How the World Really Works: How Science Can Set Us Straight on Our Past, Present and Future Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
Brought to you by Penguin.
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 globalisation 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 globalisation 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.
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|Listening Length||10 hours and 8 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.co.uk Release Date||27 January 2022|
|Best Sellers Rank|| 821 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
2 in Materials Science
2 in Agricultural Science
2 in Food Science (Audible Books & Originals)
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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.