Read: June 2023

Inspiration: Came across on Amazon’s bestseller list; wanted to better understand the foundational elements of climate change


Written with the help of ChatGPT, below is a brief summary to understand what is covered in the book.

“How the World Really Works”, published in 2022 by author, scientist, and professor Vaclav Smil, is a comprehensive exploration of the complex systems that shape our world. Smil, a renowned scientist and author, delves into various fields such as energy, technology, and the environment to provide a multidisciplinary perspective on the past, present, and future of humanity. The book examines key factors that have influenced our trajectory, including population growth, resource consumption, and technological advancements. Smil combines scientific analysis with historical context to unravel the interconnectedness of these systems and their impact on global challenges like climate change and resource scarcity. Through rigorous research and thought-provoking insights, “How the World Really Works” offers readers a deeper understanding of our world and stimulates critical thinking about the choices we face as we shape the future.

Unedited Notes

Direct from my original book log, below are my unedited notes (abbreviations and misspellings included) to show how I take notes as I read.

England was the earliest society to begin burning fossilized coal for energy—replacing wood/charcoal burning/plant fuels), 1620 coal surpass plant fuels in UK, still globally by 1800 98% of energy from plant fuels and 90% of mechanical energy is human and animal muscle, by 1900 energy changes as steam engines rise in use/efficiency (coal), internal combustion engines introduced 1880s, 1950 fossil fuels provide 75% of primary energy (coal), gasoline and diesel fuel 80% mechanical energy, late 1800s to today represent massive acceleration in change of energy source vs millenias prior, world pop went from 1bn 1800 to 1.6bn 1900 to 6.1bn 2000, what economics misses is the centrality of energy and energy prices to all systems, power is energy divided by time (not interchangeable with energy itself), important to recognize energy forms are not all substitutable—many forms remain multiples higher cost and less efficient, process of oil refinement is what produces lubricants which are used across auto, textile, food, etc, also asphalt derived from crude oil, also adhesives, coatings, detergents and more, by 1964 crude oil surpass coal as world’s most important fossil fuel, 1950 US produced 53% of world’s oil, 1970 23%, OPEC rise as a bloc to 48%, commercial electricity generation began 1882–Edison coal-fired generating stations in London and NY, 1900 <2% of world’s fossil fuel production used to generate electricity vs today 25%, hydroelectric station 1882 in wisconsin as well, “net zero” means large scale removal of CO2 from atmosphere and permanent storage underground (or planting trees), decarbonization of electricity generation is viable with solar and wind costs on par (however these sources have intermitency concerns), producing 1kg of american wheat today takes 2 seconds of human labor vs 10 mins in 1800–this has driven modern world, advances in agri tech (plows, tractors, fertilizers) and backbone is fossil fuels as inputs, importantly fuels are mostly liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons supplied as machine fuels and raw mats (vs electricity power from coal/nat gas/renewables), all machines in food production require fossil fuels (irrigation water, crop processing, harvest transport), but also fossil fuels and electricity go into making steel, rubber, glass, plastics, electronics, etc, bread production is lowest on energy costs, chicken still requires roughly .5L of diesel fuel per 1kg serving, tomatoes are much work as require 10x nitrogen per unit vs grain corn—diesel fuel requires by serving are higher than chicken, tomatoes are among worlds most heavily fertilized crop—nitrogen key to ammonia in fertilizers and requires ammonia synthesis process which consumes fuel (via natural gas), 4 pillars: cement, steel, plastics, ammonia—all constructed via fossil fuels combustion, these 4 materials claim 17% of world primary energy supply and 25% of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, no alternatives available at scale, ammonia is a gas dominant in nitrogen fertilizer to feed 50% of world pop (ammonia is NH3, 82% nitrogen, synthesizing ammonia took time, nitrogen is in atmosphere as N2 (unreactive molecule), need to synthesize ammonia from N and H—first succeed 1908 Fritz Haber, Haber-Bosch process to synthesize ammonia changed agriculture, 80% of global ammonia production used to fertilize crops, plastics production rose from 20k tons in 1925 to 370 million tons 2019, steel is ever present and essential to electricity production in addition to machinery and structures, steel made from iron ore, steel is very recyclable as well (30% of metal’s total annual output is recycled), steel made via blast furnaces to smelt then reduce carbon content—highly energy intensive, contributes 7-9 of global CO2 direct emissions via steelmaking, cement similar contribution though 3x the output vs steel (less energy intensive per unit), cement key to concrete to hold it together and made in kilns, 16-story Ingalls Building in cincy 1903 first reinforced concrete skyscraper and take off from there, dams are now the biggest structures of reinforced concrete, combo with steel, China skyrocket early 1980s to be largest cement producer, world now consumes more cement in 1 year than entire first half of 20th century, howecer much of construction cracks and not durable—lots of rebuilding to do this century so need even more cement, globalization not a force of nature—very much man made, globalization not take of til 1850s and beyond as steam engines rise and telegraphs as well to enable speed of info/goods transfer, first transatlantic telelgraph 1858, limited by simple speed of mvmt via sail boats prior, telephone patented/demonstrated 1876 but expensive, first intercontinental call 1927, steam-driven globalization connect the world, diesel engines follow along with airplanes and radio, first airline company Dutck KLM 1922, first transatlantic radio signal Dec 1901, steam engines use coal, diesel named after Rudolph Diesel, 1971 Intel release first microprocessor, globalization accelerate with Deng Xiaoping in China mid 1980s and fall of soviet union, now lots of dependency but not necessarily mean further accelerate—mediated by political factors as saw in first half of 20th century with retreat due to wars/regimes, covid sparked discussions of reshoring and retreating, as did 2008 financial crisis, so do have support to say peak has been reached, people’s perceptions of risk and control often illogical—won’t vaccinate or won’t live near nuclear power plant but drink or smoke or eat junk which is much more risky, important to judge risk with denominator being “per hour of time spent doing x activity or exposure”—this is how you see relative risks, which show flying much safer than driving and so on, natural disasters similarly low likelihood given exposure time—less risk than simple normal mortality rate, 125k people killed by guns 2010-20 vs 170 by terrorists jn the US but see billions on war and security but not on gun laws, assess risk unevenly—media influenced too, Greenhouse Gas Effect occurs naturally and is reason we are alive as the means by which earth warms (otherwise would be frozen), but industrialization increased CO2 emissions rapidly that create anthropogenic greenhouse gas effect, absorb outgoing radiation, methane is second largest contributor but bulk is CO2, this concept been around for 150 years (1856 first linked CO2 ground emissions to warming—american Eunice Foote), water vapor absorbs outgoing radiation and CO2 increases water vapor, mathematically not possible to reduce oxygen levels via burning of even all fossil fuel reserves to any consequential/noticeable extent, oxygen is not the concern (max .25% change in atmospheric oxygen concentration), water supply is a concern, Green New Deal can be viewed as science fiction, 80% decarbonization is not remotely possible–best efforts in Germany decrease from 84 to 78% (let alone get to 20%), any efforts on this scale would require accepting substantial reduction in living standard and keep developing nations from progress, developing nations in africa model after china (china biggest energy user in the world which drove incredible growth), storing CO2 underground for carbon capture would require 1.3-2.4x volume of current US crude oil production in storage volume and 110km of new pipelines—unprecendented infrastructure builds, cement steel plastic ammonia still need fossil fuels, arbitrary goals by 2030 or 2050 just work backwards to have assumed actions to fit goal and ignore actual socioeconomic needs and technological imperatives, targets assume wild instant changes, future of energy intertwined with future of nations, no one is 1980 was predicting rise of china to be single most influential force in energy use/world dyanmics, cornucopians vs catastrophists in forecasting, covid was ultimate moment of humility particularly in rich nations all the techno optimists and raving of advances in medicine/AI when couldn’t even muster basic masks/gloves/gowns in a country spending half a trillion per yr on military, future in 10 or 30 years likely to be similar to today—consider intertia and failures of all past bold predictions, hard for drastic change at scale needed in today’s world, unfortunate truth is climate action is a matter of immediate action for reward will not see (est take 60 years to see temp decline if act today), consider 1945 post ww2 predicting world in 2020–never have foreseen 75 year developments in tech/health/manuf/politics, food waste is actionable, above all need buy in of 5 biggest emitters to have a dent

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