Franke: How the world really works

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“Get real.” How often this response was heard back in the day when someone, ofttimes yours truly, suggested something that was impractical to the point of fantasy. These brilliant ideas might work in some feverish brain but never in the real world.

Getting real is the underlying theme in Vaclav Smil’s “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 a prolific author of scientific studies, makes a compelling case for getting past the hyperbole and sensationalism surrounding much of what we hear and read about global warming and the intrinsic evil of everything and anything involving fossil fuels.

Smil sees two extremist and thereby unhelpful positions advocated in response to this “crisis.” One, with which we are bombarded daily by the twenty-first century’s version of yellow journalism, he labels the “catastrophists” due to their shrill predictions of impending doom within the next decade or two. Think of that teenager in Sweden with anger management issues.

The other he calls, rather cleverly, the cornucopians. This group assumes our modern science will simply invent something to make the problem go away. Perhaps the silliest of their notions is that we all just move to Mars to escape our ruined planet.

Given his purpose of debunking all this pseudo-science, Smil doesn’t seem worried about being slandered as a “denier,” the epithet catastrophists hurl at anyone who questions anything in their creed. After all, he has the research and publication record to establish his bona fides in this field.

I found his most important contribution to the debate is his identification of four significant products used in our world to sustain and improve life. He calls them the pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, cement, steel and plastics. Each in its way is essential to most everything we rely on to support our quotidian existence. Note that he does not include silicon, cellular networks or their ilk; his focus is on the material world.

He includes chapters on risk assumption, globalization and environmental changes. His data suggests that globalization is in retreat as international trade accounts for a lessening portion of the world’s economy. I liked his presentation on risk assumption in which he refocuses us on more accurate calculations of true risk by taking into account incidence of exposure to those risks. He also instructs us to differentiate voluntary from involuntary risk and respond accordingly.

He presents the catastrophists with an unpleasant truth: The only way to eliminate fossil fuels in the production of electricity is to convert to nuclear energy. Choose your poison, he tells them. And he takes on the vegans/vegetarians by arguing that the portions of the world at greatest risk of starvation (sub-Saharan Africa for the most part) need more meat and milk in their diets, especially the children’s. He is chock full of bad news for the radical left.

There are things we can do to affect this on the margin. Americans waste vast quantities of food, nearly a third of consumption by Smil’s calculation. Cutting back on our wastage would release more for the rest of the world. He also criticizes Americans for our penchant to drive gas-guzzling SUVs, whose higher gas consumption negates all the expected savings coming currently from electric vehicles. And then there is China, the real environmental culprit in increasing global fossil fuel usage to power its economic expansion.

Yet, and this is an important point, Smil writes that we can achieve the artificial emission goals set by politicians and elitist activists only if all affluent nations drastically cut their standards of living and condemn (my word, not his) the developing nations to a future of backwardness and poverty.

Smil makes a point of making no predictions. He simply presents data and draws reasonable and likely expectations from these data. All he asks is that we look at climate change as a scientific and not a religious issue. True science must not have an agenda, this coming from a true scientist who is distraught over the politicization of science.

He calls the media’s coverage of these issues “hysterical” and “outright apocalyptic.” Smil’s book is his attempt to bring thoughtful debate to the forefront of our public discourse. Good luck with that.

Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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