How the World Really Works

How the World Really Works

Author
Vaclav Smil
Year
2022
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Review

I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in climate change. More broadly it’s a great example of how to think in systems and numbers.

The author makes it clear that a rapid and easy transition to a "net-zero" future by 2050 is unlikely. This is not an uplifting read.

It’s clear that it took decades for the world to build the fossil fuel infrastructure that lifted billions out of poverty, and that’s not something we can roll back in an instant. Previous transitions (like moving from landline phones to mobile phones) aren’t a fair comparison - we still need to invent and scale many of the technologies we’ll need to make this happen.

We’re paying too much attention toward the easy end of the net zero problem (getting wealthy consumers and service companies to decarbonise). Clearly we need to get more minds on the tougher side of the equation, such as the production of ammonia, steel, plastic and cement - OR what happens outside the world’s richest nations.

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Key Takeaways

The 20% that gave me 80% of the value.

  • Advances in science and technology have driven huge increases in the average standard of living over the last few hundred years. Increasing complexity has made it harder to understand the big-picture, and make good decisions.
  • We’re facing a climate crisis - and we’re much more reliant on fossil fuels than people think. We aren’t going to be able to decarbonise the economy by 2050 - without an unthinkable economic retreat OR near-miraculous technical advances.
  • Decarbonising our energy will cause challenges to our most basic food production needs. We need to rethink the production of four key pillars of modern civilisation: Ammonia, Steal, Concrete and Plastics.
  • Humans now have 700x more useful energy at their disposal than in the 19th century. We’re using 800kg of crude oil PPPY.
    • Each year on a global basis we consume 4200 megatons of crude oil, 120 megatons or lubricant oils (vs edible oils of 200 megatons) and 100 megatons of Asphalt.
  • When thinking about substituting energy you need to think about: Production, storage and distribution. Energy density is important, firewood is 2.5x less than coal, natural gas is 3x lower than aviation kerosene.
  • Even though early crude oil was so cheap there was no incentive to use it efficiently, the shift from coal to crude took generations to accomplish. (Generation = 20 years to the author).
  • Renewables can generate electricity but with major drawbacks, they are harder to distribute, less predictable and it’s hard to store energy in batteries at scale.
  • In 2020 electricity is mostly produced by coal and natural gas (10% nuclear, 16% hydro, 7% wind and solar). Electricity is just 18% of global energy use. Decarbonisation of electricity can make the fast progress but decarbonisation of other industries is going to be harder.
  • We’re not running out of fossil fuels. At 2020 consumption levels → 120 years of coal, 50 years of oil and gas.

On Food

  • Transitioning from foraging to sedentary living enabled higher population densities as the food supply became more predictable.
  • In 1950 the world produced enough food for 890M people → 2019 enough for 7B people (8x increase).
  • Our highly reliable food supply is dependent on fossil fuels (and electricity)
    • Directly: to power all field machinery, transportation, processing sites and irrigation pumps.
    • Indirectly: build agricultural machinery, make fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and to make materials for greenhouses etc
  • We’ve got increasingly efficient at food production
  • Year
    Labour for 1 kg of wheat
    Technology
    1801
    10 minutes
    Oxen and wooden plough
    1901
    90 seconds
    Horses, steel ploughs, mechanical seed drills, mechanical harvesters
    2021
    2 seconds
    Powerful tractors, wide plows, seeders, fertiliser applicators. Ammonia for Nitrogen and protection from insects, weeds etc
  • In 1800 the USA needed 83% of people to be farmers in the countryside. In 200 years we reduced the labor needed to produce grain by 98% → in doing so we enabled everyone to come out of agriculture into other jobs
  • Fertilisers supply three essential plant macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium
    • Ammonia is the starting compound for all synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers. Crops need a lot (100kg per hectare).
    • the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilisers is the most important indirect energy input in modern farming
    • Nitrogen is a key limiting factor in crop productivity.
    • 2 ways to get enough of it:
      • Human and Animal waste: You’d need a lot, and it’s time consuming to move and spread
      • Nitrogenous fertilisers: Made possible by the invention of ammonia synthesis by Fritz Haver in 1909
        • Fertilisers supply more than half of nitrogen for the worlds crops. Without them we couldn’t feed 8 billion people
  • For now we cannot feed the world without relying on fossil fuels. Reducing fossil fuels will require the labor force to leave the cities and return to the countries.
  • Food waste is a massive problem and irradiating it would help → but producing and distributing food perfectly would be impossible. It’s been hard to reduce food waste, in the USA it’s been stable for 40 years.
Food
Food Waste
Root Crops
50%
Fish
33%
Cereals
30%

On the 4 pillars

  • Four Pillars of the modern civilisation → Steel, Cement, Plastics and Ammonia.
    • Huge diversity of properties and functions
    • We need a huge amount of them
      • 4.5B tons of cement
      • 1.8B tons of steel
      • 370M tons of plastics
      • 150m ton of ammonia
  • Their production relies heavily on fossil fuels
    • Steel → relies on coal and gas for smelting
    • Cement → coal dusts, petroleum coke and heavy fuel oil
    • Plastics → derived from crude oils and natural gasses
    • Ammonia → synthesis requires natural gas
  • Global production of them claims…
    • 17% of the worlds primary energy supply
    • 25% of C02 from fossil fuel combustion

Ammonia

  • Ammonia might just be the most important material. It’s use in nitrogen fertiliser is what made it possible to feed 8B people. About 4B people wouldn’t be alive without ammonia.
  • First ammonia synthesis plant using the Harber-Bosch process in 1913
  • 60% of the nitrogen used by China’s crops comes from synthetic Ammonia
  • 50% of Nitrogen supplied to the worlds crops comes from the Harber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia → arguably making it the most important technical advance in history. Synthetic Ammonia feeds half of humanity .
  • 150 megatons of ammonia synthesised annually 80% fertiliser

Plastics

  • Two key monomers → Ethylene and propylene. Produced by heating hydrocarbons to 750-900 degrees
  • Single use plastics are bad, but the we rely on plastics for everything … PVC, nylon, teflon, polycarbonates, lycra, kevlar. Plastics are used widely in hospitals.
  • Global production… 2013 370M tons
  • Irresponsible dumping of plastics - is not an argument against the proper use of them

Steel

  • Vital for construction. Tall buildings, bridges, street lights, To and radio towers, electricity infrastructure
  • Cast Iron is 97% iron, 2.5% carbon, 0.5% silicon. Modern steels are made with less carbon.
  • Compressive strength is equal to granite. Tensile strength is 10x that of granite (7x aluminium, 4x copper)
  • Steel melting point is 1425.
  • Annual production of Iron Ore is about 2.5B tons
  • 30% of total output of steel is recycled
  • Steel making was highly commercialised in the 1950s
    • Blast furnace → Pig Iron
    • Basic Oxygen furnace → Lowers carbon (produces steel)
    • Casting machines → slabs, billets, and strips
  • It takes a lot of energy. 6% of the world’s primary energy supply.
  • Steel dependent on coking coal and natural gas → big contributor to greenhouse gases.
    • 1000kg of steel takes 500kg of carbon to produce
    • 900 megatons of carbon per year (7-9% of fossil fuel emissions) —
  • Cement is less energy intensive, but 3x more of it is produced and so its responsible for about 8% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Cement

  • Romans built the pantheon out of cement (2k years old)
  • Create cement by heating ground limestone and clay to 1450 degrees → grind down to make cement
  • 4B tons a year are now produced globally (more than was used in 1900 - 1950). From 1990 to 2022 → Used 700B tons → In buildings that will need to be replaced at some point → lots of replacement will be required (30-100 year life).
  • If the rest of the world wants to develop cities and infrastructure like China - then we’ll need 15x more steel and 10x more cement and 30x more plastic production - 2x more ammonia
Electric cars are also an example of new material dependencies
  • Typical Car Battery (450kg)
    • 11kg lithium
    • 14kg cobalt
    • 27kg nickel
    • 40kg copper
    • 50kg graphite
    • 181kg steel, aluminium, plastic
  • Requires 40 tons of ores - many of which are in low concentrations, so 225 tons of materials needs to be processed → per car
  • To meet growing need of electric cars we’ll need
    • 18x more lithium
    • 18x more cobolalt
    • 30x more nickel
  • We’ll always have enough Oxygen
    • We require a constant supply of oxygen to survive - 1KG of Oxygen per day
    • Or 2.7B tons of oxygen a year (an absolutely tiny fraction of Oxygen in the atmosphere)
    • We don’t need more Oxygen - we don’t need trees to produce Oxygen. Trees produce Oxygen yes, but they also consume about as much. Each year about 300B tons of Oxygen is absorbed and released by photosynthesis . We could burn all of the worlds plants tomorrow, and we wouldn’t have a lack of Oxygen
    • Burning fossil fuels does remove Oxygen - but as we know there’s a lot of oxygen so the yearly change is just 0.002% or 4ppm on 210,000ppm.
      • it would take 1500 years to lower oxygen by the same amount as the difference between New York and Salt Lake City (1200m above sea level)
  • Water is harder. We have an abundance of water - but it’s not evenly distributed because we’ve not managed it well.
    • A 2 degree shift could expose between 500m and 3B people to climate change-induced water scarcity
    • We can reduce how much water we use (the US has reduced by 4% from 1965 to 2015 - average per capita reduced 40%)
    • Global warming will cause more rain and intensify the water cycle- but it might fall unevenly - some will receive less than today, and some will receive much more
  • Why the earth is not permanently frozen. The greenhouse effect is partly natural, without it the earths temperature would be -18. Water vapour is the responsible for most of the greenhouse effect → but temperature determines how much water is in the atmosphere
  • Combustion of fossil fuels and the production of cement are largely responsible for rising CO2
    • In 1800 270 parts per million
    • In 2022 420 parts per million (50% increase)
  • CO2 is 75% of the warming effect, CH4 is about 15%
  • Between 1900 and 2015 - we lost 14% of our trees
    • The worlds forests are getting younger and shorter
  • We could triple the adoption rate of renewable energies and we’ll still be majority carbon in 2050
  • Climate Change → requires a global, substantial and prolonged commitment.
    • Just 5 countries account for 80% of emissions though.
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Deep Summary

Longer form notes, typically condensed, reworded and de-duplicated.

Introduction

  • Advances in science and technology have driven huge increases in the average standard of living over the last few hundred years. Made possible by a complex set of machines, device, procedures, protocols and interventions that sustain civilisation.
  • Increasing complexity has made it harder to understand the big-picture, and make good decisions. Many of us don’t understand the fundamental processes and complex systems that make modern society possible. Our knowledge is superficial, we depend on many things that are a ‘black box’ to us. Only a few of us understand how our food, energy and technology is produced.
  • We’re facing a climate crisis - and we’re much more reliant on fossil fuels than people think. We aren’t going to be able to decarbonise the economy by 2050 - without an unthinkable economic retreat OR near-miraculous technical advances.
  • Our high energy societies have been steadily increasing their dependence on fossil fuels and electricity. Decarbonising our energy will cause challenges to our most basic food production needs.
  • Four pillars of modern civilisation: Ammonia, Steal, Concrete and Plastics.
  • The three existential necessities: Oxygen, Water and Food.
  • We’ve been ignoring warning about the use of fossil fuels, and increasing our reliance on them to such a degree that it’s going to be hard for us to part ways

Understanding Energy

  • You need to be energy literate to understand how the world works.
A brief history of energy on earth
4.5B years ago
First microorganisms
1.2B years ago
Cyanobacteria start to convert CO2 and water and release oxygen
600M years ago
First organisms made of differentiated cells
541M years ago
Cambrain explosion →
4M years ago
Ape-like creatures come down from the trees
100ks of years ago
Fire is mastered → the first major release of energy not from digestion . Brings cooking, comfort and safety.
10k years ago
Farming and domesticated animals. Energy of animals can now be deployed
9k years ago
Watermills and Windmills are put to work
300 years ago
England starts extracting and using coal as a heat source, and introduces the first steam engines. First combustion of fossil fuels.
200 years ago
Plant fuels create 98% of heat and light still. Humans and farm animals still doing 90% of mechanical energy in farming.
by 1900
Primary energy: 50% Plant Fuels - 50% Fossil Fuels
by 1950s
First nuclear power plant
by 2000s
only 12% of the world’s primary energy source is plant fuels. 95% of mechanical energy is coming from machines
  • 4.5 billion years ago: first microorganisms
  • 1.2 billion
  • Although we’ve seen a number of transitions to new energy sources - the advances of modern civilisation can largely explained by the increasing adoption of fossil fuels. We now have unprecedented amounts of energy at our disposal
    • Humans now have 700x more useful energy at their disposal than in the 19th century
    • We’re using 800kg of crude oil PPPY
  • We’re so reliant on fossil fuels that the next transition will take much longer than most people think
    • How substitutable one type of energy is for another, depends on how they’re deployed in the system. Removing our reliance on fossil fuels is going to be harder than swapping from candles to electric lights.
The economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services Robert Ayres
  • Energy is the only truly universal currency, and nothing can take place without it’s transformations.
  • Energy is the capacity for doing work. Energy comes in different forms… gravitational, kinetic, heat, elastic, electrical, chemical, radiant, nuclear and mass.
    • Energy can’t be created or destroyed → but when converted some useful energy is often lost
  • Don’t confuse energy with power.
    • Scaler quantities have only magnitude → Energy, volume, mass, density etc
    • Vector quantities have magnitude and direction → Power, velocity, weight
    • Energy is measured in joules
      • Or in nutrition, calories. 1 Calorie = 4.186 Joules.
    • Power = Energy / Time
      • e.g: Watts = Joules / Seconds
    • Energy = Power * Time
How people refer to power stations is misleading.
  • They say 1000 mega watts of electricity but they mean 1000 megawatt-hours
  • It takes 80 watts to power an adult at rest → or 1650 calories a day
  • When thinking about substituting energy you need to think about:
    • Production, storage and distribution
      • Energy density is key for storage
        • Firewood is 2.5x less than Coal
        • Natural Gas is 3x lower than aviation kerosene
      • Liquid fuels like crude oil are easier to produce, store, and distribute.
  • Crude is refined into different fuels → yielding more valuable fuels for specific uses, and other oil products like lubricants. Each year globally we consume a lot of them
    • Crude Oil 4200 megatons
    • Lubricants equate to 120 megatons (vs edible oils of 200 megatons)
    • Asphalt 100 megatons
  • The shift from coal to crude took generations to accomplish
    • Crude oil became the global fuel - it’s the world’s most important source of primary energy
    • Initially crude oil was so cheap - there was no incentive to use it efficiently
      • between 1933 and 1973 American cars actually became less efficient
    • Oil production was nationalises in the 70s by Algeria, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia
    • The price instability made it less favourable.
  • Oil is not slowly being replaced, especially as means to create electricity by natural gas, wind and solar.
  • Renewables can generate electricity but with major drawbacks
    • Harder to distribute - as you can’t just generate power where you need it. You have to spend money on transmitting energy from windy regions, to high demand regions
    • Less predictable - so you have to keep your old non-renewable power stations around for those days with little sun and wind (Germany has kept 90% of its fossil fuel capacity)
      • Sure adding renewables can help you at peak production, but you still need to guarantee a minimum supply
    • It’s not easy to store electricity at large scales in batteries yet
      • Pumped hydro storage is the best option too, but like hydroelectricity you need the terrain
  • BUT electricity is just 18% of global energy use
    • In 2020 electricity is mostly produced by coal and natural gas (10% nuclear, 16% hydro, 7% wind and solar)
    • Demand is growing quickly
  • We’re not running out of fossil fuels
    • At 2020 consumption levels → 120 years of coal
    • 50 years of oil and gas
  • The world is aiming to be net zero by 2050. Target isn’t decarbonisation but net zero. We need to find a way to do large scale C02 removal.
    • 2019 emissions from fossil fuels was 37 billion tons 2019
  • Decarbonisation of electricity can make the fasted progress because:
    • installation costs of solar and wind power are close to parity with fossil fuels
    • some countries have already proven it’s possible
    • requires little change on the consumer side
  • Decarbonisation of other industries is going to be harder
    • Air travel requires high energy density
    • New ways to produce steel, ammonia, cement and plastics
  • Annual demand of goods:
    • Fossil Fuels: 10 billion tons
    • All staple grains: 2 billion tons
    • Water drank: 5 billion tons
  • Both the share and scale of carbon fuels → make it impossible to rapidly substitute
    • The affluent world can take some rapid decarbonisation steps
    • But there are many who can’t afford to take such actions, and still haven’t reached the same standard of living or built their essential infrastructure

Understanding Food Production

  • Spears, axes, bows and arrows, woven nets, baskets, and fishing rods made it possible to hunt and catch a wide variety of species
  • Transitioning from foraging to sedentary living enabled higher population densities as the food supply became more predictable.
    • This didn’t mean better nutrition. A few staple crops (wheat, barley, rice, corn, legumes, potatoes)
  • Globally, every year we’re able to produce enough food. The malnutrition rate has fallen from 2/3 people in 1950 to 1/11 by 2019.
    • In 1950 the world produced enough food for 890M people → 8x increase → 2019 enough for 7B people.
  • Our highly reliable food supply is dependent on fossil fuels (and electricity)
    • Directly: to power all field machinery, transportation, processing sites and irrigation pumps.
    • Indirectly: build agricultural machinery, make fertilisers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and to make materials for greenhouses etc
  • Crops (for people and livestock) require blue light, red light and small amounts of elements including, notably, nitrogen and phosphorus
  • Non-solar energy has become more important to both crop production and the capture of wild marine species
  • We’ve got increasingly efficient at food production
  • Year
    Labour for 1 kg of wheat
    Technology
    1801
    10 minutes
    Oxen and wooden plough
    1901
    90 seconds
    Horses, steel ploughs, mechanical seed drills, mechanical harvesters
    2021
    2 seconds
    Powerful tractors, wide plows, seeders, fertiliser applicators. Ammonia for Nitrogen and protection from insects, weeds etc
  • In 1800 the USA needed 83% of people to be farmers in the countryside.
  • Fertilisers supply three essential plant macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium
    • they are needed in large quantities to ensure high crop yields
    • Potassium is the easiest to produce
    • Ammonia is the starting compound for all synthetic nitrogenous fertilisers
      • Crops need a lot (100kg per hectare)
      • the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilisers i the most important indirect energy input in modern farming
      • We need a lot of nitrogen because it’s in every living cell (chlorophyll, nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and amino acids (proteins required for the growth and maintenance of our tissues).
      • Nitrogen is a key limiting factor in crop productivity
      • Although it’s abundant (80% of the atmosphere) it’s as a non-reactive molecule and there’s only a few ways to make the compounds useful for plants
        1. Lightning
        2. Nitrogenase enzyme found in the roots of leguminous plants
          • Soybeans, beans, peas, lentils and peanuts can provide their own nitrogen supply
            • No grains or oil crops can. You can rotate with leguminous plants but doing so hits capacity
        3. Note in warmer climates you can get 2 crops a year
        4. Human and animal waste. You need a lot, and it’s time consuming to spread
        5. Nitrogenous fertilisers
          • Made possible by the invention of ammonia synthesis by Fritz Haver in 1909
          • New high-yielding crop varieties of wheat and rice require synthetic nitrogenous fertiliser
          • Since the 1970s nitrogenous fertilisers has been an important agricultural energy subsidy
  • For now we cannot feed the world without relying on fossil fuels
The Surprising Energy Cost of Different Foods
Food
ml of fossil fuels required
1kg Bread
250ml
1kg Chicken
300-350ml
1kg Tomatoes
650ml (require heating, plastic polytunnels and lots of fertiliser)
1kg Sardines
100ml
1kg Mean Seafood
700ml
1kg Shrimp + Lobster
10L (due to the inedible shells)
Farmed Herbivorous Fish
300ml (like Chinese carp that nobody wants to eat)
Farmed Carnivorous Fish
2L (Sea bass, salmon)
  • Farming fish isn’t great either
    • Herbivorous fish could be fed efficiently, but we don’t eat those (Chinese carp)
  • Modern field farming (including all transportation), fisheries, and aquaculture add up to only about 4 percent of recent annual global energy use.
    • We deploy external energy subsidies to the food system where the greatest returns can be expected by reducing or removing natural constraints— by fertilising, irrigating, providing protection against insects, fungi and competing plants, or by promptly harvesting mature crops.
    • small inputs have disproportionately large consequences
      • Common in complex systems: e.g needing just micrograms of some vitamins to keep our bodies in good shape
  • Can we go back?
    • In 200 years we reduced the labor needed to produce grain by 98% → in doing so we enabled everyone to come out of agriculture into other jobs
      • It’s going to be much harder to reduce reliance on agricultural mechanisation and reduce the use of synthetic agrochemicals over the next 50 years
    • Reducing fossil fuels will require the labor force to leave the cities and return to the countries
    • Human and animal waste, even in it’s most compact form contains 10x less nitrogen than fertilisers.
    • Reactive nitrogen gets to the worlds croplands by:
      • atmospheric deposition, irrigation water, plowing-under of crop residues, spreading of animal manures, nitrogen left in soil by leguminous crops, and synthetic fertilisers
        • Fertilisers supply more than half - without them we couldn’t feed 8 billion people
    • Eating less meat, wasting less food, and replacing fertilisers with organic sources are given often proposed as answers
      • using leguminous crops for nitrogen would require rotation (50% hit on capacity)
    • Food waste is a big problem, we’re producing more than we need 3,200–4,000 kilocalories per person per day.
    • Food
      Food Waste
      Root Crops
      50%
      Fish
      33%
      Cereals
      30%
    • It’s been hard to reduce food waste, in the USA it’s been stable for 40 years
    • Higher food prices would help (but incredibly unpopular)
    • Likewise a diet with less meat - and meat that has less environmental impact
      • We eat about 100kg PPPY but if we were following current dietary advice we’d eat less than that
      • A large amount of meat isn’t essential to living a long time, Japan consumes 30kg PPPY and they have great life expectancy
      • A vegan world would waste some biomass (that’s only edible by animals → that we could be eating)
      • Even if developed countries eat less - there are billons of people in Asia and Africa who’s health could benefit from eating more meat - meat consumption has rapidly grown in Brazil and China with wealth
      • We’re expecting 2BN more people by 2050 - in countries where fertilisers are used heavily
    • Decarbonisation of field machinery and irrigation pumps should be possible
    • Develop crops with the nitrogen enhancing properties of leguminous plants
    • People don’t appreciate that the direct and indirect ways that fossil fuels help provide our food supply
      • Higher yields haven’t come from more efficient photosynthesis - but because of interventions using fossil fuels.

Chapter 3: Understanding Our Material World

  • Civilisation is complex - you can’t just rank materials from most to least important
  • Silicon made into wafers is the material of the electronic age
  • It’s a multistep energy-intensive process. More than the following
    • 20x more than Bauxite → Aluminium
    • 30x more than Iron → Steel
  • Silicon (Si) is the second most abundant element in the Earths crust (28%). Oxygen is the most 49%.
    • We also only need 10,000 tons of wafers
  • Four Pillars of the modern civilisation → Steel, Cement, Plastics and Ammonia.
    • Huge diversity of properties and functions
    • We need a huge amount of them
      • 4.5B tons of cement
      • 1.8B tons of steel
      • 370M tons of plastics
      • 150m ton of ammonia
    • They’re not easily replaced by other materials
  • Their production relies heavily on fossil fuels
    • Steel → relies on coal and gas for smelting
    • Cement → coal dusts, petroleum coke and heavy fuel oil
    • Plasitcs → derived from crude oils and natural gasses
    • Ammonia → synthesis requires natural gas
  • Global production of them claims:
    • 17% of the worlds primary energy supply
    • 25% of C02 from fossil fuel combustion

Ammonia → The Gas that feeds the world

  • Ammonia might just be the most important material
    • It’s use in nitrogen fertiliser is what made it possible to feed 8B people
      • About 4B people wouldn’t be alive without ammonia
  • Ammonia is a molecule (NH3) → 1 nitrogen atom and 3 hydrogens
    • Nitrogen is 82% of the mass → because Nitrogen is 14x heavier than hydrogen
  • Learning how to synthesising Ammonia was a difficult and deliberate pursuit
    • As people were migrating to cities - crop yields weren’t improving
    • Rapid expansion of grain fields helped feed everyone - but that wasn’t sustainable
    • The world needed a way to increase crop yields
      • The key to do that was Nitrogen and Phosphorus → 2 key plan macronutrients
    • We needed to secure enough Nitrogen to sustain its expanding numbers
  • 1898 Wiliam Crookes framed the wheat problem
    • We had to define a way to pull nitrogen from the air, convert it into a compound that plants could assimilate
    • In 1908 Fritz Haber (supported by BASF) was the first researcher to succeed → using an iron catalyst and deploying unprecedented reaction pressure
    • It then took Carl Bosch a further 4 years to scale the process to a plant
    • First ammonia synthesis plant using the Harber-Bosch process in 1913
    • By the 1970s the world was producing millions of tons
  • China ordered plants in 1972 to avoid mass starvation → and was able to remove food rationing 12 years later
    • 60% of the nitrogen used by China’s crops comes from synthetic Ammonia
  • 50% of Nitrogen supplied to the worlds crops comes from the Harber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia → arguably making it the most important technical advance in history
    • Synthetic Ammonia feeds half of humanity
  • 80% of Ammonia production → Nitrogen fertilisers for crops
    • 20% → nitric acid, explosives, rocket propellants, dyes, fibers and window and floor cleaners
  • 55% of crop fertilisers are the solid form (Urea) → it has high nitrogen content 46%
  • Two ways to reduce losses of nitrogen from fields
    • Expensive slow release kinds
    • Analysing the soil - and applying it only where needed - based on soil analysis
  • 150 megatons of ammonia synthesised annually 80% fertiliser
  • Genetically modified non-leguminous plats with nitrogen-fixing capabilities is a tantalising prospect for the future (legumes don’t need nitrogen fertiliser)

Plastics → Diverse, useful, troublesome

  • Plastics can be molded.
  • Create shapes from thin film to heavy-duty pipes.
  • Two key monomers → Ethylene and propylene
    • Produced by heating hydrocarbons to 750-900 degrees
  • Thermoplastics are the dominant output → they soften when heated, and solidify again when cooled.
    • Low weight, high strength and easily shaped
  • 1910 was the first industrial prodcution and uses
  • Range of plastics: PVC, nylon, teflon, polycarbonates, lycra, kevlar,
  • Global production
    • 1925 20k tons
    • 1950 20M tons
    • 2013 370M tons
  • A huge amount of what we touch is plastics → it’s use is ubiquitous
  • Plastics are used widely in hospitals
  • Irresponsible dumping of plastics - is not an argument against the proper use of them
  • Microfibres in the ocean are 90% natural

Steel → Ubiquitous and recyclable

  • 3500 varieties of steel - most alloys are dominated by Iron
    • Cast Iron is 97% iron, 2.5% carbon, 0.5% silicon
    • Modern steels are made with less carbon.
  • Steel is better than stone…
    • Compressive strength (what a column can support) is equal to granite
    • Tensile strength is (what a beam can hold)
      • 10x granite
      • 7x aluminum (4x harder) (660 degrees melting point)
      • 4x copper (8x harder) (1085 degrees)
  • Steel melting point is 1425
  • 4 main varieties of Steels
    • Carbon (90% of the market) 0.3-0.95 % carbon)
    • Alloys include other elements added to give different properties like hardness, strength and ductility
      • Elements added include manganese, nickel, silicon,chromium, aluminum, titanium etc)
    • Stainless steel (10-20% Chromium) developed in 1912.
    • Tool Steels are used for cutting steel, they have a tensile strength 2-4x construction steel. Uses for cutting, stamping etc.
  • All steels - except stainless steels are magnetic 🧲 
  • Steel is the most widely used metal (cars, buildings, our cutlery, appliances, bikes etc)
  • Vital for construction. Tall buildings, bridges, street lights, To and radio towers, electricity infrastructure
  • More steel by weight than other stuff in transportation
    • Planes being the exception where its 10%
    • Cars contain about 900kg of steel (100M produced each year)
    • Ships are steel - as are containers
  • Most steel stuff is made using large steel machines (turning, milling, hollowing, drilling, bending, welding, sharpening and cutting.
    • Tool steels can cut carbon steels like a knife through butter
  • Steel is used in energy generation and infrastructure
  • Used in hospitals and weapons
  • We have enough iron
    • Earth’s dominant element by mass - as its heavy (8x heavier than water)
    • Only 3 elements are more common on the crust (oxygen, silicon and aluminium)
  • Annual production of Iron Ore is about 2.5B tons
  • There’s enough for 300 years of current usage - and it’s easily recycled by melting it down again (although very energy intensive)
    • Much of steel in cars, and structural steel is recycled
  • 30% of total output of steel is recycled

Steel making was highly commercialised in the 1950s

  • Blast furnace → Pig Iron
  • Basic Oxygen furnace → Lowers carbon (produces steel)
  • Casting machines → slabs, billets, and strips

It takes a lot of energy. 6% of the world’s primary energy supply.

  • Steel dependent on coking coal and natural gas → big contributor to greenhouse gases.
    • 1000kg of steel takes 500kg of carbon to produce
    • 900 megatons of carbon per year (7-9% of fossil fuel emissions) —
  • Cement is less energy intensive, but 3x more of it is produced and so its responsible for about 8% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Concrete - A world created by cement

  • Cement is the key component of concrete
  • Create cement by heating ground limestone and clay to 1450 degrees → grind down to make cement
  • Concrete:
    • 75% Aggregate
    • 15% Water
    • 10% Cement (b
  • Finder sand is stronger - but needs more water
  • Concrete is hard & heavy. Good in compression - weak in tension.
  • Steel has 100x more tensile strength
  • Reinforcing concrete with steel can close this gap.
  • Concrete makes cities possible.
    • Foundations, piles, walls, ceilings
    • Tunnels, roads, bridges, airport runways, piers
  • Romans built the pantheon out of cement (2k years old)
  • Reinforced concrete (1870s) and modern rotary cement kilns (1890s) made it affordable and usable in big construction projects.
  • Hover Dam → 20k tons of steal, 3.4M cubic metres of concrete, another 8k of structural steal
  • 4B tons a year are now produced globally (more than was used in 1900 - 1950)
  • Concrete is attacked by moisture, freezing, bacteria and agal, acid, vibrations, ground pressures, reactive compounds
  • High alkalinity stops the steel from corroding.
  • From 1990 to 2022 → Used 700B tons → In buildings that will need to be replaced at some point → lots of replacement will be required (30-100 year life)
  • Reinforced concrete buildings can be recycled

All Materials

  • Demand for steel, concrete, plastics and Ammonia can be met
  • Won’t be able to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels easily
  • If the rest of the world wants to develop cities and infrastructure like China - then we’ll need 15x more steel and 10x more cement and 30x more plastic production - 2x more ammonia
  • Requirements for fossil carbon are the price we pay for the benefits arising from our reliance on steel, cement, ammonia and plastics.
  • Wind turbines require anonymous amounts of steel, cement and plastics.
    • Foundations are concrete
    • Blades are plastic resins (15 tons)
  • Electric cars are also an example of new material dependencies
    • Typical Car Battery (450kg)
      • 11kg lithium
      • 14kg cobalt
      • 27kg nickel
      • 40kg copper
      • 50kg graphite
      • 181kg steel, aluminium, plastic
    • Requires 40 tons of ores - many of which are in low concentrations, so 225 tons of materials needs to be processed → per car
  • To meet growing need of electric cars we’ll need
    • 18x more lithium
    • 18x more cobolalt
    • 30x more nickel

Chapter 4: Understanding Globalisation

  • Globalisation = specialisation, containers, bulk carriers, product assembly, migration, leisure travel, money movements, data flow
  • Globalisation = the growing interdependence of the world’s economies, cultures and populations brought about by cross-border trade in goods and services, technology and flows of investment, people and information
  • Globalisation is not the economic equivalent of a force of nature
  • China was preferred to Africa because - one-party government, stability, investment conditions, homogenous and literate population, and an enormous domestic market.
    • China has been the beneficiary
  • Technical factors made globalisation possible
    • Prime Movers → engines, turbines, motors
    • Communication and information → storage, transmission, and retrieval
  • Technical advances had to coincide with political and social conditions → So there’s no guarantee that it’ll continue

Globalisation distant origins

  • Technical capabilities - limits on frequency and intensity of exchanges
    • Power and speed, long distance communication,
Wind-Driven (Sails)
  • Humans can carry 50kg
  • Horses 100kg / 25km per day max
  • Ships were slow, small, struggled to navigate and failed to complete journeys often
  • Holland to Asia took 8 months by sea (4.7km/h)
  • Max 1-2% of GDP around 1780 for Holland
Steam Engines and telegraph
  • Three factors brought about the next wave of globalisation
    1. More reliable navigation
      • 1765 - John Harrison sea clock / chronometer
        • Could determine exact longitude
      Steam power (meant larger ships, higher speeds)
      • 1838 - first westward transatlantic crossing
      • Steam coexisted alongside sail for many decades
      • Inefficient engines required a lot of coal
      • Steam moved from paddle wheels to screw propellers (1840s)
      • 1877 steal hulls
      • That resulted in a big increase in speed
        • 20km/ph fastest clippers of the 1850s
        • 30-49km/ph for steal and screw
      Telegraph - better communication
      • First transatlantic cable 1858
      • You could trade knowing the prices on the other side of the world
      • Telephones were slower
        • US telephones took 20 years to take off - calls were really expensive
          • 1876 - first public demonstration
          • 1880 50k
          • 1896 - first time possible to call NY from Chicago
          • 1900 1.35m
          • 1927 - fist intercontinental calls
    2. Domestic railroads in the US, UK, Europe and India also increased trade
  • Total Global Trade went 4x between 1870 - 1913
  • Steamliners moved passengers at an unprecedented scale (2k at a time)
Diesel engines, flight and radio
  • Diesel more efficient and reliable
  • 1903 Wright brothers
  • 1901 first transatlantic radio message
  • 1920 commercial radio
  • Per unit of mass diesel is 2x more efficient - the engines were more efficient too
  • 1936 - first profitable long distance plane DC-3
  • 1939 - Boeing 314 clipper - long range flying boat
    • London to Singapore took
  • Radio was superior to telegraphs - within 10 years 60% of Americans would have one
  • They were a big contributor to ending the war too
    • By the end of the Second World War
      • Planes by nation (USA 300k, Germany 112k, Japan 68k)
  • By 1949 - all countries surpassed their pre-war levels of production
Large diesels, turbines, containers and microchips
  • Post 1950 globalisation - ended with OPEC oil price increases in 1973 → 15 years of stagnation
    • Rapid adoption of more powerful and efficient Diesel engines
    • Gas turbine - jetliners
    • Better shipping designs (bulk carriers of liquid and solids)
    • Computing and information processing
  • 1950-1970
    • Steel 4x (190 → 700 megatons)
    • Cement 6x (133 → 770 megatons)
    • Ammonia synthesis / Nitrogen 8x (5 → 37 megatons)
    • Plastic 26x (2 → 45 megatons)
    • Primary energy output 3x
    • Crude oil consumption 6x
  • Tankers kept getting bigger → capacity increased quickly
  • Containers invented in 1957 - regular service from 1966 (Newark to Rotterdam)
  • Diesel engines were getting bigger (1950 → 1973, 10 → 40 megawatts) - efficiency 50%
  • 1960s brought the jet liner - 1970 the first commercial 747 happened
    • 1500 747s were purchased in the first 50 years - carrying 5.9 billion people
    • made possible by turbofan engines
  • Globalisation was tied to the growth of wide-body jets
  • Miniaturisation of computing, communication and processors helped
    • Radio, TV, computers
  • Computers
    • ENIAC - Electronic General Purpose 18k vacuum tubes (weighed 30 tons)
    • Intel 1960 Microprocessor - 2000 transistors on a single silicon wafer
      • 4044 → Ran electronic calculator
      • Ultimately morphing into personal computers over time
  • The West was the main beneficiary of the globalisation (imports and travel)

China and others

  • China
    • 1972 there was no trade between the US and China
    • 1984 - Last year the US had a trade surplus with China
    • 2009 - China became the largest exporter of goods
    • 2018 - China was 12% of global sales
  • Russia
    • USSR unravelled in the late 1980s / Berlin wall 1989
    • So every country became open - foreign investment, international trade, tourism
  • Share of world economic product of international trade
    • 30% 1973 → 61% 2008

Globalisation Multiplies

  • After 1973 → shipped mass is 3x, 4x capacity of merchant fleet
    • Ships got bigger (oil tankers 3x, container ships 4.5x)
    • Whilst the size of container ship fleet increased 10x
  • In 1975 China had no container capacity → grew to 32% share in 2018
  • 1973 → 2018
    • Global airfreight rose about 12x
    • Passenger traffic rose 17x
  • Moores law - Between 1971 and 2019 microprocessor power increased by 7 orders of magnitude (17.1 billion times)

Inevitability, setbacks and overreach

  • Trend toward greater international economic integration that is manifested by intensified flows of energies, materials, people, idea and information → enabled by improving technical capabilities
  • Big events can cause globalisation to go backwards and not forwards
  • UK and Japan import more food than they produce
  • China doesn’t have enough iron ore
  • The US doesn’t have enough rare metals
  • India is short of crude oil
  • The worlds phones are produced in Shenzhen (due to huge economies of scale)
  • Making changes to this complicated system would take decades. Rapid disruptions would be costly.
  • History though - tells us this state is unlikely to last for generations
  • 1980 Shenzen was a small fishing village
  • Europe, North America and Japan have been de-industrialised → that has moved to China
  • The technical advances aren’t guaranteed to continue
  • 70% of the worlds rubber gloves are made in a single factory
  • We maybe at peak globalisation

Chapter 5: Understanding Risks

  • We’ve made great progress in reducing risk of famine, accidents and medical deaths.
  • Natural disasters → hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, droughts, locusts and viruses .
  • Man-made disasters → asbestos, global warming, terrorism

Basics - what should we eat to prolong life?

  • Japan has the best life expectancy → 85 years old.
    • Life expectancy is made from genetic, lifestyle and nutritional factors
    • White rice + seafood
    • Americans consume 8kg more fat and 16kg more sugar per year
  • Spanish women are the runners up - the Mediterranean diet
    • High intakes of fruit and vegetables, and whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil
    • More fatty, meaty and sugary diet → only slightly worse off than Japan. Better off eating like they do in Valencia

Risk perceptions and tolerances

  • When people think they’re in control they don’t mind engaging in risky behaviour (driving, smoking)
  • Disparity between: A) tolerating voluntary risks · B) avoiding risks of involuntary exposures
    • People don’t like being made to vaccinate their children - there’s a perceived risk of autism
  • Fear of nuclear power → it saves air pollution deaths
    • Germans are trying to get rid of it → the French have adopted it
  • There is no ‘objective risk’ → as our perceptions are subjective, and dependent on our understanding of specific dangers and on cultural circumstances
    • Involuntary risks are seen as uncontrollable and unknown hazards (Nuclear)
    • Voluntary hazards are seen as controllable and known (X-rays)
  • ‘Dread’ plays an outsized role in risk perception.
    • Terrorists are unpredictable timing, location , and scale → highly dreaded
    • Vs driving → voluntary, frequent, familiar, often solo deaths too → Not dreaded
      • 1.2M deaths per year

Quantifying the risks of everyday life

  • Annual frequencies of causes of death per 100K people
    • Homicides 6
    • Leukaemia 7.2
    • Accidental falls 11.2
    • Pancreatic cancer 13.5
    • Motor Vehicles 52.5
    • Diabetes 25.7
    • Accidental poisoning 19.9
    • Breast cancer 13.1
  • You don’t spend that long driving and so the driving risk is much bigger than the homicide risk which is spread 24/7/365
  • Preventable medical errors are a big killer
    1. Heart disease 611k
    2. Cancers 585k
    3. Preventable medical errors 400k
  • A huge chunk of hospital deaths are due to medical error

Voluntary and Involuntary Risks

  • Driving is 10x more dangerous than flying
  • Your chance of dying while driving vs sitting in a chair at home goes up by 50%
  • Base jumping 1 in 2317 resulted in a death. 50000x more than being in a chair
  • Sky diving - 50x more than being in a chair
  • Terrorism in NY just 1/10th of 1% more than siting in a chair

Natural Hazards are less risky than they look on TV

  • Earthquakes and tornadoes just don’t kill that many people
  • 0.0001 more than 1 (chance whilst in a chair)

1000x more people die from domestic guns than terrorism in the US

African American men are 5x more likely to die in a car, but 30x more likely to die from firearms

Chapter 6 - Understanding the Environment

Safe Planetary Boundaries

  • Climate change
  • Ocean acidification
  • Depletion of stratospheric ozone (our UV shield)
  • Atmospheric aerosols (reducing visibility and causing lung impairment)
  • Interference in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (making it into water supply)
  • Land use changes (deforestation, farming, urban and industrial expansion)
  • Biodiversity loss
  • Chemical Pollution

Looks at it through a lens of breathing, drinking and eating. What we need:

  • Circulating oxygenated atmosphere
  • Water and its global cycle
  • Soils + photosynthesis, biodiversity and flows of plan nutrients.

We’ll always have enough Oxygen

  • We require a constant supply of oxygen to survive - 12-20 inhalations a minute
    • We each in 1KG of Oxygen per day
    • Or 2.7B tons of oxygen a year (an absolutely tiny fraction of Oxygen in the atmosphere)
  • We don’t need more Oxygen - we don’t need trees to produce Oxygen
    • Trees produce Oxygen yes, but they also consume about as much
    • Each year about 300B tons of Oxygen is absorbed and released by photosynthesis
    • We could burn all of the worlds plants tomorrow, and we wouldn’t have a lack of Oxygen

Water is harder

  • We have an abundance of water - but it’s not evenly distributed because we’ve not managed it well.
  • We drink 1.5 - 3 litres of water a day / 750kg a year.
    • We use for washing etc 7000kg a year.
  • 3 days without water is usually fatal.
  • But If you take into account the entire economy 2300Tons per person per year
  • Food production is the biggest water use.
  • We can’t go back to preindustrial farming in a world of 8 billion people
  • Phosphorous and potassium are two key mineral macronutrients (90 years of phosphorus left - but there are other sources, could be 1000 years)
  • The concern is more about how they pollute the water supply
    • Causing algae growth → removes oxygen from water → fish and crustaceans cannot survive
    • Hard to remove all of it using filtration

Why the earth is not permanently frozen

  • The greenhouse effect is partly natural - it’s what’s preventing an ice age. Without it - the earths temperature would be -18 degrees centigrade
    • Global mean temperature is 15 degrees (33 higher)
  • Water vapour is the responsible for most of the greenhouse effect → but temperature determines how much water is in the atmosphere
  • Combustion of fossil fuels and the production of cement are largely responsible for rising CO2
    • In 1800 270 parts per million
    • In 2022 420 parts per million (50% increase)
  • CO2 is 75% of the warming effect, CH4 is about 15%

When did we first learn about climate change?

  • 1856 - Eunice Foote → linked CO2 with global warming
  • 1861 - John Tyndall → water vapour is the most important absorber of outgoing radiation, every variation of this constituent must produce a change in climate. Essentially, increases in CO2 much produce rising atmospheric temperature.
  • 1908 Svante Arrhenius → first calculations of increased global surface temperature (from doubling of CO2) → doubling of CO2 would raise surface by 4 degrees C.
  • It only became part of the popular culture to talk about it in the 1980s though

Oxygen, food and water in a warmer world

  • From 1850 to 2020 the difference of climate change has been 2 watts per square meter
    • it takes ages to heat the oceans
  • We don’t need to worry about Oxygen
    • Burning fossil fuels does remove Oxygen - but as we know there’s a lot of oxygen so the yearly change is just 0.002% or 4ppm on 210,000ppm.
      • it would take 1500 years to lower oxygen by the same amount as the difference between New York and Salt Lake City (1200m above sea level)
  • Water is more worrying
    • A 2 degree shift could expose between 500m and 3B people to climate change-induced water scarcity
      • Some major river basins may become water-scarce
    • We can reduce how much water we use (the US has reduced by 4% from 1965 to 2015 - average per capita reduced 40%)
    • Global warming will cause more rain and intensify the water cycle- but it might fall unevenly - some will receive less than today, and some will receive much more
  • Food will be OK too
    • We might not even have to reduce meat intake, if we shift to chicken and pork and away from beef
    • We could support a much higher population with more efficient allocation of farmland

More Notes

  • We’ve not done a good job at reducing energy usage, we’ve actually been a little careless with it - poor insulation requirements in cold countries and adopting SUVs
  • 30-40% food waste - could we make a dent in that with data?
  • Between 1989 and 2019 we increased greenhouse gas emissions by 65%
    • US, Japan, Canada, Australia and EU reduced theirs by just 4%
    • As China went up 4.5x and India 4x
  • Many models show 2050 as being carbon neutral - How?

Wishful thinking?

  • EU researchers (assume average global per capita energy demand in 2050 will be 52% lower that it was in 2020) → in the last 30 years it’s risen by 20%
    1. Own less stuff and more digital assets
    2. Many studies confirm that it will be impossible to decarbonise by 2050 - so we’ll have to start mass-scale carbon capture
      • To do that we’d have to create an entire industry equivalent in size to US oil production (that took 160years and trillions of dollars to build)
    3. 80% of global energy supply will be decarbonised ???? How? It’s not enough to say it could happen if you don’t know how it could happen!
      • No explanation of how to produce cement, steel, plastic and ammonia
      • No explanation of shipping, flying and trucking

What we can do and what we can’t:

  • Replace coal electricity stations with natural gas, expand solar and wind
  • Move away from SUVs and toward electric cars
  • Remove profitably inefficiencies in construction and commercial energy usage
  • BUT we can’t just change a complex system that relies on 10B tons of fossil carbon and converting energies at a rate of more than 17 terawatts

De omnibus dubitandum (doubt everything) the foundation of the scientific method.

  • We could displace fossil fuels in 3 decades, only if everyone we were willing to take substantial cuts to the standards of living in all affluent countries and deny moderniding nations of Asia and Africa improvements in their collective lots by even a fraction of what China has done since 1980
  • Climate modellers in the 19080s didn’t predict the rise of China which was one of the most important factors
  • Between 1900 and 2015 - we lost 14% of our trees
    • The worlds forests are getting younger and shorter

Chapter 7 Understanding the Future

Between Apocalypse and Singularity

  • What’s the future going to look like?
    • Apocalypse? → Promotors of doom
    • Singularity → Techno-optimists → believing in miracles and eternal salvation
      • Machine intelligence surpassed human intelligence
  • Apocalypse and singularity offer two absolutes - our future will lie somewhere in between
  • Three categories of quantitative forecasts
    1. Process whose workings are well known and dynamics restricted to a relatively confined set of outcomes
    2. In the right direction, but with substantial uncertainties regarding the outcome
    3. Quantitative fables: you may use numbers, but the numbers are layered with assumptions and the outcomes are likely to be very different
  • Failed predictions
    • Ever accelerating growth of the global population didn’t happen
      • Global population growth actually peaked at 2.1% a year in the 1960s, just 1.08% by the 1990s
      • Soon nearly 50% of the worlds countries will be at below replacement level
    • Running out of mineral resources
      • People thought we’d reached peak oil extraction in the 90s - but we increase production by 66% between 1995 and 2019
    • Running out of food
      • Instead we’ve lifted many people out of food poverty and malnutrition
  • Stop with the predictions and start with the practical advice
  • The inertia of large complex systems is due to their basic energetic and martial demands, as well as the scale of their operations.
    • Two fundamental inputs require a lot of energy
      • Steel → 18 gigajoules per ton
      • Ammonia → 21 gigajoules per ton
  • The EU are using 160kg per hectare of fertilisers, Ethiopia are using 20kg
  • Renewable energy production has increased 50x in the first 20 years of the 21st century
    • Reliance on fossil fuels declined from 87% to 85%
  • The more energy we use - the harder it becomes to transition from one form to another
    • Wood to coal was easier than Gas to renewables 100 years later
  • We could triple the adoption rate of renewable energies and we’ll still be majority carbon in 2050
  • It was possible to replace a billion landlines by mobile phones withing a gneration
  • It won’t be possible to do the same and transition from gas turbines to solar.

Where we are prescient, vigilant and determined to find fixes we’ve been OK.

  • Polio, safety of flying, reducing food pathogens, childhood leukemia.

In other areas we’ve been more lucky

  • Pandemics, nuclear war

Climate Change → requires a global, substantial and prolonged commitment.

  • Just 5 countries account for 80% of emissions though.

We need to be honest. To admit the limits of our understanding. Approach with humility and use our understanding of how the world works, with determination and perseverance.

It’s really hard to make predictions that last a generation.