How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going


"A new masterpiece from one of my favorite authors... [How The World Really Works] is a compelling and highly readable book that leaves readers with the fundamental grounding needed to help solve the world's toughest challenges."--Bill Gates

"Provocative but perceptive . . . You can agree or disagree with Smil--accept or doubt his 'just the facts' posture--but you probably shouldn't ignore him."--The Washington Post

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.
Show more


336 pages

Average rating: 7.2




Community Reviews

Codrut Nicolau
Dec 26, 2023
8/10 stars
You never get borred reading a Vaclav Smil’s book
Show more
Nov 10, 2022
7/10 stars
3.5 stars or 7/10. This was the first book we tackled for Decouple Reads! How The World Really Works is the summation of Smil's extensive career studying pretty much everything, published at a time where many stand to benefit from a better understanding of energy, food, and materials come from, and associated risks and impacts to the environment. The book is comprehensive, detailed, and well-referenced, while still being mostly readable and engaging (depends where your interests lie). I struggled to identify the audience for the book. Smil tries to deploy complete impartiality in laying out the facts (while still spitting fire at some of the more absurd, extreme claims from both ultra-greens and techno-optimists) and in doing so, dulls the edge of his narrative. More of his pot-shots are directed at the ultra-greens (who stand to benefit the most from understanding how "things really work") which will cause that audience to tune out. The audience would be someone who is already keenly interested in learning how the global sausage is made, because I'm not sure the book would hold the attention of someone who grabbed it in the airport thanks to a Bill Gates endorsement on the back cover. (maybe I am wrong!) The book is laid out in seven chapters: 1. Understanding Energy: Fuels and Electricity 2. Understanding Food Production: Eating Fossil Fuels 3. Understanding our Material World: The Four Pillars of Modern Civilization 4. Understanding Globalization: Engines, Microchips, and Beyond 5. Understanding Risks: From Viruses to Diets to Solar Flares 6. Understanding the Environment: The Only Biosphere We Have 7. Understanding the Future: Between Apocalypse and Singularity Being so wide-ranging it's inevitable that each chapter can't go into depth required on each topic. I thought Chapter 5 "Understanding Risks" was especially dry, actuarially comparing different risks in the hope of giving the reader more perspective on risk. I find Nassim Taleb a much more fun read on risk. One great observation that I'll pilfer from another Decouple Reads member is the near-total lack of coverage of how politics, society, and culture impact the topics Smil discusses. This was likely an editorial choice in the name of scientific impartiality, but majorly kneecaps the effectiveness of the narrative, as readers are simply presented with a never-ending stream of facts (and some interpretation) but are left to apply these facts to real-world problems on their own. Overall I'd recommend this book to people with a budding interest in climate, technology, globalization, and more. But for more more nuance I'd look at each chapter and recommend something else: 1. Energy - Smil's Energy and Civilization, or Epstein's Fossil Future. 2. Food - The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager 3. Materials - Maybe Epstein's Fossil Future again. 4. Globalization - Zeihan's The End Of The World Is Just Beginning 5. Risks - Taleb's The Black Swan (then Antifragile, then Fooled By Randomness) 6. Environment - ?? I need to read more here. 7. Future - ?? Mayyybe MacAskill's What We Owe The Future for a philosophical treatment, but I'm in the middle of it and not loving it, so... =================== Notes & quotes for future me: p2: "Atomization of knowledge has not made any public decision-making easier" p4: "The other major reason for the poor, and declining, understanding of those fundamental processes that deliver energy (As food or as fuels) and durable materials (whether metals, non-metallic minerals, or concrete) is that they have come to be seen as old-fashioned - if not outdated - and distinctly unexciting compared to the world of information, data, and images. p5: "in 2020 the average annual per capita energy supply of about 40 percent of the world's population (3.1 billion people, which includes nearly all people in sub-Saharan Africa) was no higher than the rate achieved in both Germany and France in 1860!" p5: "The real wrench in the works [on dealing with climate change]: we are a fossil-fuelled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind a few years." p6: "I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works" p17: "by 2020 more than half the world's electricity will still be generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas." p19: "when [energy use per capita] is put in terms of physical labour, it is as if 60 adults would be working non-stop, day and night, for each average person; and for the inhabitants of affluent countries this equivalent of steadily labouring adults would be, depending on the specific country, mostly between 200 and 240. On average, humans now have unprecedented amounts of energy at their disposal." p21: "Modern economists do not get their rewards and awards for being preoccupied with energy, and modern societies become concerned about it only when the supply of any main commercial form of energy appears to be threatened and prices soar." p25: "large nuclear reactors are the most reliable producers of electricity: some of them now generate it 90-95 percent of the time, compared to about 45 percent for the best offshore wind turbines and 25 percent for photovoltaic cells in even the sunniest of climates - while Germany's solar panels produce electricity only about 12 percent of the time." p30: "On January 1 1974, the Gulf states raised their posted price to $11.65/barrel, completing a 4.5-fold rise in the cost of this essential energy source in a simple year - and this ended the era of rapid economic expansion that had been energized by cheap oil." p36: "demand for electricity has been growing much faster than the demand for all other commercial energy: in the 50 years between 1970 and 2020, global electricity generation quintupled while the total primary energy demand only tripled." p37: "If the COVID-19 pandemic brought disruption, anguish, and unavoidable deaths, those effects would be minor compared to having just a few days of severely reduced electricity supply in any densely populated region, and if prolonged for weeks nationwide it would be a catastrophic event with unprecedented consequences." p38: "By 2020, setting net-zero goals has for years ending in five or zero has become a me-too game: more than 100 nations have joined the lineup... Given the fact that annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion surpassed 37 billion tons in 2019, the net-zero goal by 2050 will call for an energy transition unprecedented in both pace and scale." p39: "In 2019, Germany generated 577 terawatt-hours of electricity, less than 5 percent more than in 2000 - but its installed generating capacity expanded by about 73 percent (from 121 to about 209 gigawatts). The reason for this discrepancy is obvious. In 2020, two decades after the beginning of Energiewende, its deliberately accelerated energy transition, Germany still had to keep most of its fossil-fired capacity (89 percent of it, actually) in order to meet demand on cloudy and calm days. After all, in gloomy Germany, photovoltaic generation only works on average only 11-12 percent of the time, and the combustion of fossil fuels still produced nearly half (48 percent) of all electricity in 2020." p40: "[The EU's] 2050 net-zero emissions scenarios set aside the decades-long stagnation and neglect of the nuclear industry, and envisage up to 20 percent of all energy consumption coming from nuclear fission. Notice this refers to total primary energy consumption, not just to electricity." p41: "Germany will soon generate half of its electricity from renewables, but during the two decades of Energiewende the share of fossil fuels in the country's primary energy supply has only declined from about 84 percent to 78 percent: Germans like their unrestricted Autobahn speeds and their frequent intercontinental flying, and German industries hum on natural gas and oil." p47: "we could not harvest such abundance, and in such a highly predictable manner, without the still-rising inputs of fossil fuels and electricity. Without these anthropogenic energy subsidies, we could not have supplied 90 percent of humanity with adequate nutrition and we could not have reduced global malnutrition to such a degree, which simultaneously steadily decreasing the amount of time and area of cropland needed to feed one person." p52: "Nitrogen is needed in such great quantities because it is in energy living cell: it is in chlorophyll, whose excitation powers photosynthesis; in the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, which store and process all genetic information; and in amino acids, which make up all the proteins required for growth and maintenance of our tissues." p56: Embedded energy in bread: 250 ml of diesel fuel equivalent in a 1-kg sourdough loaf. p57; 300-350 ml of diesel fuel equivalent per kg of chicken. p61; 650 ml of diesel fuel equivalent per kg of greenhouse tomatoes. p66: "I do not see the organic green online commentariat embracing [returning to a labour-intensive life of organic sharecropping] anytime soon." p72: "The quest for mass-scale veganism is doomed to fail. Eating meat has been as significant a component of our evolutionary heritage as our large brains (which evolved partly because of meat eating), bipedalism, and symbolic language." p92, on steel recycling: "[electric arc furnace, for steel recycling] electricity demand is enormous; even a highly efficient modern EAF needs as much electricity every day as an American city of about 150,000 people." p101: "Multiplying these [wind turbine raw materials of steel, cement, and plastic] requirements by the millions of turbines that would be needed to eliminate electricity generated from fossil fuels shows how misleading any talks are about the coming dematerialization of green economies." p101: "Electric cars provide perhaps the best example of new, and enormous, material dependencies... supplying [lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, graphite, steel, aluminum, plastics, etc.] materials for a single vehicle requires... extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials." p130: A great deal of accreted globalization, especially many changes that unfolded during the past two generations, is here to stay. Too many countries now rely on food imports, and self-sufficiency in all raw materials is impossible even for the largest countries because no country possesses sufficient reserves of all minerals needed by its economy." p131: "... such grotesque transactions as Canada, the country with per capita forest resources greater than in any other affluent nation, importing toothpicks and toilet paper from China, a country whose wood stocks amount to a small fraction of Canada's enormous boreal forest patrimony." p132: "[Consider] the (justified or exaggerated, thoughtful or demagogic) fears about globalization's impact on national sovereignty, culture, and language; about diluting cherished peculiarities in the solvent of commercial universality..." - what an incredible sentence. p133: "while in recent years it has looked increasingly as if most aspects of globalization will not soar to new highs, in 2020 this notion became entirely unexceptional: we may have seen the peak of globalization, and its ebb may last not just for years but for decades to come." (aligns with Peter Zeihan recent book) p142: "Widespread fear of nuclear electricity generation is yet another excellent example of risk misperception." p155: "The fact that US hurricanes now present a fatality risk no greater than lightning illustrates how their toll has been reduced by satellites, advanced public warnings, and evacuations." p161: "A 2012 study estimated a 12 percent probability of another Carrington Event during the coming ten years" - this whole section is Black Swan forecasting. p180: "almost since the very beginning of the media's interest in this complex process, the coverage of global warming has been replete with poorly communicated facts, dubious interpretations, and dire predictions, and over time it has definitely acquired a distinctly more hysterical, even outright apocalyptic, flavour." p183: "so far, the only effective, substantial moves toward decarbonization have not come from any determined, deliberate, targeted policies. Rather, they have been by-products of general technical advances (higher conversion efficiencies, more nuclear and hydro generation, less wasteful processing and manufacturing procedures) and ongoing production and management shifts (switching from coal to natural gas; more common, less energy-intensive, material recycling) whose initiation and progress had nothing to do with any question for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And, as already noted, the global impact of the recent turn toward decarbonizing electricity generation - by installing solar PV panels and wind turbines - has been completely negated by the rapid rise of greenhouse gas emissions in China and elsewhere in Asia." - yes, in part because those countries are building solar and wind equipment. p184: "Oxygen's atmospheric concentration is not affected by any slight greenhouse gas-driven changes in temperature, but it has ben marginally declining because of the principal anthropogenic cause of global warming: the burning of fossil fuels." p187: "A rising atmospheric level of CO2 [could mean] wheat and other crops could yield as much or more than today, even if the precipitation they receive is reduced by 10-20 percent." p189: "To believe that our understanding of these dynamic, multifactorial realities has reached the state of perfection is to mistake the science of global warming for the religion of climate change." Wow! Smil, pulling no punches. p193: "Computers make it easy to construct many scenarios of rapid carbon elimination - but those who chart their preferred paths to a zero-carbon future owe us realistic explanations, not just sets of more or less arbitrary and highly improbable assumptions dethatched from technical and economic realities and ignoring the embedded nature, massive scale, and enormous complexity of our energy and material systems." Another great quote. p196: "If [100 percent wind/water/solar needs less energy, costs less, and creates more jobs than current energy] is true, these claims and their enthusiastic endorsements raise the obvious question: why should we worry about global warming? ... Who could be against solutions that are both cheap and nearly instantly effective, that will create countless well-paying jobs and ensure care-free futures for coming generations? Let us all just sing from the green hymnals, let us follow all-renewable prescriptions and a new global nirvana will arrive in just a decade" - Smil thrashing 100% WWS pundits. p197: "specific critiques of published rapid-speed transformation narratives are really beside the point: it makes no sense to argue with the details of what are essentially the academic equivalents of science fiction." p198: "Why is it that some scientists keep on charting such arbitrary bending and plunging curves leading to near-instant decarbonization? And why are others promising the early arrival of technical super-fixes that will support high standards of living for all humanity? And why are these wishful offerings taken so often for reliable previsions and are readily believed by people who would never try to question their assumptions?" p199: "There are no limits to assembling such models or, as fashionable lingo has it, constructing narratives." p211: "techno-optimists, who promise endless near-miraculous solutions, must reckon with a similarly poor record." p216: "Past transitions may have been relatively fast because the magnitudes involved were comparatively small." p217: Category mistakes: assuming that since technology evolves so quickly, the physical world can evolve at anywhere near the same pace and scale. "While it has been possible to replace a billion landlines by mobile phones within a generation, it will not be possible to replace terawatts of power installed in steam and gas turbines by photovoltaic cells or wind turbines within a similar time span." p219: Smil thrashes Yuval Harari and I love it: "Nothing sums up better the excessive nature of [overly optimistic forecasting] than the title of a 2019 bestseller, Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus." And on p220: "The response of the affluent world to COVID-19 deserves a single ironic comment: Homo deus indeed!" p225: "Because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time after they have been emitted (for CO2, up to 200 years), even very strong mitigation efforts would not give a clear signal of success- the first significant decline of global mean surface temperature - for several decades." p225: "A commonly used climate-economy model indicates the break-even year (when the optimal policy would begin to produce net economic benefit" for mitigation efforts launched in the early 2020s would be only around 2080." Wow! p228: "As I noted in the opening chapter, I am not a pessimist or an optimist, I am a scientist. There is no agenda in understanding how the world really works."
Show more

See why thousands of readers are using Bookclubs to stay connected.