How the World Really Works - by Vaclav Smil


How the World Really Works - by Vaclav Smil

Read: 2022-07-09

Recommend: 10/10

This book helps me understand the swing between our urgency of solving the global warming problem as soon as possible and the dilemma of not being able to coordinate an actionable plan for the largest emitters. I have also come to understand chicken has less energy footprint than potatoes.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. the four pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics.

  2. Drilling the deepest possible hole and being an unsurpassed master of a tiny sliver of the sky visible from its bottom has never appealed to me. I have always preferred to scan as far and as wide as my limited capabilities have allowed me to do.

  3. 1 joule is the force of 1 newton—that is, the mass of 1 kilogram accelerated by 1 m/s2 acting over a distance of 1 meter.

  4. Power equals energy divided by time: in scientific units, it is watts = joules/seconds. Energy equals power multiplied by time: joules = watts × seconds.

  5. despite its profound and rising importance, electricity still supplies only a relatively small share of final global energy consumption, just 18 percent.

  6. There is no shortage of fossil fuel resources in the Earth’s crust, no danger of imminently running out of coal and hydrocarbons: at the 2020 level of production, coal reserves would last for about 120 years, oil and gas reserves for about 50 years

  7. We need very large (multi-gigawatt-hour) storage for big cities and megacities, but so far the only viable option to serve them is pumped hydro storage (PHS): it uses cheaper nighttime electricity to pump water from a low-lying reservoir to high-lying storage, and its discharge provides instantly available generation. The operation consumes about a quarter of generated electricity for the uphill pumping of water.

  8. Annual global demand for fossil carbon is now just above 10 billion tons a year—a mass nearly five times more than the recent annual harvest of all staple grains feeding humanity, and more than twice the total mass of water drunk annually by the world’s nearly 8 billion inhabitants

  9. In two centuries, the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.

  10. But if the bread’s typical (roughly 5:1) ratio of edible mass to the mass of embedded energy (1 kilogram of bread compared to about 210 grams of diesel fuel) seems uncomfortably high, recall that I have already noted that grains—even grains after processing and conversion into our favorite foods—are at the bottom of our food energy subsidy ladder. What would be the consequences of following such a dubious dietary recommendation, now pushed by some promoters under the misleading label of the “Paleolithic diet,” as avoiding all cereals and switching instead to diets composed only of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit?

  11. fed for about seven weeks before being taken away for slaughter. In 1950, 3 units of feed were needed per unit of live broiler weight; now that number is just 1.82, about a third of the rate for pigs and a seventh of the rate for cattle.

  12. Obviously, the entire bird (including feathers and bones) is not eaten, and the adjustment for edible weight (about 60 percent of live weight) puts the lowest feed-to-meat ratio at 3:1. Producing one American chicken (whose average edible weight is now almost exactly 1 kilogram) needs 3 kilograms of grain corn.

  13. The minima of 300–350 mL/kg is a remarkably efficient performance compared to the rates of 210–250 mL/kg for bread, and this is reflected in the comparably affordable prices of chicken: in US cities, the average price of a kilogram of white bread is only about 5 percent lower than the average price per kilogram of whole chicken (and wholewheat bread is 35 percent more expensive!), while in France a kilogram of standard whole chicken costs only about 25 percent more than the average price of bread.

  14. How many vegans enjoying the salad are aware of its substantial fossil fuel pedigree?

  15. If you want to eat wild fish with the lowest-possible fossil carbon footprint, stick to sardines. The mean for all seafood is stunningly high—700 mL/kg (nearly a full wine bottle of diesel fuel)—and the maxima for some wild shrimp and lobsters are, incredibly, more than 10 L/kg (and that includes a great deal of inedible shells!).

  16. Corn, America’s largest crop, yielded less than 2 tons per hectare in 1920, and 11 tons per hectare in 2020.

  17. The nitrogen content of cereal straws (the most abundant crop residue) is always low, usually 0.3–0.6 percent; manure mixed with animal bedding (usually straw) contains only 0.4–0.6 percent; fermented human waste (China’s so-called night soil) has just 1–3 percent; and manures applied to fields rarely contain more than 4 percent. In contrast, urea, now the world’s dominant solid nitrogenous fertilizer, contains 46 percent nitrogen, ammonium nitrate has 33 percent, and commonly used liquid solutions contain 28–32 percent, at least an order of magnitude more nitrogen-dense than recyclable wastes.

  18. The quest for mass-scale veganism is doomed to fail. Eating meat has been as significant a component of our evolutionary heritage as our large brains (which evolved partly because of meat eating), bipedalism, and symbolic language. All our hominin ancestors were omnivorous, as are both species of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus), the hominins closest to us in their genetic makeup; they supplement their plant diet by hunting (and sharing) small monkeys, wild pigs, and tortoises. Full expression of human growth potential on a population basis can take place only when diets in childhood and adolescence contain sufficient quantities of animal protein, first in milk and later in other dairy products, eggs, and meat: rising post-1950 body heights in Japan, South Korea, and China, as a result of increased intake of animal products, are unmistakable testimonies to this reality. Conversely, most people who become vegetarians or vegans do not remain so for the remainder of their lives. The idea that billions of humans—across the world, not only in affluent Western cities—would willfully not eat any animal products, or that there’d be enough support for governments to enforce that anytime soon, is ridiculous.

  19. Modern agriculture’s higher yields are not produced with a fraction of the labor that was required just a lifetime ago because we have improved the efficiency of photosynthesis, but because we have provided better varieties of crops with better conditions for their growth by supplying them with adequate nutrients and water, by reducing weeds that compete for the same inputs, and by protecting them against pests.

  20. the pandemic was an excellent demonstration of the complete emptiness of such claims

  21. In 2019, the world consumed about 4.5 billion tons of cement, 1.8 billion tons of steel, 370 million tons of plastics, and 150 million tons of ammonia

  22. China’s first major business deal to follow President Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972 was an order for 13 of the world’s most advanced ammonia-urea plants from M. W. Kellogg of Texas.

  23. Urea, the solid fertilizer with the highest nitrogen content (46 percent), dominates.

  24. Annual production of iron ore—led by Australia, Brazil, and China—is now about 2.5 billion tons; world resources are in excess of 800 billion tons, containing nearly 250 billion tons of the metal. This is a resource/production (R/P) ratio of more than 300 years, far beyond any conceivable planning horizons (the R/P ratio for crude oil is just 50 years).

  25. The Chinese have traditionally coagulated their bean curd (dòufu) with calcium sulfate (shígāo), while the Japanese bean curd (tōfu) is gelled with magnesium sulfate (nigari), but the ground legume grain is identically rich in protein. And unlike unfermented Japanese green tea (ocha), Chinese green tea (lǘchá) is partially fermented.

  26. Americans have recently consumed about 8 kilograms more fat and 16 kilograms more sugar every year than the average adult in Japan.

  27. The Spanish women are the runners-up in the world’s record life expectancy, and the country traditionally followed the so-called Mediterranean diet, with high intakes of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains complemented by beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.

  28. Many people smoke and drive and eat excessively but have reservations about living next to a nuclear power plant, and polling has shown lasting and pervasive distrust of this form of electricity generation despite the fact that it has prevented a large number of air pollution–related deaths that would have been associated with burning fossil fuels (by 2020, nearly three-fifths of the world’s electricity came from fossil fuels, and just 10 percent from nuclear fission). And the comparison between overall risks of nuclear and fossil-fueled electricity generation does not flip even when the best estimates of all latent fatalities from the two major accidents (Chornobyl in 1985 and Fukushima in 2011) are included.

  29. France has been deriving more than 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear fission since the 1980s and nearly 60 reactors dot the country’s landscape, cooled by water from many French rivers, including the Seine, Rhine, Garonne, and Loire. Yet the longevity of the French population (second only to Spain within the EU) is the best testimony to the fact that these nuclear power plants have not been a discernible source of ill health or premature deaths—but across the Rhine it is not only the German Greens who believe that nuclear power is an infernal invention that must be eliminated as fast as possible, but much larger portions of society too.

  30. Driving is an order of magnitude more dangerous than flying, and during the time a person is driving the average chance of dying goes up by about 50 percent compared to staying at home or tending a garden

  31. The lifetime risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident is only 0.34 percent for Asian American females (1 out of 291) but 1.75 percent (1 of every 57) for Native American males, while the risk for all individuals is 0.92 percent (1 out of 109).

  32. The mean 2015–2019 total of accidental deaths was 292; the averages of 68 trillion passenger-kilometers flown and 4.2 billion passengers mean that average passengers flew about 1,900 kilometers and spent about 2.5 hours in flight; the total of about 10.5 billion passenger-hours spent aloft and 292 fatalities translates to 2.8 × 10-8 (0.000000028) fatalities per person per hour of flying.

  33. The most reliable study of this “asking for it” madness looked at an 11-year period of jumping from the Kjerag Massif in Norway, where 1 in every 2,317 jumps (9 in total) resulted in death, with an average exposure risk of 4 × 10-2 (0.04). For comparison, in skydiving a fatal accident used to take place roughly once every 100,000 jumps but the latest US data show one fatality for every 250,000 jumps. With a typical descent lasting five minutes the exposure risk is only about 5 × 10-5, still 50 times higher than just sitting in a chair for those five minutes—but it is only about 1/1,000 of the risk associated with base jumping.

  34. Between 1995 and 2017, 3,516 people died in terrorist attacks on US soil, with 2,996 fatalities (or 85 percent of that total) on September 11, 2001. Countrywide individual exposure risk thus averaged 6 × 10-11 during those 22 years, and for Manhattan it was two orders of magnitude higher, increasing the risk of just being alive by one-tenth of a percent, a quantity that is too small to be meaningfully internalized. In less fortunate countries, the recent toll of terrorist attacks has been much higher: in Iraq in 2017 (with more than 4,300 deaths) the risk rose to 1.3 × 10-8, and in Afghanistan in 2018 (7,379 deaths) to 2.3 × 10-8, but even that rate raises the basic risk of being alive by just a few percent and it remains lower than the risk people voluntarily assume by driving (particularly in places with no lanes and ad hoc traffic rules).

  35. Between 1984 and 2017, 1,994 people were killed in the 21 states with the highest frequency of these destructive cyclones (the region between North Dakota, Texas, Georgia, and Michigan, with about 120 million people), and about 80 percent of those deaths took place in the six months of the year from March to August. This translates to about 3 × 10-9 (0.000000003) fatalities per hour of exposure, a risk that is three orders of magnitude lower than just living.

  36. In recent years, lightning has killed fewer than 30 people a year in the US, and when assuming that the danger applies only when outdoors (averaging four hours a day) and during the six months from April to September (when about 90 percent of all lightning occurs) the risk equals about 1 × 10-10, while extending the exposure period to 10 months lowers it to 7 × 10-11 (0.00000000007).

  37. Always wearing a seat belt, never speeding, being a defensive driver, and installing smoke, carbon monoxide, and natural gas sensors in dwellings are no-cost or very low-cost ways to reduce the risks of driving and of living in structures heated by the combustion of fossil fuels.

  38. As I already noted, about a billion people have lived through three pandemics, but when COVID-19 struck references were made overwhelmingly to the 1918 episode, as the three more recent (but less deadly) pandemics—unlike the widely remembered fear of polio during the 1950s or AIDS in the 1980s—have left no or only the most superficial impressions.

  39. And the lessons we derive in the aftermath of major catastrophic events are decidedly not rational. We exaggerate the probability of their recurrence, and we resent any reminders that (setting the shock aside) their actual human and economic impact has been comparable to the consequences of many risks whose cumulative toll does not raise any extraordinary concerns. As a result, fear of another spectacular terrorist attack led the US to take extraordinary steps to prevent it. These included multitrillion-dollar wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, fulfilling Osama bin Laden’s wish to draw the country into stunningly asymmetrical conflicts that would erode its strength in the long run.

  40. during the second decade of the 21st century about 125,000 Americans were killed by guns (the total for homicides, excluding suicides): that is the equivalent of the population of Topeka, Kansas or Athens, Georgia or Simi Valley, California—or of Göttingen in Germany. In contrast, 170 Americans died in all terrorist attacks in the US during the second decade of the 21st century, a difference of nearly three orders of magnitude.

  41. lungs consume about 5 percent of the total oxygen we inhale.

  42. The list of what we have not—but could have—done is long.

  43. In 2015, when about 50,000 people flew to Paris in order to attend yet another conference of the parties at which they were to strike, we were assured, a “landmark”—and also “ambitious” and “unprecedented”—agreement, and yet the Paris accord did not (could not) codify any specific reduction targets by the world’s largest emitters, and it would, even if all voluntary non-binding pledges were honored (something utterly improbable), result in a 50 percent increase of emissions by 2050. Some landmark.

  44. But in the China of the past generation, growth has been on an entirely different scale: in 1999 the country had just 0.34 cars per 100 urban households, in 2019 the number surpassed 40.

  45. But these specific critiques of published rapid-speed transformation narratives are really beside the point: it makes no sense to argue with the details of what are essentially the academic equivalents of science fiction. They start with arbitrarily set goals (zero by 2030 or by 2050) and work backwards to plug in assumed actions to fit those achievements, with actual socioeconomic needs and technical imperatives being of little, or no, concern.

  46. De omnibus dubitandum (Doubt everything)

  47. electrification of road transport have almost uniformly overestimated the actual share: between 2014 and 2016 it was put as high as 8–11 percent by 2020, while the actual share was just 2.5 percent

  48. But, nihil novi sub sole: in 1989, another high UN official said that “governments have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control,” which means that by now we must be quite beyond the beyond, and that our very existence might be only a matter of Borgesian imagination. I am convinced that we could do without this continuing flood of never-less-than-worrisome and too-often-quite-frightening predictions. How helpful is it to be told every day that the world is coming to an end in 2050 or even 2030?

  49. Such predictably repetitive prophecies (however well-meant and however passionately presented) do not offer any practical advice about the deployment of the best possible technical solutions, about the most effective ways of legally binding global cooperation, or about tackling the difficult challenge of convincing populations of the need for significant expenditures whose benefits will not be seen for decades to come.

  50. Returning to the COVID-19 example, this pattern of persistence means that nobody will ever be found responsible for any of the many strategic lapses that guaranteed the mismanagement of the pandemic even before it began. Undoubtedly, some desultory hearings and a few think-tank papers will produce a list of recommendations, but those will be promptly ignored and will make no difference to deeply ingrained habits. Did the world take any resolute steps after the pandemics of 1918–1919, 1958–1959, 1968–1969, and 2009?

  51. A commonly used climate-economy model indicates the break-even year (when the optimal policy would begin to produce net economic benefit) for mitigation efforts launched in the early 2020s would be only around 2080.

  52. As I noted in the opening chapter, I am not a pessimist or an optimist, I am a scientist. There is no agenda in understanding how the world really works.

  53. a powerful horse at 750 watts.