Note — May 22, 2022

The Modern World Can’t Exist without These Four Ingredients

A relatively short excerpt from Vaclav Smil’s new book, How The World Really Works. Both a must-read because it’s a framing I hadn’t seen before (those four ingredients together), and something to ponder further because it seems incomplete, and not just because of the length. What he’s arguing here is that our global civilisation is based on four main ingredients; cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia, that all require the use of fossil fuels, and that it’s extremely complicated to envision replacing them. If you’ve ever had to cut allergens from your diet, or have just been paying attention to what’s in your food, this is similar. Try eating in a restaurant without wheat (never mind gluten in general), sugar, soy, and dairy. Same thing here, but scaled to everything we build. He paints a dire picture, and I agree with the basic diagnosis.

Now my issues, which largely have to do with some things he takes for granted. Let’s first remember another book by Smil, where he mentions ‘slack’ and says that “we could halve our energy and material consumption … without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe.” He doesn’t talk about it here, or sideways if you want to see the first paragraph that way. Seems important when you are considering how hard it might be to switch these four ingredients.

Second, he mentions reducing meat and that organic agriculture can’t work as well as the current ammonia-heavy system, but doesn’t emphasize enough or even mention: leaving mono-culture behind, which helps the soil, and greatly reducing food waste. Just these two would reduce the need for ammonia. Third, he mentions buildings and concrete but not replacements like wood structures. Granted, that wouldn’t provide a massive cut, but it’s another hint that he takes many levels of production/consumption as granted, ‘simply’ explaining the magnitude of the task for a 1-to-1 replacement.

Finally, the same issue with plastics, there’s a huge slice of our plastics use that is almost completely un-needed, like water bottles. On the other side, he does emphasise the rarely mentioned use of plastics in healthcare.

In the end, I’m including the piece for two reasons: to help us grasp the scope of use of these four ingredients, even with my caveats, and as another example of one of the great difficulties of these transitions: properly understanding the degree to which we have completely integrated some of our current ways, and that trying to replace them without first considering why/how they came to be, or why we need them at all, is very problematic.

China now produces more than half of the world’s cement and in recent years it makes in just two years as much of it as did the United States during the entire 20th century. Yet another astounding statistic is that the world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century.

No structures are more obvious symbols of “green” electricity generation than large wind turbines—but their foundations are reinforced concrete, their towers, nacelles, and rotors are steel, and their massive blades are energy-intensive—and difficult to recycle—plastic resins, and all of these giant parts must be brought to the installation sites by outsized trucks (or ships) and erected by large steel cranes, and turbine gearboxes must be repeatedly lubricated with oil. […]

As a result, global production of these four indispensable materials claims about 17 percent of the world’s annual total energy supply, and it generates about 25 percent of all CO2 emissions originating in the combustion of fossil fuels.