Is the world running out of the basic resources and materials we need?
One person attempting to answer the question as to whether we have reached Peak Everything is Vaclav Smil, a distinguished professor emeritus from the University of Manitoba. In 2014 he released the latest book – Making the Modern World – Materials and Dematerialization – in his long series of books and articles on environmentally related subjects.
You need a very wide lens to look at issues this broad and this complicated. Smil’s areas of expertise include environment, energy, demographics, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, public policy and risk assessment.
His latest book also displays knowledge of chemistry, economics, mineralogy, statistics as well as other fields. His multifaceted perspective means that he does not reach simplistic
conclusions and he warns against others doing so. Every paragraph of the book is filled with detailed statistics, conditions and qualifiers. It makes for very difficult reading, but leads to a high degree of believability in the results.
It is dangerous to draw simple conclusions from a book this complex, Smil confirms some common perceptions, among them that we must beware of using unnecessary packaging and plastics. Plastics cannot be completely reused, even when recycled and they are now defiling our oceans. Bring that cloth bag to the grocery store.
But one common belief that does not stand up to Smil’s detailed scrutiny is over the use of artificial fertilizers. Without the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous (NPK) that make up fertilizers, he writes, the earth could not produce enough food to maintain our population even at its present numbers and with over a billion people currently lacking sufficient food. He does add, however, that we need to find ways to use the fertilizer more efficiently and to minimize its leakage into water systems.
Another common belief he debunks is that eating locally is the most environmentally-wise choice. Moving food or other commodities by ship or even by train, he points out, is much more energy efficient than by truck or car. Thus, reducing the distance travelled can be offset by the mode of transport used. And local food grown in heated greenhouses is much more energy intensive than that grown in natural sunlight.
Smil does recommend avoiding meat and animal foods however, as being a vegetarian saves large amounts of energy and water and greatly reduces the need for fertilizers.
As a general rule, he writes, anything lighter is better: just think of the energy that is saved in transport. By a general rule isn’t always correct: while lighter aluminum drink cans should be better than the heavier steel ones they replaced, aluminum actually requires more energy than steel to produce and cannot be recycled as many times. To determine which is actually the better choice we need to do all the detailed calculations that Smil does so well.
Finally, are we likely to run out of the materials we need? The short answer to Peak Everything is no. Since the 1950’s we have been able to use our knowledge and advancing technology to use less material to produce many products and processes. Cars are lighter. Machinery and appliances are power smart. Smart phones and their ilk can replace wired phones, cameras, flashlights, maps, watches are starting to be used instead of larger computers, books and even TV’s. With minor modifications, we should be able to maintain a comfortable way of life and even have the resources to raise the standard of living of those in the world who lack basic comforts.
But to achieve this result depends on how we use our knowledge, technology and materials. Do we enjoy the energy and other savings that make a given house more comfortable and cheaper to operate or do we use those saving to have a house that is twice as big? Do we enjoy the fuel savings of a more efficient car or do we trade up our car to a big SUV? Do we check the time on our phone or do we buy an expensive, flashy watch anyway? We have the materials.
The choice is ours.
Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.