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Book Review | How The World Really Works

Publisher: Penguin Viking (Paperback)
Year: 2022
Pages: 325
 Vaclav Smil

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Vaclav Smil’s book, How the World Really Works, is an extensive interdisciplinary book based on abundant scientific findings and half a century of research into the world of energy and materials. A great sequel to his last book Numbers Don’t Lie.

Vaclav Smil’s new book

His book offers an evidence-based view of how things really are. Smil asserts that people today have a superficial understanding of the true mechanics of the world, and his objective is to rectify this lack of comprehension.

If climate change is your thing and you regularly scan social media and news channels, you would have come across only two kinds of experts: those who are overly pessimistic (catastrophism) or those overly optimistic (techno-optimism). Smil is neither.

I am not a pessimist or an optimist, I am a scientist. There is no agenda in understanding how the world really works.” – Vaclav Smil

The central argument of How the World Really Works is that our society is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and any transition to cleaner forms of energy will have to be gradual.

The book comprises seven chapters. However, it’s the first four about Energy, Food production, Materials, and Globalization that represent the crux of the book.

In the ensuing paragraphs, I’ll explain what he thinks about each of these topics.

Understanding Energy

Smil says that energy conversions are pivotal to our civilization. Our society relies heavily on fossil fuels, and any transition to cleaner energy sources needs to be gradual. If rushed, it could lead to irreversible damage.

Today, 77% of global electricity generation still comes from coal and natural gas, 16% from wind, and 7% from solar.

Energy is the only truly universal currency, and nothing can take place without its transformations.” – Vaclav Smil

The thing is, a lot of those climate experts you see on TV trying to scare people into action don’t even have their facts straight. They ignore some basic realities, like the fact that nuclear energy is actually the most reliable of all the non-fossil fuel options out there, with a whopping 90% efficiency rate.

Nuclear Energy is the most efficient - How the World Really Works

Offshore wind and solar power are only 45% and 25% efficient, respectively, which raises concerns about their reliability for mass-scale use.

While some countries have made significant strides in generating electricity from renewable sources. Germany, for example, has really ramped up its solar and wind power capacity over the last two decades. But the bigger picture is that we’re still overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels.

Smil implies that the goal of achieving net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050 is a bit of a pipe dream. It is just not feasible given our dependence on liquid fuels (diesel, petrol, aviation gasoline).

They are the ideal choice for powering commercial transportation and for operating industrial equipment. Replacing these fuels is a hard challenge and one that’s going to take longer than just three decades.

Understanding Food Production

Food production worldwide relies a lot on fossil fuels, both directly and indirectly.

Direct use of fossil fuels happens when tractors, harvesters, and combines burn fuel to work the fields. Indirect use involves using energy to produce fertilizers and agrochemicals like herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.

Understanding food production

Smil writes that producing nitrogenous fertilizers, which are essential in agriculture, requires a lot of fossil fuels. Making 1 kg of nitrogenous fertilizers needs almost 1.5 liters of diesel fuel for their synthesis, formulation, and packaging.

He goes so far as to say that replacing fertilizers can only be done in theory. There are no replacements available. Going back to pre-industrial farming is not an option. According to him, the best solution would be to develop grain or oil crops with the capabilities common to leguminous plants.

Plants like lentils and beans fix their own Nitrogen. However, as of today, no commercial nitrogen-fixing varieties of wheat and rice are available and none seem to be in the pipeline either.

All in all, our food system heavily relies on fossil fuels.

Understanding our Material World

Vaclav Smil identifies steel, cement, ammonia, and plastic as four pillars of modern civilization.

These materials are mass-produced and rely on the use of fossil fuels, and they contribute 25% of all CO2 emissions and consume 17% of the world’s primary energy supply. In short, they are the main contributors to greenhouse gases.

Greenhouse gas emissions

That said, we can’t even begin to think of displacing their existing capacities with anything else that does not run on fossil fuels. Have a look at the global production figures for each one of them from 2019:

  1. Steel (1.8 billion tonnes) – is ubiquitous in bridges, buildings, household appliances, towers, wires, ships, rails, and whatnot. Your average car contains 900 kilograms of steel.
  2. Cement (4.5 billion tonnes) – is an indispensable component of concrete. Reinforced concrete is now inside every modern building and transportation infrastructure, from ports to tunnels to airport runways.
  3. Ammonia (150 million tonnes) – is globally used to fertilize crops. Without it, it would be impossible to feed 45-50% of today’s 8 billion people.
  4. Plastic (370 million tonnes) – is used everywhere, from pipes and flanges to interiors of cars and aircraft to household items to medical instruments.

Smil declares that our reliance on fossil fuels will continue as long as all energies used to extract and process these materials come from fossil carbon.

Understanding Globalization

Smil says that globalization is basically all about moving things around – like raw materials, finished products, people, and food. And all that movement takes a lot of energy.

He explains how globalization got started with sailing ships, which were eventually replaced by steam-powered ships, then diesel-powered ships, and finally big airplanes. All these new inventions made it easier to move things and people all over the world, which helped the global economy grow. But it also meant burning a lot of fuel and creating a lot of pollution.

Smil argues, however, that globalization may have already reached its zenith. He cites a study indicating that the global value chain has ceased its expansion and is, in fact, slightly contracting.

Understanding Risks

In this chapter, Smil talks about how we all see risks differently based on our experiences and cultures. For example, a lot of people think nuclear power is dangerous, even though it only makes up 10% of the world’s electricity.

But in France, they’ve been using nuclear power for over 30 years and their people are some of the healthiest in Europe! Meanwhile, across the river in Germany, they’re not into it at all.

As Prof Smil puts it, “Public reaction to risks is guided more by dread of what is unfamiliar, unknown or poorly understood than by any comparative appraisal of actual consequences.”

Understanding the Environment

Smil shuns wild ideas such as terraforming and colonizing Mars or other planets. He believes that we should be focused on saving the biosphere we live in instead.

He underlines that if we, as a civilization, have to flourish then we must ensure that we don’t breach the 9 critical biospheric boundaries.

  1. Climate Change
  2. Ocean Acidification
  3. Depletion of Stratospheric zone
  4. Atmospheric Aerosols
  5. Interference in Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycles
  6. Excessive withdrawals of underground and lake waters
  7. Land use change due to deforestation, urban and industrial expansion
  8. Biodiversity loss
  9. Chemical pollution

Unfortunately, it won’t be easy for the world to come to an agreement on the above. There are knottier issues to overcome. In the last three decades, the developed world (the EU, the US, Canada, Japan, and Australia) has managed to decrease its carbon footprint reasonably. However, countries like China and India can’t do that yet.

This creates a tricky situation because the countries that have reduced their emissions can’t really tell the developing countries to stop using fossil fuels. After all, it was fossil fuels that helped developed countries progress economically.


How the World Really Works could be a rude awakening of sorts for many who think that by merely putting more electric cars on the road, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced to zero. In reality, the world will have to do a lot more.

Throughout the book, Smil stresses that reducing carbon emissions will be a protracted process. The world needs to come to terms with that. He contends that without discovering alternatives to the usage of ammonia, plastics, cement, and steel, our attempts may prove futile.

He also directs criticism toward the media’s role in global warming coverage. It is littered with inaccuracies, unclear explanations, and exaggerated predictions bordering on the apocalyptic. He argues that neither a hellish doomsday nor a godlike omnipotence is likely to occur.

The state of political accords is also a matter of concern as per the author. We have now traversed three decades since the UN’s first climate summit and there still exists no binding global pact to temper annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Overall, How the World Really Works is a challenging read. It teems with data and statistics, which may be too much for certain readers to handle. While some of his assertions may be controversial, Smil’s book serves as a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand the true mechanics of the world.

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