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.
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.
"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