Sunday, July 17, 2022

Review of How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going by Vaclav Smil

We recently reviewed Vaclav Smil's book "Numbers Don't Lie" (4/5), which was a compilation of his monthly essays written for IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers from 2014-2020. One of the themes from that book, published in 2020, was that it will not be possible to replace fossil fuels without major economic and social dislocations. He also expressed contempt for the idea that inventions like smartphones and advertising website businesses (like Facebook) were anywhere nearly as important as technologies like steel, electricity, nitrogen fertilizers, and shipping.

He followed Numbers Don't Lie with his latest, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going. The first three chapters of this - the "Understanding" of Energy, Food Production, and Our Material World - were great, and the other four (about Globalization, Risks, Environment, and Future) were not as worthwhile. Some highlights from the book, starting with the chapter on Energy:

  • 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. [Email jobs.]
  • The other major reason for the poor, and declining, understanding of these fundamental processes that deliver energy (as food or fuels) and durable materials (whether metals, non-metallic minerals, or concrete) is that they have come to be seen as old-fashioned - if not outdated - and distinctly unexciting compared to the world of information, data, and images. 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.
  • For those who ignore the energetic and material imperatives of our world, those who prefer mantras of green solutions to understanding how we have come to this point, the prescription is easy: just decarbonize - switch from burning fossil carbon to converting inexhaustible flows of renewable energies. 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.
  • Even by 1850, rising coal extraction in Europe and North America supplies no more than 7 percent of all fuel energy, nearly half of all useful kinetic energy comes from draft animals, about 40 percent from human muscles, and just 15 percent from the three inanimate prime movers: waterwheels, windmills, and the slowly spreading steam engines. The world of 1850 is much more akin to the world of 1700 or even of 1600 than that of the year 2000.
  • Physicists were the first to recognize the fundamental importance of energy in human afairs. In 1886, Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the founders of thermodynamics, spoke about free energy - energy available for conversions - as the Kampfobjekt (the object of struggle) for life, which is ultimately dependent on incoming solar radiation. Erwin Schrodinger, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933, summed up the basis of life: "What an organism feeds upon is negative entropy."
  • In the early 1970s, American ecologist Howard Odum explained how "all progress is due to special power subsidies, and progress evaporates whenever and wherever they are removed." And, more recently, physicist Robert Ayres has repeatedly stressed in his writings the central notion of energy in all economies: "the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services." Simply put, energy is the only truly universal currency, and nothing (from galactic rotations to ephemeral insect lives) can take place without its transformations.
  • Given all of these readily verifiable realities, it is hard to understand why modern economics, that body of explanations and precepts whose practitioners exercise more influence on public policy than any other experts, has largely ignored energy. As Ayres noted, economics does not only lack any systematic awareness of energy's importance for the physical process of production, but it assumes "that energy doesn't matter (much) because the cost share of energy in the economy is so small that it can be ignored... as if output could be produces by labor and capital alone - or as if energy is merely a form of man-made capital that can be produced (as opposed to extracted) by labor and capital."
  • [What happened in 1971:] In April 1972, the Texas Railroad Commission lifted its limits on the state's output [of oil] and hence surrendered its control of the price that it had held since the 1930s. [...] On January 1, 1974, the Gulf states raised their posted price to $11.65 per barrel, completing a 4.5-fold rise in the cost of this essential energy source in a single year - and this ended the era of rapid economic expansion that had been energized by cheap oil.

Wow, Vaclav: "energy is the only truly universal currency". Tell that to the Bitcoin maximalists? (Also, see our old posts, Energy Return on Energy Invested: Peak Oil, Liquid Fuels, and the Possibility of Sustained Economic Decline and Overshoot Bibliography.)

Next, from the chapter on Food Production, perhaps the most impressive chapter for two reasons. He describes in detail the decrease in hours of human labor and increase in petroleum inputs in our food supply over the past two centuries. Highlights:

  • [Circa 1800, wheat production in upstate New York] demands about 150 hours of human labor per hectare, as well as about 70 ox-hours. The yield is just one ton of grain per hectare, and of that at least 10 percent has to be set aside as seed for the next year's crop. Altogether, it takes about 10 minutes of human labor to produce a kilogram of wheat, and that would, with wholegrain flour, yield 1.6 kilograms (two loaves) of bread. This is laborious, slow, and low-yielding farming - but it is completely solar.
  • A century later, in 1901, most of the country's wheat comes from the Great Plains, and so we move to the Red River Valley, in eastern North Dakota. [...] although wheat farming still relies on draft animals, the wheat growing on large Dakota farms is highly mechanized. Teams of four powerful horses pull gang (multi-share) steel plows and harrows, mechanical seed drills are used for planting, mechanical harvesters cut the stalks and bind the sheaves, and only the stooking is done manually. [...] The entire sequence takes less than 22 hours per hectare, about 1/7 of the time it did in 1801. In this extensive cultivation, large areas make up for low yields: yields remain low at 1 ton per hectare but the investment of human labor is only about 1.5 minutes per kilogram of grain...
  • Producing wheat now [in 2021] takes less than two hours of human labor per hectare (compared to 150 hours in 1801), and with yields of around 3.5 tons per hectare this translates to less than two seconds per kilogram of grain. 
  • 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. This is how our modern world really works.
  • Most of the admired and undoubtedly remarkable technical advances that have transformed industries, transportation, communication, and everyday living would have been impossible if more than 80 percent of all people had to remain in the countryside in order to produce their daily bread (the share of the US population who were farmers in 1800 was 83 percent) or their daily bowl of rice (in Japan, close to 90 percent of people lived in villages in 1800).
  • Growing the grain, milling it, and baking a 1-kilogram sourdough loaf thus requires an energy input equivalent of at least 250 milliliters of diesel fuel... The real energy cost is higher still, because only a small share of bread is now baked where it is bought. [T]he total cost... may have an equivalent energy consumption as high as 600 mL/kg. But if the bread's typical (roughly 5:1) ratio of edible mass to the mass of embedded energy (1 kilogram of bread compared to about 210 grams of diesel fuel) seems uncomfortably high, recall that I have already noted that grains - even grains after processing and conversion into our favorite foods - are at the bottom of our food energy subsidy ladder. 
  • [The energy to raise chicken:] 300-350 mL/kg is a remarkably efficient performance compared to the rates of 210-250 mL/kg of bread, and this is reflected in the comparably affordable prices of chicken: in US cities, the average price of a kilogram of white bread is only about 5 percent lower than the average price per kilogram of whole chicken...
  • [W]hen bought in a Scandinavian supermarket, tomatoes from Almeria's heated plastic greenhouses have a stunningly high embedded production and transportation energy cost. Its total is equivalent to about 650 mL/kg, or more than five tablespoons (each containing 14.8 mililiters) of diesel fuel per medium sized (125 gram) tomato!
  • The mean for all seafood is stunningly high - 700 mL/kg (nearly a full wine bottle of diesel fuel) - and the maxima for some wild shrimp and lobsters are, incredibly, more than 10 L/kg (and that includes a great deal of inedible shells!) [...] Only aquacultured herbivorous fish that grow well consuming plant-based feed - most notably different species of Chinese carp [...] have a low energy cost.
  • [O]ur food supply - be it staple grains, clucking birds, favorite vegetables, or seafood praised for its nutritious quality - has become increasingly dependent on fossil fuels. This fundamental reality is commonly ignored by those who do not try to understand how our world really works and who are now predicting rapid decarbonization.
  • The decline of human labor required to produce American wheat outlined earlier in this chapter is an excellent proxy for the overall impact that mechanization and agrochemicals have had on the size of the country's agricultural labor force. Between 1800 and 2020, we reduced the labor needed to produce a kilogram of grain by more than 98 percent - and we reduced the share of the country's population engaged in agriculture by the same large margin. This provides a useful guide to the profound economic transformations that would have to take place with any retreat of agricultural mechanization and reduction in the use of synthetic agrochemicals.

Finally, regarding "Our Material World":

  • Four materials rank highest on this combined scale [of indespensability, ubiquity, and demand size] and they form what I have called the four pillars of modern civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.
  • Global production of these four indispensable materials claims about 17 percent of world primary energy supply.
  • Requirements for fossil carbon have been - and for decades will continue to be - the price we pay for the multitude of benefits arising from our reliance on steel, cement, ammonia, and plastics. And as we continue to expand renewable energy conversions, we will require larger masses of old materials as well as unprecedented quantities of materials that were previously needed only in modest amounts. 
  • 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.

Steel, the most widely used metal, comes in four major categories: carbon, alloy, stainless, and tool. Primary steelmaking consists of smelting iron ore and coke in a blast furnace (to burn off the carbon and produce steel) followed by a basic oxygen furnace to further reduce carbon content. The alternative is to recycle steel by melting it in an electric arc furnace. In primary steelmaking, most of the energy is used by the blast furnace, with the result that recycled steel uses much less energy. 

What that tells you is that Nucor (which uses EAFs to recycle scrap steel) has a much more efficient way of making steel than U.S. Steel (which is an integrated producer that mines taconite ore on the Mesabi range in Minnesota and produces most of its steel in blast and BOF furnaces.

Smil concludes by saying:

De omnibus dubitandum (Doubt everything) must be more than a durable Cartesian quote; it must remain the very foundation of the scientific method. Recall how I opened this chapter with a list of nine planetary boundaries whose transgressions imperil our biospheric wellbeing? Keeping them within safe confines seems to be an obvious conclusion because they identify the most important, perennial, existential concerns - and yet a list prepared 40 years ago would have been very different.

His most recent two books have hammered the theme that our civilization absolutely depends on fossil fuels (coal and petroleum) and that this is not going to change, or "transition" anytime soon. 


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