[Book review] 4 pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, steel plastics and concrete – How the world really works

— Anh NGUYEN

This article summarises one chapter in the book “How the world really works” by Vaclav Smil, in which Vaclav highlights the importance and our dependence on ammonia, concrete, steel and plastics, the 4 key materials of our modern civilization. 

Vaclav Smil is known as a number guy – he has all the statistics in the world to support his arguments. In the book “How the world really works”, published in January 2022, he claims that ”I am not a pessimist or an optimist, I am a scientist. There is no agenda in understanding how the world really works.” It is rather reassuring to hear this, though one cannot help but feel that there is, indeed, somewhat an agenda. It is probably due to the non-neutral, non-scientific tone as well as rather snarky comments on both eco-activists (led by Greta Thunberg) and techno-utopians (led by Ray Kurzweil and/or Yuval Noah Harari). Anyhow, Smil’s point of view throughout this book, and his other book in 2019, “Numbers don’t lie”, can be jotted down to one sentence: the energy transition and decarbonization will not happen any time soon.  

One may agree or not with his point of view. Yet, it is quite interesting to read the works of Smil to understand how complicated to tackle the energy and ecological transition. Let’s dive into the chapter in which he explains our dependence on ammonia to fertilize crops, plastics for medical packaging, and concrete and steel for our houses, cities and infrastructure. 

Ammonia 

In this part, Smil explains the synthesis of ammonia (NH3)and the challenge of producing enough of it to ensure yields – direct yields that we consume and indirect ones to feed our cattle – in order to feed 8 billion people. He estimates that “50% of humanity dependent on ammonia, given prevailing (omnivore) diets and farming practices” and “half of the world’s population could not be sustained without synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers.” According to Smil, “about 80% of global ammonia production is used to fertilize crops; the rest is used to make nitric acid, explosives, rocket propellants, dyes, fibres and window and floor cleaners.” Conclusion? The world needs to secure the continuous production of ammonia to sustain human lives. 

He is also aware of the absurdity of food waste and food loss, as “the world loses almost half of all root crops fruits and vegetables, and about a third of all fish, 30% of cereals, and a fifth of all oilseeds, meat and dairy products” (FAO). In all, it is “one-third of the overall food supply”. In affluent countries, food chains are often longer; therefore, “more opportunities for food losses arise at every step.” 

What seems to be strange to me is that Smil didn’t put one and one together. He states these 2 statistics as if they are not linked. The world needs to continue to produce ammonia, and that’s it. 

  • Does it make more sense to fight food waste and food loss, and redesign our suboptimal food supply chain, instead of making sure we continue to produce the same extract amount of ammonia/crop production?
  • Does it make more sense to switch to plant-based diets so that we can reduce crops to feed cattle? (Smil is against plant-based diets and veganism, though)
  • Does it make more sense to stop introducing so many humans into a planet whose nurturing boundaries have been reached?

Again, we have to treat Smil’s work as an insight into how the world IS working at the moment, and not how it is SUPPOSED to be. He is good at depicting the status quo, but he is not the best pal when investigating alternatives. 

Food waste is a chronic problem in our affluent societies (Source)

Plastics

The main argument of Smil is that the ”irresponsible dumping of plastics is not an argument against the proper use of this diverse and often truly indispensable synthetic materials.” Plastics do have an important role to play in health care and hospital treatments of infectious diseases. 

There is no doubt about that. Yet, this is also where his argument falls short. What about the fact that health care and medical use are a small part of plastic usage? He mentioned heavy-duty pipes and flanges, anti-skid surfaces, car interiors and exteriors, interiors of modern aircraft, aircraft airframes… as well as daily objects such as polyester carpets, window frames and blinds, toys, office supplies etc. So, what about alternatives to plastics in these daily objects to make them less damaging to the environment? What about alternatives to plastics in food packaging, which are often not at all necessary? 

Skewing the argument towards specific cases to defend the role of plastics, while ignoring myriads of cases in which its role is non-vital, doesn’t make the argument fair and, indeed, without agenda. 

You cannot defend the necessity of this packaging (Source)

Steel

The case of steel is indeed easier to defend. As the world’s most widely used metal, Smil makes a long list of steel usage: industrial machines, cars, bicycles, building structures, kitchen gadgets, garden tools etc. Steel-making and iron-making are indeed highly energy-intensive, as the total energy requirement of global steel production in 2019 was about “6% of the world’s primary energy supply” and about “7-8% of direct emissions from the global combustion of fossil fuels.”

There is still two pieces of good news about steel: 

  • It can be recycled (through a highly energy-intensive process, of course). According to Smil, “affluent economies now recycle nearly all of the automotive scrap.” Indeed, steel scrap “has become one of the world’s most valuable export commodities”, with the EU being the largest exporter; and China, India and Turkey being the top buyers. 
  • There have been attempts to create “green steel” (“green steel” is a process of creating steel without fossil fuels). 
The real roadblock for green steel is simply the availability of low-carbon hydrogen. Blue and green hydrogen can help reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions. (Source)

Concrete

Fun fact:  Cement is “much less energy-intensive [in comparison to steel], but because its global output is nearly 3 times that of steel, its production is responsible for a very similar share (about 8%) of emitted carbon.” Indispensable in city-building and large infrastructures (damns, bridges,, freeways, airports etc.), cement production has skyrocketed in emerging countries. There are two crazy fun facts: 

  • “…in just 2 years (2018 and 2019), China proceed nearly as much cement (about 4.4 billion tons) as did the United States during the entire 20th century (4,56 billion tons).”
  • “…the world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century. And these enormous masses of modern concrete will not last as long as the Pantheon’s coffered dome.” 

Yes, because “ordinary construction concrete is not a highly durable material, and it is subject to many environmental assaults.” This, according to Smil, “gives an inking of what China might face by 2050″, when it comes to decaying infrastructures that they had massively built in 2018-2019. The slightly good news is that cement can be recycled (not cheap, but possible): “after crushing and sieving, the aggregate can be incorporated in new concrete.”

Ordos – The biggest ghost city in china (Reddit: r/UrbanHell)

Conclusion 

Climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation have been among the most-talked topics in recent years. Many books are tackling these subjects, and also their sub-subjects such as energy transition, decarbonization, etc. It is important to stay informed of the evolution of these debates, while keeping in mind the flaws of the arguments. After all, there is no such thing as a foolproof, well-rounded argument. 

The same mindset applies in reading Vaclav Smil. While packed with statistics, numbers and data and somewhat objective analyses, his books, however, don’t give readers insights and suggestions into what could be. It is, still, very interesting to read him, especially when you need a critical voice with cold, harsh facts. 

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