How the World Really Works

I just started reading How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, by Vaclav Smil, May 10, 2022.

The Introduction was so compelling that I put down my Kindle Oasis, copied these three paragraphs from the Windows Kindle application (starting on the 4th screen), and pasted them in below!

[I added emphasis to Smil’s prose.]

America now has only about 3 million men and women (farm owners and hired labor) directly engaged in producing food—people who actually plow the fields, sow the seeds, apply fertilizer, eradicate weeds, harvest the crops (picking fruit and vegetables is the most labor-intensive part of the process), and take care of the animals. That is less than 1 percent of the country’s population, and hence it is no wonder that most Americans have no idea, or only some vague notion, about how their bread or their cuts of meat came to be. Combines harvest wheat—but do they also harvest soybeans or lentils? How long does it take for a tiny piglet to become a pork chop: weeks or years? The vast majority of Americans simply don’t know—and they have plenty of company. China is the world’s largest producer of steel—smelting, casting, and rolling nearly a billion tons of it every year—but all of that is done by less than 0.25 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people. Only a tiny percentage of the Chinese population will ever stand close to a blast furnace, or see the continuous casting mill with its red ribbons of hot, moving steel. And this disconnect is the case across the world.

The other major reason for the poor, and declining, understanding of those fundamental processes that deliver energy (as food or as 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(whether metals, non-metallic minerals, or concrete) is that they have come to be seen as old-fashioned—if not outdated—and distinctly unexciting compared to the world of information, data, and images.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.

Moreover, many of these data worshippers have come to believe that these electronic flows will make those quaint old material necessities unnecessary. Fields will be displaced by urban high-rise agriculture, and synthetic products will ultimately eliminate the need to grow any food at all. Dematerialization, powered by artificial intelligence, will end our dependence on shaped masses of metals and processed minerals, and eventually we might even do without the Earth’s environment: who needs it if we are going to terraform Mars? Of course, these are all not just grossly premature predictions, they are fantasies fostered by a society where fake news has become common and where reality and fiction have commingled to such an extent that gullible minds, susceptible to cult-like visions, believe what keener observers in the past would have mercilessly perceived as borderline or frank delusion.

Please see this detailed review from January 26, 2002 by Joakim Book.

Here is a short excerpt:

No matter our position on the threats of climate change, fossil fuels are going to be with us for a long time: they literally power our world and produce our food – and “no AI, no apps, and no electronic messages will change that.” Humanity is 

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.

Author: benslivka

19 start-ups, software, hardware, biotech, space launch, neurodiversity, learning, free markets, food, wine, cycling, walking, Seattle, Microsoft, Northwestern University, Garfield HS, DreamBox Learning, IBM, Amazon.

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