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Innovation Science & Technology

The world is mundane

Most people are unaware of just how truly mundane the world is. With all the complexity of the modern world, new technologies, and a constant stream of problems that vie for our attention, the world can seem utterly incomprehensible. At the top of the list for most people is climate change. Solutions seem almost impossible. Yet, the foundation on which modern society rests is on the rather mundane and relatively simple. That means we have all the tools we need to solve our problems.

As Vaclav Smil writes in How the World Really Works, modern civilization is built upon ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics. At least from a practical standpoint. I would argue information, science, religion, and business are equally powerful drivers, but for our purposes here I will not quibble. I will only say that Smil’s expertise is in the former, not that latter, so we should not be too terribly surprised. They are, nonetheless, quite correct choices when thinking about the material aspects driving the modern world.

Ammonia, used in fertilizer, makes feeding 8 billion people possible. Steel and concrete enable a complex infrastructure that spans the globe. Plastics make it possible to have a wide range of convenient and cheap products. Without these “four pillars” modern society would not be possible. The problem is that these four items require a significant amount of energy to make possible, meaning our dependence on fossil fuels will not change anytime soon, according to Smil.

I disagree with this assessment. The general take-away from Smil’s book is that while they are relatively basic materials, changing them will be hard. Yes, ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics require fossil fuels. Yes, changing them will be hard. Yes, moving to other solutions will take years, if not decades. So what? Just because something is difficult does not mean we should not do it. Timing is a matter of investment. If there is one lesson learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is that with sufficient investment we can affect major change rather quickly.

The US invested billions in COVID vaccines, and the result was a series of decent vaccines within a year. This should not surprise us. After World War II, the US invested heavily and in Europe and Japan to build their economies. Their economies grew spectacularly over a relatively short period of time. China did the same with its economy and the results were equally spectacular. 

Smil argues that the investments needed would be too large and would take too long to implement. He poo-poos technical solutions. While I do not worship at the altar of technology either, there are quite a few possible technical solutions. After all, these four pillars were inventions that were greatly enhanced later with technical enhancements.

Given how mundane ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics are, the solutions to our problems may be rather mundane as well. We are not trying to change everything. We will still need ammonia. Steel remains essential to modern construction. Concrete use will likely increase. Plastics are used in more than just single use bags. 

Mandating appropriate farming techniques that limit fertilizers while ensuring application is directed appropriately can be done through legislation and monitoring (we already do this in other, related areas). Investing in new, fuel-efficient techniques for creating fertilizers can easily be added into the mammoth agricultural bills the US passes, as can new regulations. Facilitating the recycling of steel and creating more efficient blast furnaces will reduce power needs. Incentivizing the use of new clinker techniques will make a large dent in power needs for concrete. Changing over to “plastics” made from hemp and other biodegradable sources is easy enough for most everyday plastic uses.

Our goal is to reduce carbon going into the atmosphere and eventually reach negative carbon release. All this is imminently doable and with current technologies and tools. In fact, it is all rather mundane and with even a little political will could be easily passed. Nonetheless, I have little doubt that the words “mandating” and “regulations” and “monitoring” raised some eyebrows.

The issue is not how we do it—that is just as mundane as our problems—it is how much it costs and who stands to lose. Just as with Congress mandating the change from incandescent lightbulbs to more efficient versions, we can do the same with other items. People will prefer the cleaner products because they will be better and cost less, just as was the case with new fluorescent lightbulbs. The freakout was only because there were a few losers. Ultimately there were far more winners.