How the World Really Works, Vaclav Smil

"Inevitably, this book--the product of my life's work, and written for the layperson--is a continuation of my long-lasting quest to understand the basic realities of the biosphere, history, and the world we have created."


"My goal is not to forecast, not to outline either stunning or depressing scenarios of what is to come. There is no need to extend this popular--but consistently failing--genre: in the long run, there are too many unexpected developments and too many complex interactions that no individual or collective effort can anticipate. Nor will I advocate any specific (biased) intepretations of reality, either as a source of despair or of boundless expectations. I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works, and I will use that understanding in order to make us better realize our future limits and opportunities."

p. 6

"Tracing the trajectory of useful energy deployment is so revealing because energy is not just another component in the complex structures of the biosphere, human societies, and their economies, nor just another variable in intricate equations determining the evolution of these interacting systems. Energy conversions are the very basis of life and evolution. Modern history can be seen as an unusually rapid sequence of transitions to new energy sources, and the modern world is the cumulative result of their conversions."

p. 20

"This is simple physics or electrical engineering, but it is remarkable how often these realities are ignored. Another common mistake is to confuse energy with power, and this is done even more frequently. It betrays an ignorance of basic physics, and one that, regrettably, is not limited to lay usage. Energy is a scalar, which in physics is a quantity described only by its magnitude; volume, mass, density, time, and speed or other ubiquitous scalars. Power measures energy per unit of time and hence it is a rate (in physics, a rate measures change, commonly per time). Establishments that generate electricity are commonly called power plants--but power is simply the rate of energy production or energy use. Power equals energy divided by time: in scientific units, it is watts = joules/seconds. Energy equals power multiplied by time: joules = watts x seconds. If you light a small votive candle in a Roman church, it might burn for 15 hours, converting the chemical energy of wax to heat (thermal energy) and light (electromagnetic energy) with an average power of nearly 40 watts."

p. 25

"Decarbonization of electricity generation can make the fastest progress, because installation costs per unit of solar or wind capacity can now compete with the least expensive fossil-fueled choices, and some countries have already transformed their generation to a considerable degree. Among large economies, Germany is the most notable example: since the year 2000, it has boosted its wind and solar capacity 10-fold and raised the share of renewables (wind, solar, and hydro) from 11 percent to 40 percent of total generation. Intermittency of wind and solar electricity poses no problems as long as these new renewables supply relatively small shares of the total demand, or as long as any shortfalls can be made up by imports."

p. 38

"As challenging as such arrangements are, they rely on technically mature (and still improving) solutions--that is, on more efficient PV cells, large onshore and offshore wind turbines, and high-voltage (including long-distance direct current) transmission. If costs, permitting processes, and not-in-my-backyard sentiments were no obstacles, these techniques could be deployed fairly rapidly and economically. Moreover, the problems of intermittency of solar and wind generation could be resolved by renewed reliance on nuclear electricity generation. A nuclear renaissance would be particularly helpful if we cannot develop better ways of large-scale electricity storage soon."

p. 39

"When asked to give common examples if our reliance on fossil fuels, inhabitants of the colder parts of Europe and North America will think immediately about the natural gas used to hear their houses. People everywhere will point out the combustion of liquid fuels that power most of our transportation but the modern world's most important--and fundamentally existential--dependence on fossil fuels is their direct and indirect use in the production of our food. Direct use includes fuels to power all field machinery (mostly tractors, combines, and other harvesters), the transportation of harvests from fields to storage and processing sites, and irrigation pumps. Indirect use is much broader, taking into account the fuels and electricity used to produce agricultural machinery, fertilizers, and agrochemicals (herbicides, insecticides, fungicides), and other inputs ranging from glass and plastic sheets for greenhouses, to global positioning devices that enable precision farming."

p. 47

"Two prominent examples illustrate this unfolding material dependence. No structures are more obvious symbols of "green" electricity generation than large wind turbines--but these enormous accumulations of steel, cement, and plastics are also embodiments of fossil fuels. Their foundations are reinforced concrete, their towers, nacelles, and rotors are steel (altogether nearly 200 tons of it for every megawatt of installed generating capacity), and their massive blades are energy-intensive--and difficult to recycle--plastic resins (about 15 tons of them for a midsize turbine). All of these giant parts must be brought to the installation sites by outsized trucks and erected by large steel cranes, and turbine gearboxes must be repeatedly lubricated with oil. Multiplying these requirements by the millions of turbines that would be needed to eliminate electricity generated from fossil fuels shows how misleading any talks are about the coming dematerialization of green economies."

p. 101

"But the advances in intercontinental shipping, combined with rapid post-1840 construction of railroads--across Europe and North America, as well as in India, other regions of Asia, and Latin America--created the first wave of a truly large-scale globalization. The total volume of global trade quadrupled between 1870 and 1913; the share of trade (exports and imports) in the worldwide economic product rose from about 5 percent in 1850 to 9 percent by 1870, and to 14 percent in 1913; and the best estimates for 13 countries (including Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Mexico, and the UK) show their combined share rising from 30 percent in 1870 to 50 percent just before the First World War."

p. 112

"And we now have solid quantitative confirmation that globalization did reach a turning point in the mid-2000s. The development was soon obscured by the Great Recession of 2008, but McKinsey's analysis of 23 industry value chains (interconnected activities, from design to retail, that deliver final products) spanning 43 countries between 1995 to 2017 shows that goods-producing value chains (still growing slowly in absolute terms) have become significantly less trade-intensive, with exports declining from 28.1 percent of gross output in 2007 to 22.5 percent in 2017. What I see to be the study's second-most important finding is that, contrary to common perception, only about 18 percent of the global goods trade is now driven by lower labor costs (labor arbitrage), that in many chains this share has been declining throughout the 2010s, and that global value chains are becoming more knowledge-intensive and rely increasingly on highly skilled labor. Similarly, an OECD study shows that the expansion of global value chains stopped in 2011 and since then has slightly declined: there has been less trade in intermediate goods and services."

p. 131

"Widespread fear of nuclear electricity generation is yet another excellent example of risk misperception. 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."

p. 142

"But most studies concur that demand-driven freshwater scarcity will have a much greater impact than the shortages induced by climate change. As a result, our best option for dealing with future water supply is to manage demand, and one of the best large-scale examples of this working is the recent history of the US's reducing per capita water usage. In 2015, overall US water consumption was less than 4 percent higher than it was in 1965--but during the intervening 50 years the country's population increased by 68 percent, its GDP (in constant monies) more than quadrupled, and irrigated farmland increased by about 40 percent. This means that average per capita water use decreased by nearly 40 percent, that the water intensity of the US economy (units of water per unit of constant GDP) declined by 76 percent, and, as the total volume of water used for irrigation was actually slightly lower in 2015, that applications per unit of farmland declined by nearly a third. There are, of course, physical limits to the further reduction in all of these uses of water, but the US experience shows that the gains can go far beyond marginal ones."

p. 186

"Persistence is as important as forgetting: despite the promises of new beginnings and bold departures, old patterns and old approaches soon resurface to set the stage for another round of failures. I ask any readers who doubt this to check sentiments during and immediately after the great financial crisis of 2007-2008--and compare them with the post-crisis experience. Who has been found responsible for this systemic near collapse of the financial order? What fundamental departures (besides enormous injections of new monies) were taken to reform questionable practices or to reduce economic inequality?"

p. 221

"Being agnostic about the distant future means being honest: we have to admit the limits of our understanding, approach all planetary challenges with humility, and recognize that advances, setbacks, and failures will all continue to be a part of our evolution and that there can be no assurance of (however defined) ultimate success, no arrival at any singularity--but, as long as we use our accumulated understanding with determination and perseverance, there will also not be an early end of days. The future will emerge from our accomplishments and failures, and while we might be clever (and lucky) enough to foresee some of its forms and features, the whole remains elusive even when looking just a generation ahead."

p. 226