Posts sorted by label

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Materials and Dematerialization, by Vaclav Smil: A review

I wanted to like this book. I really did, and not just because Bill Gates thinks the author is great: Our civilization depends on material flows in ways most of us don't consider or aren't aware of. Just the amount of earth and rock that must be moved and processed in mining metals is huge. These material flows in turn place huge impacts on energy use, well before we get to the mineral smelting and purification steps we all think of when we think of the climate impact of metals. And with energy the main driver of climate change, it is worth asking whether we can support modern levels of comfort, not just for the industrialised West but for all humanity, while reducing the current energy and material intensities required to do so.

But. I've run into a snag. Early chapters covered fields with which I am not familiar. Smil's apparent command of the intricacies of different industrial sectors and ready supply of well-footnoted numbers is very impressive, even if the text could have benefited from a good editor. (English is obviously not his first language). Then I got to Section 3.1.2 on wood, about which I know a few things, and 3.1.3, pulp and paper, about which I know quite a lot, at least in the Canadian context. 

For starters, he ignores the massive shifts in the paper industry due to the Internet: demand for newsprint and other wood-containing grades cratered initially as personal and classified ads moved to the internet. This trend was accelerated by the disappearance of weekend advertising inserts and flyers, catalogs and directories. (When was the last time you saw, let alone used, a phone book?) He also ignores the massive growth of packaging grades (there's no app for a box) due to the online e-commerce phenomenon heralded by Amazon and Ebay. None of this is mentioned. Instead he focuses on the disappearance of photographic grades of paper. While undoubtedly tragic for the employees of the mills affected, this had a very minor impact overall, leading to the closure (if memory serves) of two small hardwood pulp mills in Canada out of something like 100+ mills in the country at the beginning of the century. 

And when he does mention declines in newsprint demand, it is only to attribute the decline to the move to online news sources, not the much larger loss of that portion of the daily paper that was once dedicated to advertising.

Finally Chinese imports of wastepaper are not their only source of fibre; virgin fibre from South American or Indonesian pulp mills is a huge source. The Chinese paper mills which once consumed recycled materials imported from North America are now increasingly supplied by the internal Chinese domestic market, which has grown to the point of supporting such an industry; and the packaging material produced is used for exporting goods to North America and elsewhere. 

None of what he writes is demonstrably false, although to be fair I haven't verified his numbers; it's more that many statements are met with a strong reaction that, yes, that's true, but the reality is far more complex and some key drivers that could lead to changes in material flows are not being considered. essentially it looks like he pulled numbers from a wide range of sources, but didn't bother talking to anyone in the industry. 

So for a book intending to cover material flows in some detail, it is unfortunate that the first impression is of playing fast and loose with underlying trends and drivers, even if the numbers are correct. One is led to wonder how well other industries and the drivers affecting them are understood and described. 

Sadly I will be reading the rest of it with a somewhat more cynical eye. I'll post updates as I continue. 

No comments:

Post a Comment