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How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future Hardcover – 27 Jan. 2022
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** THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER **
'Another masterpiece from one of my favorite authors . . . If you want a brief but thorough education in numeric thinking about many of the fundamental forces that shape human life, this is the book to read. It's a tour de force' BILL GATES
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 perils 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, making their complete and rapid elimination unlikely. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato requires the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel oil for its production; and we still lack any commercially viable ways of making steel, ammonia, cement or plastics on the scale required globally without fossil fuels.
Vaclav Smil is neither a pessimist nor an optimist, he is a scientist; he is the world-leading expert on energy and an astonishing polymath. This is his magnum opus and a continuation of his quest to make facts matter. Drawing on the latest science, including his own fascinating research, and tackling sources of misinformation head on - from Yuval Noah Harari to Noam Chomsky - 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.
'Very informative and eye-opening in many ways' Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
'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
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
A compelling, fascinating, and most important, realistic portrait of the world and where it's going -- Steven Pinker, on Numbers Don’t Lie
About the Author
- Publisher : Viking (27 Jan. 2022)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0241454395
- ISBN-13 : 978-0241454398
- Dimensions : 16.2 x 3.2 x 24 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: 1,802 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer reviews:
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A good primer on this subject this recently published book by Prof. Vaclav Smil entitled “How the World Really Works”. The author covers wide ranging topics from energy supply to food supply in a very analytic way based on established facts rather than polemics which he criticises as being far too common in the modern world.
His chapter on food production is particularly interesting and he shows how we now manage to feed 8 billion people reasonably well which would have been inconceivable 100 years ago. How do we do it? By using energy supplied mostly from fossil fuels to create fertilizers and by manufacturing farm machinery and road/rail/shipping transport to distribute the products efficiently. The author points out that if we reverted to solely “organic” farming methods we would be lucky to feed half the world’s population.
He covers the supply of key products such as steel, plastics and cement which are essential for our modern standard of living and how they are not only energy intensive in production but that there are few alternatives. He clearly supports the view that the climate is being affected by man’s activities but points out that the changing of energy production, food production and the production of key products cannot be easily achieved. Certainly it will be difficult to achieve that in the timescales demanded by European politicians when the major carbon emitters of China, India, USA, and Russia are moving so slowly.
The author looks at the risks in the future for the world, many of which are uncertain. He mentions the risk of a big “Carrington event” - a geomagnetic storm occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts, and damage due to extended outages of the electrical grid. If that is not enough to scare you he suggests that another pandemic similar to Covid-19 is very likely as such epidemics have happened about every 20 years in the past and might be more virulent in future. But planning for such events, which were historically well known, was minimal and continues to be so.
He does not propose solutions to global warming other than that we do have many tools to enable us to adapt and cope with the issue. For example, farming could be made more efficient and wasted food reduced. Electrification of vehicles might help in a minor way and he is particularly critical of the increase in the use of SUVs in the last 20 years which has been particularly damaging. But this is not a book containing simple remedies to the world’s problems. It is more one that gives you an understanding of how we got to where we are now and where we might be going.
Altogether the book is worth reading just to get an understanding of how the world currently works – as the book’s title suggests.
Smil's mission is to tell us that hopes of a rapid and easy transition into a "net-zero" future or a world where AI has solved all our problems are pipe dreams, and in this he is a complete success. It's all a salutory reminder that the physical - and not the virtual - world is what really matters and that the material changes of the last 20 years are enormous and not something that can be rolled back quickly and easily.
Happily Smil is not some climate-change denying crank, so we are definitely in a discourse about why change needs to happen as well as how difficult it is.
But I also think he is maybe too pessimistic: the very scale and scope of China's economic transformation in the last 40 years - which Smil correctly describes as fundamental for all humanity - shows that human will and determination can achieve great things. Maybe not to the arbitrary targets of a "year ending in 5 or 0" but that is not a reason not to try - and sometimes this book does read as though he thinks it might all be a bit hopeless - certainly some of its readers are going to quote it as though he is making that argument.
In other ways the book feels like it is using excuses to avoid facing up to bad news. Yes, models are never likely to be anything close to perfect predictors of the future, but why are they cited with approval when it comes to estimating how much of certain future resources are available (when it suits Smil's argument) but (sometimes mockingly) dismissed when it comes to the impact of climate change? Facing up to hard reality also means facing up to the unavoidable damage that is yet to come.
The chapter on risk is very interesting but feels oddly out of place in the book's narrative. Something the author wanted to get off his chest in the middle of the pandemic?
All in all I do strongly recommend this book, but nullius in verba.
By Tushar on 22 June 2022