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Menopausal Mother Nature

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Everything You Thought You Knew, and Why You’re Wrong

In short order Smil summarizes the history of global energy, food, material production and trade. (Smil has dedicated books to each subject.) Salient details emerge. Canada, blessed with greater forest acreage than any affluent nation, saves money by importing toothpicks from China. No country possesses sufficient rare earth metals to support its economy. The world throws out a third of its food. Human beings today enjoy, on average, the annual benefit of 34 gigajoules of energy. Expressed in units of human labor, that is “as if 60 adults would be working nonstop, day and night,” for each person. Residents of affluent countries have it better: An American family of four has more hired help than the Sun King at Versailles.

During these expositional chapters, a bell keeps ringing, and its din soon drowns out the litanies of diesel fuel per kilogram units and ratios of edible mass to mass of embedded energy. It brings the grim announcement that 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. The global transition that we’ve only barely, unevenly, begun is not the work of years but decades, if not centuries.

Smil’s book can best be understood as a work of criticism. He finds a worthy target in the inane rhetorical battle, waged by climate activists (and echoed by climate journalists), between blithe optimism and apocalyptic pessimism. He reserves his greatest vitriol for popular writers who either “argue that a sustainable future is in our grasp” or warn that “large areas of the Earth are to become uninhabitable soon, climate migration will reshape America and the world, average global income will decline substantially.”

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