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Book Summary: How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

My Personal Summary

This book explains the science of how the world really works, including energy production, manufacturing, and food production.

In a nutshell, the combustion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) has allowed modern humans to harness an incredible amount of energy and has resulted in the high standard of living that billions of individuals enjoy today.

Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels is known to warm the Earth’s atmosphere, which can lead to undesirable environmental effects.

We do know of ways to reduce the burning of fossil fuels through less food waste, a transition to renewable energy like solar, wind, and hydroelectricity, and more efficient farming techniques.

However, it will take several decades for humanity to transition away from our dependence on fossil fuels, especially in nations that are experiencing a rapid increase in quality of life through the burning of fossil fuels (namely China, India, and much of Africa), so the idea that humanity will achieve carbon zero levels of emissions by 2030 or even by 2050 is unrealistic.

Book Notes

Below are my notes on each chapter of the book.

Chapter 1: Understanding Energy

  • Energy transformation is what allows humans to turn raw natural resources into products and services and thus provide a high standard of living.
  • The use of fossil fuels – coal, oil, natural gas, etc. – has provided the improvements in standard of living for modern humans but it’s now what has caused the warming of the atmosphere and what threatens to have adverse effects on the planet.
  • The rise of renewable energy in the form of wind, water turbines and solar has slightly reduced the use of fossil fuels but increased nuclear energy is really the only way to reduce fossil fuel usage and the idea of “net zero” carbon emissions worldwide by 2050 is currently an unrealistic timeline since 84% of all energy usage is still dependent on fossil fuels.

Chapter 2: Understanding Food Production

  •  The percent of undernourished people on earth has decreased from 65% in 1950 to just 9% in 2020. In 1800, it took 10 minutes of labor to produce 1 kilogram of wheat – by 2020 it took less than 2 seconds. This is largely due to improved farm equipment, modern fertilizers and insecticides, and advanced irrigation systems, all of which depend massively on fossil fuels.
  • We need coal to create steel, which is used to create machinery and farm equipment.
  • We need natural gas as fuel for the synthesis of fertilizers.
  • We need combustion of fossil fuels to generate electricity for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food prep and storage.
  • The biggest opportunity for reducing fossil fuel emissions in food production is to reduce food waste, which is extremely high in affluent countries.

Chapter 3: Understanding Our Material World

  • There are four materials that are indispensable for the functioning of modern societies: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.
  • Ammonia is a synthetic version of nitrogen and is used as a fertilizer. This invention is arguably the most important technical advance in history. Without it, there’s no way we could grow enough food to feed the global population.
  • Plastic is created through heating hydrocarbons to extreme temperatures. It is used in virtually every industry because it can be molded into any shape to create parts, and is especially important in healthcare.
  • Steel is created from smelting iron ore and coke. It is a vital component to the infrastructure of the modern world.
  • Cement is created by heating limestone, clay, and shale in large kilns. It is used to build roads, sidewalks, airport runways, dams, sewers, the foundations of large buildings in cities, and much more.
  • All of these “four pillars” of our material world depend heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels and this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Chapter 4: Understanding Globalization

  • Globalization refers to the exchange of goods between countries and continents.
  • This came about due to increased reliable navigation (John Harrison’s accurate sea chronometer in 1765 – Longitude book), the invention of the steam engine in the 1830’s, the invention of the telegraph in the 1840’s to make communication over long distances nearly instant, and the laying of undersea cables by the end of the 1800’s.
  • For the first time in history, trading could take into consideration the knowledge of demand and prices in different parts of the world.
  • The invention of the diesel engine offered even more efficient transportation, enabling larger ships to be built and more goods to be shipped and flown over longer distances.
  • The invention of the shipping container by Malcolm McLean in 1957 allowed uniform-sized steel boxes to be easily loaded by trucks and unloaded by cranes to make the transport of large quantities of goods much faster and more efficient.
  • While globalization has led to massive efficiency in markets and lower prices (locations best suited to produce a particular good can produce up to 70-80% of the global supply) it also leads to higher risk if these factories in these locations shut down or experience slowdowns, as the world saw with PPE production during COVID.

Chapter 5: Understanding Risks

  • Many people underestimate the risk of unhealthy eating, poor exercise habits, driving, voluntary risky activities like skiing, etc. and overestimate the risk of rare events like terrorists attacks and nuclear power plants accidents.

Chapter 6: Understanding the Environment

  • Humans only breathe in .00023 percent of all oxygen present in the atmosphere each year and even if all plants on Earth burned in an instant, we wouldn’t run out of oxygen to breath anytime soon.
  • Phosphorous runoff from fertilizer into water streams and eventually the ocean causes an increase in algae and reduction in oxygen levels, which hurts fish populations.
  • Better agronomic management (crop rotations and split applications of fertilizers) is needed to combat this problem.
  • The use of fossil fuels has been the primary driver of modern economic growth, greater longevity and richer lives overall, but the side effect has been the warming of the atmosphere.
  • The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs incoming short-wave solar radiation and then radiates longer waves to space. Trace gases (carbon dioxide and methane) absorb some of this outgoing radiation and thus raises the surface temperature of Earth.
  • This is good to an extent because otherwise the Earth would be so cold that it would be perpetually frozen. Humans first started impacting the concentration of trace gases thousands of years ago when they began burning wood for heat but most recently have had a greater impact through the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.
  • The continued increase in atmospheric warming will eventually lead to negative environmental impacts and as a result social and economic costs.
  • There are three necessities of life – oxygen, food, and water. Oxygen will remain abundant. Water supply will be reduced in some regions around the earth but we have the means and technology to prevent shortages. And we have the means to make food production even more efficient and continue to support a growing population on Earth.
  • However, burning fossil fuels will still be the principal driver of production for decades to come.
  • One of the biggest opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to use natural gas instead of coal for generating electricity, since this has been shown to have a much smaller carbon footprint.
  • India and China are the major producers of carbon emissions currently but that’s only because their economies are transforming so rapidly and they’re entirely dependent on fossil fuels for driving the increase in standard of living and it’s unrealistic to think that they’ll reduce fossil fuel usage just to pacify other nations calling for a reduction in fossil fuel usage.
  • Similarly, millions of children in Africa have stunted growth because they don’t have enough milk and meat in their diet. The only way food production can increase there is with increased nitrogen fertilizers.

Chapter 7: Understanding the Future

  • It’s extremely hard to predict how the future of climate change will unfold.
  • The reality will likely be somewhere between the forecasts made by doomsday pessimists and techno-optimists.

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