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How the World Really Works

Vaclav Smil

Review by Maria Kelleher

November 2022

At the recommendation of several colleagues, I read Vaclav Smil’s most recent book, How the World Really Works, the culmination of 40 years of research, mostly related to energy transitions. There is no doubt that Dr. Smil knows what he is talking about – he’s is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. He is also one of Bill Gates’ favourite authors.  This book is interesting on many levels – full of the history of numerous scientific discoveries and technological changes and packed with numbers – in some cases more numbers than are needed to make the point.  

In his discussion about what really matters in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, Dr. Smil has some intriguing ideas and ones that I have not heard expressed so clearly before. For example, he believes achieving net zero by 2050 is either technical impossible or impossibly expensive. In section three of the book, Understanding Our Material World, he makes a compelling case that we depend on four materials – steel, cement, plastic and ammonia (NH3) – for our current lifestyles, and that these materials need to be produced from fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. Who would have thought that these materials would matter so much and be considered so essential? We need and will continue to need steel and cement for buildings; plastic for building related materials like pipes, electronics, car parts, etc., and ammonia to make nitrogen fertilizer for food production. All these materials need fossil fuels either as a material input or for energy and heat generation. Plastics are derived from crude oil and natural gas; iron smelting needs coke from coal and natural gas; cement production needs huge energy inputs derived from coal dust, petroleum coke and heavy fuel oil, and ammonia is made from natural gas.  

Perhaps the most interesting story for me concerns ammonia/ nitrogen fertilizer. We need nitrogen fertilizer to increase crop productivity and feed the world’s current global population of almost 8 billion. Without nitrogen fertilizers we could only feed 3.4 billion people – half the current global population. 

Dr. Smil’s book is a rich treasure trove of interesting and fascinating facts about how innovation and scientific developments got us to where we are today. The first reading is really a reconnaissance mission – I will return to it again to gain further benefit from Dr. Smil’s knowledge and insights.