“For the Foreseeable Future We Cannot Feed the World Without Relying on Fossil Fuels”

(p. 16) The title’s pleonastic fourth word is the giveaway. It announces the tone of Vaclav Smil’s 49th book: vinegary scorn for the irresponsible declarations of self-proclaimed experts, particularly those guilty of innumeracy, ahistoricism and other forms of wishful thinking that Vaclav Smil would never, ever fall for. You’ve heard a lot of prognostications about the state of the world. They’re bunk. Here, at last, is how the world really works.

. . .

. . . every fundamental aspect of modern civilization rests overwhelmingly on fossil fuel combustion. Take our food system. Readers of Michael Pollan or Amanda Little understand that it’s morally indefensible to purchase Chilean blueberries or, God forbid, New Zealand lamb. But even a humble loaf of sourdough requires the equivalent of about 5.5 tablespoons of diesel fuel, and a supermarket tomato, which Smil describes as no more than “an appealingly shaped container of water” (apologies to Marcella Hazan), is the product of about six tablespoons of diesel. “How many vegans enjoying the salad,” he writes, “are aware of its substantial fossil fuel pedigree?”

It is best to eat local, but we do not have enough arable land to support our population, even in our vast continent, at least not without the application of obscene quantities of natural-gas-derived fertilizer. One must further account for the more than three billion people in the developing world who will need to double or triple their food production to approach a dignified standard of living. Then add the additional two billion who will soon join us. “For the foreseeable future,” writes Smil, “we cannot feed the world without relying on fossil fuels.” He performs similar calculations for the world’s production of energy, cement, ammonia, steel and plastic, always reaching the same result: “A mass-scale, rapid retreat from the current state is impossible.”

Smil’s impartial scientist persona slips with each sneer at the “proponents of a new green world” or “those who prefer mantras of green solutions to understanding how we have come to this point.” Still, his broader point holds: We are slaves to fossil fuels.

. . .

Smil’s book is at its essence a plea for agnosticism, and, believe it or not, humility — the rarest earth metal of all. His most valuable declarations concern the impossibility of acting with perfect foresight. Living with uncertainty, after all, “remains the essence of the human condition.” Even under the most optimistic scenario, the future will not resemble the past. We will have to navigate seemingly impossible conditions, relying on instinct and imperfect assumptions and our old familiar flaws (chiefly “our never-failing propensity to discount the future”). This may not be a particularly galvanizing conclusion, but it is, yes, how the world works.

For the full review, see:

Nathaniel Rich. “The Theory of Nothing.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, May 29, 2022): 16.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 11, 2022, and has the title “Everything You Thought You Knew, and Why You’re Wrong.”)

The book under review is:

Smil, Vaclav. How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going. New York: Viking, 2022.

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