How the World Really Works

author: Vaclav Smil

related books: Antifragile, The Wizard and the Prophet, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

The main takeaway

Smil is a self-proclaimed generalist, trying to understand everything in the wide world as thoroughly as his mind allows, from the growth of bacteria to the organisation of cities. "How the World Really Works" tries to paint a complete picture of the world's complex problems in fewer than 235 pages.

The key to understanding the world is to keep track of the energies, materials and risks involved. In the first chapters, Smil discusses energy production, food production and the main materials of modern life: fertilisers, cement, steel and plastic. These depend on relatively old and established technologies, such as turbines and the Haber-Bosch process. Importantly, they are largely anchored on fossil fuels. For example, a humble tomato requires an ample dose of fossil fuel (nicely visualised by pouring a couple of spoons of sesame oil over sliced tomato). All these production processes are so ingrained in our ways of life it is nearly impossible to decarbonise them.

The following chapters of the book deal with more abstract, though no less topical: globalisation, risk and environment. Again, Smil advocates a dry emphasis on keeping track of the numbers.

"How the World Really Works" outlines what is required for a reasonable standard of living. This involves food in our bellies and a roof over our heads. These commodities require certain quantities of resources and energy, and no foreseeable technology will change that. The book is neither pessimistic (proclaiming environmental collapses) nor optimistic (no singularly).

Who is this for?

Generalists, who want to understand what is required to keep a couple of billion people reasonably comfortable alive on our planet.