Book review – How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future

8-minute read

The complexity of modern civilization is somewhat of a double-edged sword. It has brought great advances in human health and well-being, yet a full understanding of the sum-total of our knowledge of how the world works is now far beyond any single person. Consequently, getting people to agree on how to tackle complex problems becomes this much harder. In How The World Really Works, energy expert and policy analyst Vaclav Smil provides the big picture of the material and energetic basis undergirding human civilization, and what this means for attempts at addressing climate change. Rich in eye-opening facts and not a little bit opinionated, this is a much-needed reality check that purposefully avoids extreme views of both the techno-optimist and catastrophist kind.

How the World Really Works

How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future, written by Vaclav Smil, published by Viking (a Penguin Books imprint) in January 2022 (hardback, 448 pages)

Czech-Canadian scientist Smil is nowadays a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a prolific polymath, having written some forty books. Some of these have found their way onto my shelves and I previously reviewed his book Growth, which was more a conceptual work that looked at growth in its many guises. Here I finally had the chance to observe him actually apply his considerable knowledge. So, how does the world work according to Smil?

Smil is at his strongest when he focuses his mind on the problem of climate change. Without the title indicating so, it has become the leitmotif underlying this book. Why? Because understanding why dealing with climate change is so challenging requires you to understand a host of other things. The reality is that “we are a fossil-fueled 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 years” (p. 5). The first three chapters focus on helping the reader better understand this. First is energy. Though we have made substantial progress thanks to solar and wind power, energy is so much more than electricity generation. Take transport. I have previously reviewed the downsides of electric cars, but as Smil points out, the under-appreciated concept of power density means that our prime movers (i.e. trucks, ships, and planes) are far harder to power in any other way. Second is food. Heavy machinery, agrochemicals, and especially fertilizer are all possible thanks to fossil fuels. Smil lays out the many challenges with returning to all-organic farming without denying that many improvements can and should be made to both food production and our diet. Third are what Smil calls the four pillars of modern civilization: ammonia (used as artificial fertilizer), plastic, steel, and cement. The first two require fossil fuels as feedstock, while all are energy-intensive to produce. All very mundane substances, but produced in staggering quantities (hundreds of millions to billions of tons annually) to construct the world around us. We have no realistic alternatives ready to produce these substances at those scales. Though politicians love to score points with ambitious decarbonization pledges, “the gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast” (p. 6).

“Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two.”

It is exactly when Smil takes his mind off the challenge of climate change that the book starts to meander a bit. Though I consider his chapters on the long history of globalization and our understanding and misunderstanding of risks enlightening, they feel somewhat out of place. These chapters form an interlude before Smil seemingly collects his thoughts again to discuss the long history of our understanding of climate change and the problems with future outlooks and quantitative forecasts.

The final two chapters are also where Smil is more opinionated. He is clear from the start: “I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works” (p. 6). He neither tries to downplay nor demonize the price and problems of our progress but simply states: this is where we are now, and this is what it would take to change our civilization in a certain direction. Of course, people rarely like to be told plain but painful truths. Already, he will piss off the vegans when he writes that “the quest for mass-scale veganism is doomed to fail” (p. 72), even if both here and elsewhere he advocates that the developed world should reduce its meat intake. But his biggest beef is with the tendency of public discourse around climate change to gravitate towards extremes of either techno-optimism or catastrophism. And he fully expects that his “perspective will find no favor with either doctrine” (p. 9). The “data worshippers” (p. 4) who think our online world will bring about total dematerialization ignore its material basis, while “the new tech crowd” (p. 199) who fixate on recent developments in electronics fail to realise that “existential imperatives [think food and water] do not belong to the category of microprocessors and mobile phones [which] are just small devices at the apex of an enormous pyramid of an industry” (p. 217–218). He has choice words for renewable energy advocates too for thinking that, if only we follow “all-renewable prescriptions[,] a new global nirvana will arrive in just a decade” (p. 196). Why does he find this so infuriating? Because “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 detached from technical and economic realities” (p. 193). But he is similarly dismissive of the revival of apocalyptic visions around climate change: “catastrophists are wrong, time after time” (p. 212).

“Everyone can name clear examples of living and non-living things. However, as so often in biology, there is no sharp demarcation between the two.”

Personally, I found Smil’s down-to-earth bluntness refreshing. He does sometimes veer into grumpy-old-man territory, lashing out at social media and writing of “gullible minds, susceptible to cult-like visions” (p. 4). Judging by reviews I have read, some find this arrogant, ivory-tower preaching, though to me it just comes across as comical. Rather, what struck me is that his arguments show that catastrophist thinkers are right to be concerned. I was surprised that he is less outspoken here than in Growth where he explicitly mentioned the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. In this book, he seems less concerned about the exhaustion of mineral resources, though I do not quite understand why. Reserves of some materials will likely last us centuries, but when you write that, at 2020 production levels, gas and potassium are estimated to last us 50 and 90 years respectively, I am alarmed. I find that a freakishly short time. And he does not mention the snag presented by energy returned on energy invested. Reserves are not just in a simple container that you can gradually pour out; not everything is economically extractable and we have to go to ever-more extreme lengths to get at what is left, as evidenced by e.g. fracking or tar sands. His points in the final chapter about the difficulty and fallibility of long-term projections are well-taken. And yet, Smil, more than anyone else I know, has carefully considered and quantified the immense challenges of making changes to our complex societies because of their scale and inertia. And he spells out here why rapid decarbonization can only be achieved by making sacrifices utterly impalatable to the vast majority of people. Plus, he points out what I had not considered yet: the problem of delayed rewards. Even drastic reductions to emissions “will not show any convincing benefits for decades” (p. 225) due to the complexity and inertia of our climate system, which will make enacting and maintaining such drastic measures unlikely. In light of all this, I was struck by Smil’s staunch, if not stubborn agnosticism regarding our future.

Finally, a note on the book’s title. Though Smil mentions e.g. the problem of overconsumption, he does not go into the confluence of political and economical forces that allow and stimulate capitalism. He does not explore how the world works in that sense but sticks firmly to the physical basis. To me, that is fine. Smil avoids the god complex of many older authors who venture far outside their field of expertise. And he seems well aware of the dangers of doing so, judging by his amusing swipe at linguist Noam Chomsky who “adds energy as his latest field of expertise” (p. 196) by promoting the Green New Deal.

Despite some meanderings, this factually grounded book provides some eye-opening insights and a much-needed reality check.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

How the World Really Works

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  1. Great review. One remark though: Chomsky is a political scientist too, and if Smil frames him as just a linguist, he clearly underestimates Chomsky’s deep knowledge of international affairs, and I suspect he might have ideological reason’s to do so.

    Liked by 1 person

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