Are we actually doomed?

Review of "How the World Really Works" by Vaclav Smil.

Vaclav Smil is a Czech-Canadian scientist and policy analyst. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The title of his most recent book may be a little misleading. The book is not primarily for ignoramuses like me who wish to understand how our modern gadgets work.

We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don’t know how the world really works. This book explains several of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check – because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts.

Smil provides a comprehensive meditation on four key materials that undergird our modern civilization: these being cement, steel, ammonia, and plastics. Through many real-world examples, he explains why these are key materials and how, unfortunately, the mass production of each of these four “pillars of modern civilization” depend heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels. He suggests that the claim that the world can become carbon neutral by, say, 2050, if only we put our collective minds and wills to it, is a simple-minded fantasy. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato has the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel embedded in its production, and we have no way of producing steel, cement, or plastics at required scales without huge carbon emissions. This is only one of many fascinating examples Smil provides to support his thesis that decarbonizing the world is not simply a matter of reducing green-house gas emissions but requires an entire reconceptualization of current economics. We must learn to live with less and to eschew the capitalist creed of continuous economic growth.

Smil is uncertain about the answer to one of the most profound questions of our age: are we irrevocably doomed or is a brighter utopia ahead? 

Smil concludes that “[b]eing agnostic about the distant future means being honest: we have to admit the limits of our understanding, approach all planetary challenges with humility, and recognize that advances, setbacks, and failures will continue to be a part of our evolution and that there can be no assurance of (however defined) ultimate success, no arrival at any singularity – but, as long as we use our accumulated understanding with determination and perseverance, there will also not be an early end of days.”

Too bad this quite wonderful book ends with the wistful belief that all we need is a better understanding of how the world works to make better decisions about its future. While a better empirical understanding of reality is undoubtedly useful, Smil seems only dimly aware that the root of our civilization’s probable demise is finally not related to our cognitive short comings, but to our spiritual idolatry of worshiping Mammon rather than the Creator.


  • Robert Bruinsma

    Robert (Bob) Bruinsma is a retired Professor of Education (The King’s University) living in Edmonton. He has interests in language and literature and loves birds and the outdoors. To help pass the time on long winter nights, he makes wine and beer (and drinks it in moderation) with his wife of 46 years (Louisa). Bob is a member of Fellowship CRC where he tells stories for children and happily participates in weekly communion. He and Louisa have three grown children and three little grandsons.

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