How the World Really Works: A Scientist's Guide to Our Past, Present and Future

by Smil Vaclav

Paperback, 2022


Viking (2022)


"An essential analysis of the modern science and technology that makes our twenty-first century lives possible--a scientist's investigation into what science really does, and does not, accomplish. We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don't know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check--because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts. In this ambitious and thought-provoking book we see, for example, that globalization isn't inevitable--the foolishness of allowing 70 per cent of the world's rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020--and that our societies have been steadily increasing their dependence on fossil fuels, such that any promises of decarbonization by 2050 are a fairy tale. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato has the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel embedded in its production, and we have no way of producing steel, cement or plastics at required scales without huge carbon emissions. Ultimately, Smil answers the most profound question of our age: are we irrevocably doomed or is a brighter utopia ahead? Compelling, data-rich and revisionist, this wonderfully broad, interdisciplinary guide finds faults with both extremes. Looking at the world through this quantitative lens reveals hidden truths that change the way we see our past, present and uncertain future"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Paul_S
Would get my vote for world dictator, or at least adviser to world dictator.
LibraryThing member devonport
Criticises those predicting catastrophy and those who say science and technology will save us, by providing a deeply researched and scientific overview of our fossil sourced energy problems, and how difficult rapid change will be. Well worth reading from that perspective. Could have a bit more on
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realistic policy options. Seems very angry about people who are too foolish to see his perspective - but maybe he's right. Bill Gate's book also covers these issues and is more positive, but also a less information rich read. Both worthwhile.
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LibraryThing member Tytania
Numbers fill almost every paragraph of this book, and it was honestly hard not to glaze over a lot. This is the fault of myself and not the book; a book like this is all about numbers, as it's about facts, how the world "really" works, after all.

The "four pillars of modern civilization" for Smil
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are: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Overall this book is about that material, tangible, real-world "stuff" of civilization; and Smil casts snarky asides at every opportunity towards microprocessors, smartphones, AI, and anything else that isn't "stuff." We need the "stuff", continuously, and in abundance, and the non-stuff isn't going to save us.

You might recognize cement, steel, and plastic as literal building blocks of civilization; but just in case you can't see how ammonia fits into the top four, it's due to importance as fertilizer. And abundant synthetic fertilizer was a crucial input to Earth's population boom. Simply put, "nearly 4 billion people would not have been alive without synthetic ammonia." More existentially important than silicon wafers, to be sure.

Cement? "Yet another [!] astounding statistic is that the world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century."

And as for fossil fuels, and hopes for our conversion to renewable sources of energy? "Until all energies used to extract and process these materials come from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in [their] production." It's the oil and natural gas that get us all this steel, cement, plastic, and ammonia. Electric cars are great. But renewable electricity is not going to be able to perform the herculean job that fossil fuels do today in terms of producing the material that makes our world go round.

Smil is neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a scientist, and it comes through. It is refreshing to read someone who neither is gung ho about how we're gonna solve everything, nor ready to lay down and die. He thinks we'll muddle through. But here he cuts through the "muddle" of misleading information that comes from both optimists and pessimists.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
Using quantities and statistics to explain energy supply, materials, risks and environmental concerns
I thouroughly enjoyed this clear-eyed look at the scale of energy and material needs in the world today. Smil explains the futility of green energy, the need for material and food, and the history
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of climate change, using the data readily available in the public record. He is not on any one side, he only uses facts and history for his explanations. It is the best book on current environmental concerns that I have read.
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LibraryThing member steve02476
A puzzling book. The information was good, I feel like I have a better systems sort of view about how the whole human world functions. Who knew ammonia was so crucially important to human life in the 21st century? But I doubt I want to read another one of his books. Too big of a number blizzard,
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the quantification of everything was relentless.

If some ufo full of ET engineers needed to write a 300 page memo about what earthling society was all about, this book could be the report. Nothing about art or religion or philosophy or politics - but if you want to know how earthlings have been keeping themselves alive while greatly increasing their population the last few hundred years, and what the main problems and threats are, this is a pretty good description, keeping only to the major points.
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LibraryThing member aquamari
This is an awesome book. Taught me so much about... how the world really works (surprise surprise).

Some big takeaways:

1. Carbon is a pollutant. Let's treat it as such.
2. Even if we do really well, it will be impossible to remove it from all our industrial processes. If we did, we'd have to go
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back to the Stone ages.
3. Therefore, we need to remove it. Pure and simple. As a result, I've started funding some direct air capture.
4. We need to do nuclear. Nuclear power is inexpensive and does not emit carbon. If ahs an excellent safety record. Most important - unlike carbon, the dangers it poses are not systemic.

Very well worth reading. Thank you for educating us all, Vaclav Smil!
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LibraryThing member nmarun
This book presents multiple facts on our history and where it'd take us in the coming years. "The pillars of modern civilization are cement, steel, plastic, and ammonia." - we'll need some groundbreaking inventions to get rid of these essentials that depend primarily on fossil fuels. We need to
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start something serious right now however, we'll not see the outcome anytime soon. Despite that, we need to start something soon.
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