fossil fuels to fuel its economic expansion.
Yet, and this is an important point, Smil writes that we can only meet the artificial emissions targets set by elite politicians and activists if all rich nations drastically reduce their living standards and condemn (my word, not his) developing nations to a future of backwardness and poverty.
Smil insists on making no predictions. It simply presents data and derives reasonable and probable expectations from that data. All he asks is that we view climate change as a scientific issue, not a religious one. Real science doesn’t have to have an agenda, this coming from a real scientist who is upset about the politicization of science.
He describes the media coverage of these issues as “hysterical” and “purely apocalyptic”. Smil’s book is his attempt to bring thoughtful debate to the forefront of our public discourse. Good luck with that.
Mark Franke is a columnist for Indiana Policy Review.