We’re Living in a Material World

Madonna was right. That iPhone on which you may be reading this article is far less important to society than the materials – like steel and plastic – that were used to build it.

That is the bold thesis of a new book by Vaclav Smil, distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba. Both he and Madonna remind us that we are living in a material world.

Smil was born in 1943 in what was then Czechoslovakia and went to college at Charles University in Prague before emigrating to the United States in 1969 and receiving a PhD at Pennsylvania State University. He has been a remarkably productive professor at the University of Manitoba since 1972. He has written 40 books, all of which Bill Gates, one of Smil’s most ardent fans, says he has read.

I heard of Smil a long time ago and meant to read at least one of his books, but somehow never got around to it until now. Finally I read his most recent book, “How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future.”

I wasn’t disappointed.

The book is an effective antidote to the rampant unrealism – both optimistic and pessimistic – that is all too prevalent in society.

There used to be words for these extremes of unrealism, which Smil invokes: “catastrophists” and “cornucopians.” Catastrophists predict imminent disaster. Catastrophists are often characterized as Malthusians, following the 18th century economist Thomas Malthus who said that because population growth was exponential while food production could only increase arithmetically, the world must run out of food to feed its population. The primary modern example of Malthusianism was Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which predicted that because the world could not produce enough food for the forecasted population growth there would be hundreds of millions of people dying of famine in the 1970s.