Why Are Elephants So Smart and Buildings So Short?

We can and do build much taller skyscrapers. But they are impractical money losers because so much floor space is taken up by elevators. A new book explains the interplay between size and scale, and what it means for our economy and investments.

Vaclav Smil, the 80-year-old Czech-Canadian scientist whom Bill Gates cites as his favorite author, rarely disappoints. Smil’s 2022 book, How the World Really Works, is a superb paean to the physical world and its primacy in our lives – warning us that idealistic techies are wrong when they claim that teraflops and petabytes are what matters. As the economist Michael Edesess noted in his book review in Advisor Perspectives last year,

If you’re a modern techy, you might say [that]... the four pillars of modern civilization... [are] something like the microchip, the cloud, the internet, and wi‑fi. Nope, says Smil. The four pillars of modern civilization are cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.

“He’s right,” concluded Edesess, as do I. The material world matters. Many of us, dazzled by information technology, underestimate the importance of natural resources, materials science, and good old-fashioned heavy industry. (Without synthetic ammonia, used to make fertilizer, half of us would starve. Good to know.)

How the World Really Works also put a dent in the hopes of energy-transition enthusiasts. It will take a lot of time, money, and materials. Previous energy transitions took 40 to 60 years, Smil argues.

This one will too.