Numbers Don't Lie: 71 stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World

Date Reviewed
August 15th 2022

This is one of the great non-fiction reading experiences I have had. 'Numbers Don't Lie': 71 stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World' is one of the more recent of 40-plus books by Vaclav Smil.

I was blithely unaware of this author until about a decade ago when I read that 'most people think in three dimensions Vaclav Smil thinks in eleven', and it has stuck with me.

Although not possible, it is an imaginative and superlative description of one of the world's most broadly knowledgeable intellectuals. It may be one reason for the prominence of the author's name over the title on the cover of the book.

A professor of the environment at the University of Manitoba, where he had been for more than 40 years, is a good Canadian University, but hardly the pinnacle of gravitas in the academic world.

That he could easily claim expertise in a wide range of subjects would have been hinted at in his university studies in his native Czechoslovakia where he took 35 classes a week for 10 months a year over five years (Wikipedia).

He is variously described as an economic analyst and a scientist, but his expertise ranges over at least half a dozen disciplines ranging from energy to environmental affairs of China. Nearing 80, he is reputed to read 60 to 100 technical books a year and is described as 'Bill Gates' favourite scientist'.

He has been termed reclusive and while he satisfies the university by writing his books and teaching his classes, he has only attended one university faculty meeting in 40 years.

I chose this book randomly by asking the library for the most recent of his books they had. It was the author I was looking to, not so much the subject.

And to return to the superlative in my opening sentence. With his background, I would expect superior research taken from several academic disciplines. But two things really stand out with this book. The material is presented concisely and surprisingly easy to understand, once you understand such terms as 'megajoules' and 'kilojoules and various sizes of energy based on watts.

And while it should be simple, this is the first time I have seen it, short chapters. Each of his 71 'chapterettes' is confined to three or four pages, including whatever graphic. This makes it easy to stop and start without having to recall the context when you stopped reading. In addition, the change of subject is stimulating.

Form one chapter to the next can be a dramatic change with no reference to the previous nugget.

Along with these 'chapterettes' are sections grouping several chapters. The sections include 'People: 'The Inhabitants of our World, 'Countries:Nations in the Age of Globalization', 'Machine, Designs, Devices:Inventions That Make our Modern World', 'Fuels and Electricity:Energizing Our Societies', 'Transport:How We Get Around', 'Food:Energizing Ourselves', 'Environment:Damaging and Protection of Our World'.

These two forms of organization make the contents section an easy way to find specific information desired.

In writing the book, he has obviously focussed on ideas and knowledge that have been in public discussion. He sifts most of the politics out of it such that some hyped benefit is dampened by his careful research and at the same time some vilified aspect has its ideas explained.

“Which is More Energy Efficient_plains,trains or automobiles? Hint: loaded high speed intercity trains are the best, a small car with two passengers is about comparable to a fully loaded large jetliner. Maybe not unexpectedly large SUVs and pickup trucks with few passengers are among the worst and unsurprisingly, bicycle the best. Essentially it is based on comparing the payload and the weight of the conveyance.

Smil often gives a synopsis of the history of a subject (“When did the Jet Age Begin”) or technology before expanding.

Given the title of the book, it is not surprising that numbers, including both positive and negative exponents are used, but often he supports them with clear graphs that allow another way to understanding.

This volume may offer the best general education on current issues I have seen condensed into one book.

I noticed two omissions. In the story on megacities, the world's second largest city Seoul, South Korea was not mentioned. And Smil has not incorporated the influence of artificial intelligence, however, that may fall outside his declared mandate to focus on aspects that can be described in numbers.

The reader may have a triumphant moment when their ideas are reinforced and shortly after suffer deflation as a cherished solution proves to have feet of clay.

While his book doesn't have the tone of 'humans are faced with doom' the overall conclusion I come to is that getting around the problems on the horizon is going to be difficult. And it is not that there aren't solutions, but the sacrifices needed may be beyond what humanity can be persuaded to accept within the needed time. His hope may be in the phrase “as is often the case, the solution came just when it was needed”.

He expresses the most difficult problem as “lifting billions from poverty without relying on fossil carbon. The affluent world has used hundreds of billions of tons of it to create its high quality of life, but right now we do not have any affordable non-carbon alternatives that could be rapidly deployed on mass scales in order to energize the production of enormous quantities of what I have called the four pillars of modern civilization......ammonia, steel, cement and plastics.”

In his epilogue, he cautioned that while numbers we confront may be “impeccably accurate, it is necessary to look wider and deeper at the contexts. He says “rounding and approximation is superior to unwarranted and unnecessary precision”.





He points to the rate of infant mortality and not, the regularly used, GDP as the best single indicator of quality of life. Infant mortality reflects the degree of health care, nutrition and sanitary living conditions.

The best return on investment in society on a benefit cost basis, he says, is vaccination. A dollar going to that saves $16 in healthcare, lost wages and lost productivity.

Vegans and vegetarians may not like this but he says that better nutrition during the 20th century was led by intakes of high-quality animal protein (milk, dairy, meat and eggs). It has caused many to grow taller “leading to a surprisingly large number of benefits” including lowering cardiovascular risk, higher cognitive ability, increased lifetime earnings and social status, not however greater life expectancy.

The biggest height winners by gender were South Korean women (20.2 cm) and Iranian men (16.5 cm) One of his conclusions...drink more milk.

A comment on “U.S. exceptionalism”....”Politicians may look far and wide for evidence of American exceptionalism, but they won't find it in the numbers, where it matters.”

Europe on the other hand seems to be doing better than it believes it is.

Alternatively Britain, unchanged by Brexit, remains an aging, deindustrialized, worn out country, not advantaged by increased insularity. Smil's assessment does not improve in subsequent description.

Japan, another centre of affluence, has the most rapidly aging population in the world which doesn't bode well for the affluent future we have come to judge by.

Smil points out that all dominating nations have had trajectories of rise, then plateau followed by a slow retreat. Japan's, compared to Britain and the U.S., seems on track for a faster decline. In addition, Japan hasn't come to terms with the idea of immigration and has yet to 'make real peace' with its neighbours.

A study of 41 ancient empires between 3000 BCE and 600 BCE found the mean duration to be 220 years.

The U.S. has already fallen behind China in economic terms based on purchasing power parity and it is just a matter of time before China exceeds in GDP, however aging and pollution are problems for China and it is still a relatively poor country based on individual wealth.

Smil illuminates some interesting comparisons of India and China.

The major manufacturing countries are Germany, Japan, the U.S. and China, but on a per capita basis Ireland leads all.

And for those focussed on the invented marvels of late 20th and early 21st centuries', may be surprised to find out that the most fertile invention time in human history was the 1880s.

Smil also goes into some detail in one little chapter about the virtues of diesel engines. While the U.S. has only about three per cent of passenger vehicles diesel, Europe has about 40 per cent of the more efficient engines in theirs. And these engines remain the bulwark for freight transportation on land and sea and there are no viable alternatives on the horizon.

The author gives inventor Thomas Edison mixed reviews. The key elements of the incandescent lightbulb, his most famous invention, were not his. But the phonograph was “sheer originality bordering on the magical”.

He points to one anomaly in the march of technical progress or lack of it. The speed of jetliners has remained essentially constant since the Boeing 707's 885kph cruising speed in 1958 to today's only slightly faster Boeing 787.

Moore's law of technical progress of magnitudes seems only to apply to microchips and information storage. Other gains seem to plug along at 1.5 to 3 per cent per year.

Much can be stored, but much more can't, so the question is what of accumulated data is useful information and insightful knowledge?

The author says modern societies are obsessed with innovation. Then an insightful comment “The uncritical genuflection before the altar of innovation is wrong on two counts: It ignores those big, fundamental quests that have failed after spending huge sums on research. And it has little to say about why we so often stick to an inferior practice even when we know there's a superior course of action.”

Some, not yet commercially useful, are hydrogen powered cars, magnetic levitation trains and thermonuclear energy.

Persisting without much usefulness, he says, are “daylight saving time” and boarding airplanes. In the first nothing is saved and in the latter there are better ways.

GDP approaches the same uselessness in describing progress in economies when it also incorporates useless and negative contribution. Cutting down the Amazon increases somebody's GDP . More alcohol consumption is another net negative. “But we still worship high annual GDP growth rate, regardless of where it comes from.”

And some will balk at this chapter title “why gas turbines are the best choice”. And the answer is they are “the ideal suppliers of peak power and the best backups for intermittent wind and solar generation”. In conclusion “no other combustion machines combine so many advantages as do modern gas turbines”...compact, easy to transport and install, relatively silent, affordable, efficient and offering nearly instant output and without water cooling.

Smillpoints out how essential fossil fuel is to the manufacture of wind turbines, largely for the need for concrete, steel and plastic, to capture wind power. However, an ideally suited turbine could generate as much intermittent energy in one year as it took to make. And dependence on fossil fuel will continue until the energy to replace them come from renewables.

And for a short diversion into technicals of a wind turbine...”power increases with the square of the radius swept by its blades” essentially doubling blade length quadruples the power generated.

Building a high tower (1,000 m.) is not so hard, but engineering it to withstand the wind hitting the huge rotating blades is the big challenge and then transporting the blades to where they can be used.

And to put it into perspective with 12 m. per second wind and 0.4 energy conversion coefficient a 100 megawatt turbine would need rotors 550 m. in diameter. Smil believes such a machine is 10 to 15 years away.

And onto solar power where PV cells have a higher power density than any other form of renewable energy, producing 10 watts per square metre in sunny places and there is potential to grow it by 20 to 40 per cent.

Even at that it still has a way to go worldwide to rival “falling water”.

“You can roughly track the advance of civilization by the state of its lighting.....above all its power, cost and luminous efficacy.”

Our recent LED lighting was invented in 1962 but offered only red light, after a decade came green and in the 1990s blue. Now with fluorescent phosphors it has been moved from blue into white, more appropriate for indoor illumination and more lumens for less power. None of our lighting has the spectrum of colours as pleasing to the eye as sunlight. Maybe because our eyes evolved with sunlight and we haven't yet replicated sunlight indoors.

Smil gives a quick lesson on current state and anticipated evolution of batteries.

Pumped water storage accounts for 99 per cent of the world's storage capacity. It basically requires mountains and escarpments with significant drop of the water. A reservoir top and bottom could provide a system where night generated cheap renewable energy pumps water to the upper reservoir from where it can be released to the lower reservoir for peak period needs.

Shipping is a hard move from fossil fuels. A kilogram of diesel fuel has 11,700 watt hours of energy compared to 300 Wh/kg for lithium ion batteries, nearly 40 times more for diesel. Getting sufficient energy density in batteries seems quite far off.

Electricity is now about 200 times more affordable in the U.S. than it was in 1902 and effectively with lighting improvement electric lights are now 2500 times more affordable, say Smil's calculations.

Only Norway and Canada, among affluent nations, have cheaper electricity than the U.S. and that is due to hydro power, which accounts for 59 per cent in Canada and 95 per cent in Norway. (Canadians should think of this the next time they whine about electricity prices.)

There has been hardly any reduction in fossil fuel use in 25 years. To change this a collapse of the global economy is needed or new energy sources at a pace “far beyond our immediate capabilities”.

The decarbonization of electricity in the last 25 years, says Smil, was more due to hydro power than a combination of wind and solar and only about 27 per cent of final energy consumption is electricity.

On the positive side, Smil says, wind and solar are now mature industries and capacity can be added quickly.

None of this is going to much help ships, jetliners, steel, cement, plastic or ammonia (fertilizer) making.

As a cyclist this is something I never thought about, “Some technical advances are delayed by either a failure of imagination or a concatenation of obstructive circumstances. I can think of no better example of both of these than the bicycle.”

The bicycle (then of wood) was invented in Germany in 1817 and even then covering 16 km. in an hour was faster than a horse-drawn carriage. Unpaved roads and hard wheels may have been a deterrent. The 1870s and 80s were dominated by the large front wheel “penny farthings”. What is essentially the modern bike design came in 1885 in Britain. Pneumatic tires were invented in 1888. So it took most of the century.

There is a brief history of the automobile and then Smil moves into the “terrible weight to-payload ratio” of cars and how much energy is used to move so little mass of people and so much mass of vehicle. The good news he points out is how much more efficient the engines in modern cars are and from there is is mostly bad news starting with the 11-fold power increase to 170 kilowatts in the engines now compared to a century ago. The engine is barely lighter and the car much heavier.

About three quarters of commuters drive alone leading to the worst passenger-vehicle weight ratio.

Using a 70 kg. person the ratio for a bicycle is 0.1 (a 7 kg. bike), a Smart car is 12.0, the average American light duty vehicle is 26.0, and a Ford F-150 is 32.0.

And to put this into another perspective a Boeing 787 with 330 passengers and their luggage is 5.3.

Cars, he explains, got heavy because part of the world got rich and hence drivers were coddled with myriad of features. In North America the issue is magnified by the large numbers commuting compared to Europe and Japan, he added.

He says he is neither promoting nor denigrating electric cars but there have been unrealistic forecasts for their acceptance and disregard for the environment effects of both manufacture and operation. He calls it “triumph of hope over experience”.

Then the fuelling “Poland's Evsare overwhelming coal cars” and much the same is the case in many other countries.

Manufacture of EVs creates three times as much toxicity, because of the heavy metals. He says these are not arguments against adoption but notice that there are negative factors not well appraised.

He presents a quick history of the evolution of jet transportation, while not faster the takeoff weight of the 787 compared to the 707 is twice, distance nearly twice and fuel per passenger 70 per cent less. And with more carbon than aluminum in construction they are pressurized for more comfort.

Replacing the kerosene based jet fuel will be one of the great challenges to going carbon fee. However, he says, aviation only accounts for two per cent of emissions as a whole and 12 per cent of transportation emissions.

Cars and trains will more easily be able to go electric.

One of the solutions to replacing energy dense jet fuel is a biofuel, but oil rich plants would be needed and they would take a prohibitive amount of land to grow. Algae offers some hope, but has large logistics problems. Flying less is another ameliorative, but forecasts are for more.

He discusses safety in flying. For comparison smoking and driving a car have risks 100 times greater than flying.

Comparing energy efficiency in various modes of travel has a small car with one passenger using 2 megajoules per passenger kilometre in city driving. Jet airliners fully loaded are also about 2 megajoules per passenger kilometre. A large SUV is 3 to 5 with one or two passengers. A loaded inter city train is 0.2 to 0.4. A subway in rush hour may get near 0.1. High speed trains may be an order of magnitude less than planes and with airport logistics trains may be effectively faster to the ultimate destination for distances around 300 km. We have no such trains in North America (although many city pairs would be viable) and China has the most.

Now onto food where nitrogen is the most important macronutrient for plants. And half of it is now provided through ammonia (NH3). The rest comes from crop rotation with nitrogen fixers,, manures, crop residue and atmospheric depositions.

The synthetic fertilizer is responsible for about one per cent of GHGs with no alternative in sight. However, since about 47 per cent is utilized by the plants and the rest lost, utilization efficiency offers some room.

And he deals with food waste which when extrapolated means wasted energy, including fossil fuels, wasted fertilizer (more wasted energy) wearing out of machines, irrigation, needing replacement and wasting labour, transport, storage and processing. The detachment/ignorance of the modern consuming population from the complexity of food production may contribute to cavalier waste.

In poor countries a lot of the waste is inadequate storage, including lack of refrigeration. In wealthier countries buying too much food is a main problem. He cited the U.S. with about 3,600 cal. daily of food for each person when about 2,100 would be adequate.

With root crops, fruits and vegetables waste can be 40 to 50 per cent, 35 per cent for fish, 30 per cent for cereals and 20 per cent for oilseeds, meat and dairy.

In effect, nearly one third of harvested food is wasted globally.

North America leads other regions in the world with more than 40 per cent and within that they have a big lead in waste by consumers after purchase of too much food. If all that was supplied was eaten the obesity problem would be even greater.

On a calorie basis, the 230 million people of Brazil could be fed with the food wasted in the U.S. with a population of 330 million.

Amid all this waste is the ongoing chanting of “the mantra of higher food production”.

The championed 'Mediterranean diet' boasted health benefits from the 1970s on. However, the famed practitioners in Spain and Italy, no longer follow it and have taken up the high animal fat eating of northern Europe. They have however increased their consumption of fruit, the only retained vestige of the good model. The Spanish still like fish but most of the rest has been corrupted, says Smil.

Smil says better diet with “less meaty, fatty, salty and sugary fast food was one of the few advantages the ancient world had over the modern.”

But he also points to the bad side of a good food. The Bluefin tuna is being pushed toward extinction by the sushi craze, not just in Japan but worldwide.

And going along with the shortage of tuna is misrepresentation of fish that is not tuna.

While still popular in the U.S. beef consumption has been falling since 1976. Pork is still the worldwide leader, but chicken is coming on strong every where.

Cost of feeding is much lower. It take 1.7 units of feed to produce a unit of broiler live weight, for hogs the comparable is 5 and for beef 12 units. When this is converted to edible meat it is 3-4 units for chicken, 9-10 for pork and 20-30 for beef.

In North America and Europe nearly 60 per cent of the total crop goes to feeding animals, not directly to humans.

Meat is now consumed 40 per cent pork 37 chicken and 23 beef. Smil thinks a more rational approach would be 40 pork, 50 chicken and 10 beef.

Smil speculates that Japan's 25 per cent less food availability (2700 kilocal/day) compared to other affluent countries (3400-4000) is one explanation for longer lifespan in Japan. Less sugar and fat could also contribute.

He points out that milk consumption has been steadily dropping in traditional strongholds while increasing in non traditional consuming countries (China a main one). Milk may be being replaced by meat and fish for some consumers.

He casts some doubt on the validity of the increasingly popular term “anthropocene era” because while humans are changing land use and composition of the air, there is no conclusive proof that they effect air circulation, ocean currents, plate tectonics, volcanic action, tsunamis or the path of bodies toward impact with the earth. (major factors in geologic eras). If there is an anthropocene era it would only date from 8,000 years (settled agriculture).

Manufacture of cement, one of the big emitters, a hard process without fossil fuels, continues to increase especially in China which accounts for nearly 60 per cent. In the last two years, it used more cement than the U.S. did in the 20th century.

One of his near end chapters asks the question whether your car or you phone is worse for the environment. Not unexpectedly it is the car, but not by as wide a margin as might be expected. New cars are 180 times the mass of all portable electronics, but require on seven times as much energy to make. And the electronics last an average of two years where cars go for 10. But of course the car is far ahead in energy used during its life.

The Manitoba resident is a big supporter of triple glazed windows for insulation, but doesn't deal with the frequency of window replacement and manufacture.

In cutting heating costs, he suggests doing away with the “McMansions” of North America.

While Europe and North America have reduced their emissions without much sacrifice in affluent lifestyle, China's, the largest, is starting to slow.

While current concentrations of carbon dioxide have been reached in the past, it has not been for three million years. Emissions are continuing to decline in affluent countries and China's is slowing, but they are increasing in India and Africa, he says, so overall declines don't seem soon.

And the only way to limit the temperature rise to 1.5C is to put emissions into steep decline and to zero by 2050.