Notes: How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going

Notes from How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going (2022) by Vaclav Smil:

* Since the year 2007, more than half of humanity has lived in cities (more than 80 percent in all affluent countries), and unlike in the industrializing cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries, jobs in modern urban areas are largely in services. Most modern urbanites are thus disconnected not only from the ways we produce our food but also from the ways we build our machines and devices, and the growing mechanization of all productive activity means that only a very small share of the global population now engages in delivering civilization’s energy and the materials that comprise our modern world.

* The proverbial best minds do not go into soil science and do not try their hand at making better cement; instead they are attracted to dealing with disembodied information, now just streams of electrons in myriads of microdevices. From lawyers and economists to code writers and money managers, their disproportionately high rewards are for work completely removed from the material realities of life on earth.

* The real wrench in the works: 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. Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances.

* Most recently, a poor understanding of energy has the proponents of a new green world naively calling for a near-instant shift from abominable, polluting, and finite fossil fuels to superior, green and ever-renewable solar electricity.

* Even in this era of high-tech electronic miracles, it is still impossible to store electricity affordably in quantities sufficient to meet the demand of a medium-sized city (500,000 people) for only a week or two, or to supply a megacity (more than 10 million people) for just half a day.

* If the COVID-19 pandemic brought disruption, anguish, and unavoidable deaths, those effects would be minor compared to having just a few days of a severely reduced electricity supply in any densely populated region, and if prolonged for weeks nationwide it would be a catastrophic event with unprecedented consequences.

* The fundamental energy conversion producing our food has not changed: as always, we are eating, whether directly as plant foods or indirectly as animal foodstuffs, products of photosynthesis—the biosphere’s most important energy conversion, powered by solar radiation. What has changed is the intensity of our crop, and animal, production: we could not harvest such abundance, and in such a highly predictable manner, without the still-rising inputs of fossil fuels and electricity.

* Many people nowadays admiringly quote the performance gains of modern computing (“so much data”) or telecommunication (“so much cheaper”)—but what about harvests? In two centuries, the human labor to produce a kilogram of American wheat was reduced from 10 minutes to less than two seconds.

* The quest for mass-scale veganism is doomed to fail. Eating meat has been as significant a component of our evolutionary heritage as our large brains (which evolved partly because of meat eating), bipedalism, and symbolic language. All our hominin ancestors were omnivorous, as are both species of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes and Pan paniscus), the hominins closest to us in their genetic makeup; they supplement their plant diet by hunting (and sharing) small monkeys, wild pigs, and tortoises. Full expression of human growth potential on a population basis can take place only when diets in childhood and adolescence contain sufficient quantities of animal protein, first in milk and later in other dairy products, eggs, and meat: rising post-1950 body heights in Japan, South Korea, and China, as a result of increased intake of animal products, are unmistakable testimonies to this reality.