"An essential analysis of the modern science and technology that makes our twenty-first century lives possible--a scientist's investigation into what science really does, and does not, accomplish. We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don't know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check--because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts. In this ambitious and thought-provoking book we see, for example, that globalization isn't inevitable--the foolishness of allowing 70 per cent of the world's rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020--and that our societies have been steadily increasing their dependence on fossil fuels, such that any promises of decarbonization by 2050 are a fairy tale. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato has the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel embedded in its production, and we have no way of producing steel, cement or plastics at required scales without huge carbon emissions. Ultimately, Smil answers the most profound question of our age: are we irrevocably doomed or is a brighter utopia ahead? Compelling, data-rich and revisionist, this wonderfully broad, interdisciplinary guide finds faults with both extremes. Looking at the world through this quantitative lens reveals hidden truths that change the way we see our past, present and uncertain future"--… (more)
I thouroughly enjoyed this clear-eyed look at the scale of energy and material needs in the world today. Smil explains the futility of green energy, the need for material and food, and the history
If some ufo full of ET engineers needed to write a 300 page memo about what earthling society was all about, this book could be the report. Nothing about art or religion or philosophy or politics - but if you want to know how earthlings have been keeping themselves alive while greatly increasing their population the last few hundred years, and what the main problems and threats are, this is a pretty good description, keeping only to the major points.
Some big takeaways:
1. Carbon is a pollutant. Let's treat it as such.
2. Even if we do really well, it will be impossible to remove it from all our industrial processes. If we did, we'd have to go
3. Therefore, we need to remove it. Pure and simple. As a result, I've started funding some direct air capture.
4. We need to do nuclear. Nuclear power is inexpensive and does not emit carbon. If ahs an excellent safety record. Most important - unlike carbon, the dangers it poses are not systemic.
Very well worth reading. Thank you for educating us all, Vaclav Smil!
The "four pillars of modern civilization" for Smil
You might recognize cement, steel, and plastic as literal building blocks of civilization; but just in case you can't see how ammonia fits into the top four, it's due to importance as fertilizer. And abundant synthetic fertilizer was a crucial input to Earth's population boom. Simply put, "nearly 4 billion people would not have been alive without synthetic ammonia." More existentially important than silicon wafers, to be sure.
Cement? "Yet another [!] astounding statistic is that the world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century."
And as for fossil fuels, and hopes for our conversion to renewable sources of energy? "Until all energies used to extract and process these materials come from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in [their] production." It's the oil and natural gas that get us all this steel, cement, plastic, and ammonia. Electric cars are great. But renewable electricity is not going to be able to perform the herculean job that fossil fuels do today in terms of producing the material that makes our world go round.
Smil is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a scientist, and it comes through. It is refreshing to read someone who neither is gung ho about how we're gonna solve everything, nor ready to lay down and die. He thinks we'll muddle through. But here he cuts through the "muddle" of misleading information that comes from both optimists and pessimists.