A realistic grasp of our past, present, and uncertain future is the best foundation for approaching the unknowable expanse of time before us. While we cannot be specific, we know that the most likely prospect is a mixture of progress and setbacks, of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and near-miraculous advances. The future, as ever, is not predetermied. Its outcome depends on our actions.
Vaclav Smil deserved second chance after I gave up on Growth. How the World Really Works was just as dense as Growth but focused on broader topic and as such, felt more accessible. The first few chapters explain the history and current state of the fundamental things of modern world: energy, food production, materials, and globalization. Next chapters focus on present happenings and future outlooks, specifically in regards to the environment.
Vaclav’s writing is objective and grounded in science. The book is written with high degree of agnosticism and Vaclav specifically avoids making any predictions about the future and provides whole few pages of examples of how miserably we fail to predict anything even remotely distant.
How the World Really Works was a heavy, saddening but also prospective, and informative read. What I am taking away is that we should focus more on preventing food waste. Furthermore, any progress even if drastic that we make in ecology today will take tens of years to show, yet we are deciding about the future of billions of people.
we are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years
- due to power density it is highly unlikely that our prime movers (trucks, ships, planes) will switch away from fossil-fuel for power
- fossil-fuels are also heavily utilized (and irreplaceably so) in food production (from powering the machinery to fertilizers synthetization)
- energy consumption is closely tied to economic growth
- enourmous amount of food in modern world is wasted, large contribution to ecology would be reducing the waste
- food production requires large qunatity of fossil fuelds, Vaclav provides a few examples where he converts food to the direct amount of fueld used for the production (e.g. for 1kg of bread it is around 250ml of fossil fuel)
The Four Pillars of Modern Civilization
- all are energy-intensive to produce, only plastic and ammonia require fossil fuels as feedstock
- all produced in staggering qunatities (hundreds of millions to billions of tons annually)
- we don’t have suitable alternatives for any of it
- public discourse around climate change gravitates towards extremes of either techno-optimism or catastrophism
- catastrophists tend to be wrong all the time
- techno-optimists rarely understand the underlying constraints of modern world
- we are rightfully worried, at the same time throughout the history we always found a solution (so far)
- Smil also gives very grimm outlook to all the recent initiatives, most national and international agreements empty promises without commitment
- furthermore, as mentioned above, we can’t move away from fossil fuelds for plastic and ammonia anytime soon and even for transportation we are far from having an alternative
- rapid decarbonization could only be achieved by making sacrifices utterly impalatable to the vast majority of people
- the problem of delayed gratification - even drastic reductions to emissions “will not show any convincing benefits for decades”
Title: How the World Really Works
Author: Vaclav Smil
ISBN13: 9780593297063 ISBN10: 0593297067
- Everything You Thought You Knew, and Why You’re Wrong, review by Nathaniel Rich