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Good Reads  Reference  Physical Sciences  Engineering & Materials Science

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

By: Vaclav Smil(Author)
326 pages, 1 table
Publisher: Penguin Books
Rich in eye-opening facts, How the World Really Works is a much-needed reality check that quantifies how our energy and material needs stand in the way of easy solutions to climate change.
How the World Really Works
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  • How the World Really Works ISBN: 9780241989678 Paperback Oct 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • How the World Really Works ISBN: 9780241454398 Hardback Jan 2022 Out of Print #252645
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About this book

We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us simply don't understand how our world really works. Professor Vaclav Smil is not a pessimist or an optimist, he is a scientist, and this book is a much-needed reality check on topics ranging from food production and nutrition, through energy and the environment, to globalization and the future. For example, the carbon footprint of meat is well known, but did you know that the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel fuel goes into the production of each greenhouse-grown, medium-size, supermarket-bought tomato? The gap between belief and reality is vast.

Drawing on the latest science, tackling sources of misinformation head on and championing a rational, fact-based approach, in How the World Really Works Smil shows, for example, why the planet isn't 'suffocating' (even burning all the planet's fossil fuels would reduce oxygen levels by just 0.25 per cent) and that globalization isn't 'inevitable' and nor should it be (the stupidity of allowing 70 per cent of the world's rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020).

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 masterpiece 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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Eye-opening and not a little bit opinionated
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 19 Jan 2023 Written for Paperback

    The complexity of modern civilization is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It has brought great advances in human health and well-being, yet a full understanding of the sum-total of our knowledge of how the world works is now far beyond any single person. Consequently, getting people to agree on how to tackle complex problems becomes this much harder. In How The World Really Works, energy expert and policy analyst Vaclav Smil provides the big picture of the material and energetic basis undergirding human civilization, and what this means for attempts at addressing climate change. Rich in eye-opening facts and not a little bit opinionated, this is a much-needed reality check that purposefully avoids extreme views of both the techno-optimist and catastrophist kind. So, how does the world work according to Smil?

    Smil is at his strongest when he focuses his mind on the problem of climate change. Without the title indicating so, it has become the leitmotif underlying this book. Why? Because understanding why dealing with climate change is so challenging requires you to understand a host of other things. The reality is that "we are a fossil-fueled civilization [...] and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years" (p. 5). The first three chapters focus on helping the reader better understand this. First is energy. Though we have made substantial progress thanks to solar and wind power, energy is so much more than electricity generation. Take transport. The under-appreciated concept of power density means that our prime movers (i.e. trucks, ships, and planes) are far harder to power in any other way. Second is food. Heavy machinery, agrochemicals, and especially fertilizer are all possible thanks to fossil fuels. Smil lays out the many challenges with returning to all-organic farming without denying that many improvements can and should be made to both food production and our diet. Third are what Smil calls the four pillars of modern civilization: ammonia, plastic, steel, and cement. The first two require fossil fuels as feedstock, while all are energy-intensive to produce. All very mundane substances, but produced in staggering quantities (hundreds of millions to billions of tons annually) to construct the world around us. We have no realistic alternatives ready to produce these substances at those scales. Though politicians love to score points with ambitious decarbonization pledges, "the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast" (p. 6).

    It is exactly when Smil takes his mind off the challenge of climate change that the book starts to meander a bit. Though I consider his chapters on the long history of globalization and our understanding and misunderstanding of risks enlightening, they feel somewhat out of place. These chapters form an interlude before Smil seemingly collects his thoughts again to discuss the long history of our understanding of climate change and the problems with future outlooks and quantitative forecasts.

    The final two chapters are also where Smil is more opinionated. He is clear from the start: "I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain How The World Really Works" (p. 6). He neither tries to downplay nor demonize the price and problems of our progress but simply states: this is where we are now, and this is what it would take to change our civilization in a certain direction. Of course, people rarely like to be told plain but painful truths. His biggest beef is with the tendency of public discourse around climate change to gravitate towards extremes of either techno-optimism or catastrophism. And he fully expects that his "perspective will find no favor with either doctrine" (p. 9). The "data worshippers" (p. 4) who think our online world will bring about total dematerialization ignore its material basis, while "the new tech crowd" (p. 199) who fixate on recent developments in electronics fail to realise that "existential imperatives" (p. 217) such as food and water are not smartphones. He has choice words for renewable energy advocates too for thinking that, if only we follow "all-renewable prescriptions[,] a new global nirvana will arrive in just a decade" (p. 196). Why does he find this so infuriating? Because "those who chart their preferred paths to a zero-carbon future owe us realistic explanations" (p. 193) not improbably assumptions detached from reality. But he is similarly dismissive of the revival of apocalyptic visions around climate change: "catastrophists are wrong, time after time" (p. 212).

    Personally, I found Smil's down-to-earth bluntness refreshing. He does sometimes veer into grumpy-old-man territory, but to me this just comes across as comical. Rather, what struck me is that his arguments show that catastrophist thinkers are right to be concerned. I was surprised that he is less outspoken here than in Growth where he explicitly mentioned the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. When you write that, at 2020 production levels, gas and potassium are estimated to last us 50 and 90 years respectively, I am alarmed. I find that a freakishly short time. His points in the final chapter about the difficulty and fallibility of long-term projections are well-taken. And yet, Smil has carefully considered and quantified the immense challenges of making changes to our complex societies because of their scale and inertia. And he spells out here why rapid decarbonization can only be achieved by making sacrifices generally cosidered unacceptable. Plus, he points out what I had not considered yet: the problem of delayed rewards. Drastic emission reductions will take decades to reap rewards due to the inertia of our climate system, which will make enacting and maintaining such drastic measures unlikely. In light of all this, I was struck by Smil's staunch, if not stubborn agnosticism regarding our future.

    Finally, a note on the book's title. Though Smil mentions e.g. the problem of overconsumption, he does not go into the confluence of political and economical forces that allow and stimulate capitalism. He does not explore how the world works in that sense but sticks firmly to the physical basis. To me, that is fine. Smil avoids the god complex of many older authors who venture far outside their field of expertise.

    Despite some meanderings, this factually grounded book provides some eye-opening insights and a much-needed reality check.
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Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of over forty books on topics including energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. No other living scientist has had more books (on a wide variety of topics) reviewed in Nature. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, in 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

By: Vaclav Smil(Author)
326 pages, 1 table
Publisher: Penguin Books
Rich in eye-opening facts, How the World Really Works is a much-needed reality check that quantifies how our energy and material needs stand in the way of easy solutions to climate change.
Media reviews

"Very informative and eye-opening in many ways"
– Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

"It is reassuring to read an author so impervious to rhetorical fashion and so eager to champion uncertainty [...] Smil's book is at its essence a plea for agnosticism, and, believe it or not, humility – the rarest earth metal of all. His most valuable declarations concern the impossibility of acting with perfect foresight. Living with uncertainty, after all, "remains the essence of the human condition." Even under the most optimistic scenario, the future will not resemble the past"
– Nathaniel Rich, New York Times

"A grumpy, pugnacious account that, I would argue, is intellectually indispensable in the run up to this year's COP27 climate conference in Egypt. In short, How the World Really Works fully delivers on the promise of its title. It is hard to formulate any higher praise"
– Simon Ings, New Scientist

"You can agree or disagree with Smil – accept or doubt his 'just the facts' posture – but you probably shouldn't ignore him [...] In Smil's provocative but perceptive view, unrealistic notions about carbon reduction are partly, and ironically, attributable to the very productivity that societies achieved by substituting machine work, powered by fossil fuels, for draft animals and human laborers"
Washington Post

"This accessible and witty book cuts to the chase of what we need to know"
– Caroline Sanderson, The Bookseller, 'Editor's Choice'

"If you are anxious about the future, and infuriated that we aren't doing enough about it, please read this book"
– Paul Collier, author of The Future of Capitalism

""I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist," Smil writes in the introduction, with typically Smilian swagger. In fact, he is more of a numberist, a polymath with a gift for rigorously crushing complex data into pleasing morsels of information"
– Pilita Clark, Financial Times

"Smil's meticulously researched words are for anyone who wants his priors reexamined and feathers ruffled"
– Joakin Book, AIER

"Ambitious and eye-opening [...] provides valuable insight as opposed to the agenda-pushing rhetoric commonly found in mainstream scientific literature. Data-rich, informative and eye-opening, How the World Really Works is a captivating read"
– Lily Pagano, Reaction

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