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How the World Really Works: A Scientist's Guide to Our Past, Present and Future

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This is his magnum opus. It distils his over 40 academic books into one peerlessly authoritative yet accessible masterpiece


First published May 10, 2022

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About the author

Vaclav Smil

84 books3,702 followers
Vaclav Smil Ph.D. (Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of Pennsylvania State University, 1971; RNDr., Charles University, Prague, 1965), is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 876 reviews
Profile Image for Kevin.
289 reviews919 followers
September 12, 2022
How Society Works, minus Capitalism?!

--I was eager to read Bill Gates’ favourite author explain “how the world really works”, to unpack their ideology. While Gates is a liberal (i.e. cosmopolitan capitalism, see later) technocrat with more enthusiasm towards technocratic fixes (he made his fortune as a software capitalist after all), Smil turns out to be more resolute on the fossil fuel paradigm and curiously dismissive of digital technocracy. My rating is most conflicted between materialism vs. liberalism…

The Good: (Liberal) Materialism:
--“As I noted in the opening chapter, I am not a pessimist or an optimist, I am a scientist. There is no agenda in understanding how the world really works.”
--We will address the “agenda” later when we discuss ideology (liberalism), although it keeps creeping in as I attempt to praise Smil’s focus on real-world physical conditions (science’s materialism):

1) Scientific literacy:
i) Public’s comprehension deficit: Smil notes the “comprehension deficit” where science is a black box of increasing complexity, in particular the materialism of what I’ll call Industrial capitalism (in contrast to digital/Finance capitalism). While the term “capitalism” is absent from this book, we predictably get major slips away from narrow materialism and into social science:
The other major reason for the poor, and declining, understanding of those fundamental processes that deliver energy (as food or as fuels) and durable materials (whether metals, non-metallic minerals, or concrete) is that they have come to be seen as old-fashioned—if not outdated—and distinctly unexciting compared to the world of information, data, and images. The proverbial best minds do not go into soil science and do not try their hand at making better cement; instead they are attracted to dealing with disembodied information, now just streams of electrons in myriads of microdevices. From lawyers and economists to code writers and money managers, their disproportionately high rewards are for work completely removed from the material realities of life on earth. [Emphases added]
...The last sentence is particularly revealing, as critical social science has focused on capitalism's value system:
-intro: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works—and How It Fails
-source: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1
…As for science, my go-to for making science public is Ben Goldacre (intro: Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks; best-of: I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That), who is thankfully a step ahead in acknowledging the economic (capitalist) forces behind science in society; while Goldacre focuses on for-profit media and industries misrepresenting/exploiting “science”, we can add the contradiction of for-profit industries needing technicians thus certain sciences in academia. Also: short-term absentee investors/speculators.
ii) Specialist silos: Smil focuses on increasing complexity leading to specializations, thus silos and lack of synthesis/general knowledge. Goldacre considers the split between the physical sciences vs. humanities/social sciences, referring to The Two Cultures. My patience for Smil is a result of (some of) the academic Left’s detours away from material conditions (mirroring capitalism?), ending in the undicepherable and the vaporous (ex. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?).

2) Materialist tool-kit:
i) Scale: as someone fascinated with systems (Thinking in Systems: A Primer), Smil’s focus on “orders of magnitude” is worth more practice.
ii) Risk: the section on diet was murky, which reflects the difficulty in research methodology for the topic (long-term, too many variables/variations). The morbidity/mortality section had a useful distinction on risk perception/tolerance, where actions perceived as “voluntary” (ex. driving/smoking) receive much higher risk tolerance than those perceived as “involuntary” (ex. vaccine mandates/nuclear energy). Add the new unknown/fear to the latter. Neat mention of reinsurance companies insuring extra high risks for insurance companies (always wonder how the insurance industry is managing ecological crises given their failures with financial crises). I once again turn to Goldacre for practical examples.

3) Matter + energy:
--“Simply put, energy is the only truly universal currency” is Smil’s best take on economics; see The New Economics: Manifesto.
--Smil is very skeptical of a speedy Green Transition given the history of prior energy transitions, the scale of fossil fuel use/infrastructure and increasing energy demands:
i) Electricity generation: greening this is relatively easy but only 18% of global energy consumption (Gates seems more optimistic on the spillover effects).
ii) Industrial production: Smil focuses on the difficulties here, esp. fossil fuels currently required to produce the “four pillars of modern civilization” (ammonia/steel/concrete/plastics). Smil ranks ammonia #1, describing it as feeding 40-50% of the world (as artificial fertilizer) and praising the high yields since the 1960’s “Green Revolution”. Add a Mao famine one-liner, and we have a big ol’ mess to unpack:
...“Mao was responsible for the deadliest famine in history (1958–1961), and when he died in 1976 the country’s per capita food supply was hardly better than when he had proclaimed the existence of the communist state in 1949.”
…This is the sloppy Western liberal framing we expect, extrapolating from specific points (“high yields”, “per capita”), playing to Western ignorance/fearmongering of “socialist famines” (never mind the preconditions, i.e. colonial famines: Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World) while omitting the social needs distributive successes (land reforms, social Commons for public health/literacy/welfare/housing etc.) of the “Red Revolution”.
...Just see how these Global South liberals (less willing/able to evade their realities perhaps) compare China's communist party path vs. India's parliamentary “democracy” capitalist path (bottom of review): Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Meanwhile, Smil mentions “redistribution” once, in a study cited: “[…] 10.2 billion could be supported with the redistribution of cropland, better water and nutrient management, food waste reduction, and dietary adjustments.”
…I’ve yet to read a definitive work critically unpacking the “Green Revolution” vs. agroecology, with A People’s Green New Deal being the most compelling application so far.
iii) Household consumption: since Smil evades capitalism’s growth-or-crash short-term profit-driven logic (with its polluting externalities + planned obsolescence + colossal advertising industry creating consumerist addiction), specific plans on the production-side are skipped in favor of the consumer-side (such a low leverage point from a systems perspective!). Examples include better building insulation and eating a bit less meat. That's change and crisis management for a liberal!
iv) Transportation: Smil focuses on the challenge of sufficient energy density to fulfill globalization's long-distance transportation needs (trucking/shipping/flying).

4) Ecological sciences:
--Smil seems to think his audience would refer elsewhere and basically skips this, framing the uncertainties in a centrist manner. I.e. don’t believe the hype, be it dystopic (ex. Limits to Growth technocrats) or utopic (ex. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined). Referring to the “process of climate change” as a “gradual transformation” may seem logical on a geological time scale, but human society concerns do not start at that scale. Consider: Smil downplays COVID-19 by contextualizing pandemics as self-limiting, with 4 in the 20th century, yet consider the social disruption of just COVID-19!
--Useful supplements:
-Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System
-Earth System Science: A Very Short Introduction

...I'll have to fit the rest of the review ("The Bad" and "A Synthesis") in the comments below...
Profile Image for Joshua.
Author 1 book39 followers
May 20, 2022
This was an extremely frustrating book. For someone who claims that we need to have humility when thinking about the future, Vaclav Smil comes across as arrogant and surprisingly poorly informed. Where do I even start...

1). Decarbonization. While Smil is correct that we can't decarbonize as fast as green pundits claim, he also makes predictions for increasing carbonization across the global south. This will prove to be impossible, because of the realities of peak oil (which happened in 2018) and the economics of increasingly expensive energy extraction. Smil mentions this but somehow doesn't put two and two together? In the early days of 2022, these predictions have not aged well.

2). Nuclear. Nuclear is no more a solution to our energy issues than fossil fuels. It will be depleted in the next 100 years, and if we scale up usage, significantly faster. There are also significant issues with waste, and the general problem of electrification. Smil acknowledges all of these facts, but advocates for nuclear anyway?

3). Veganism. This one was the most annoying to me. Smil claims plant-based diets are not necessarily more healthy by looking at life expectancy in Spain and Japan and contrasting their diets, claiming that meat consumption tracks lifespan increases. He fails to take into account time lag (people eating meat rich diets now will only become sick later in life), and throws out a ton of great studies (7th day adventists, china study) because he doesn't like nutrition research. Talk about arrogance. Oh and get this: calls for more milk consumption in Africa. Despite the fact that most of the continent is lactose intolerant. And adult milk consumption is unnatural and unhealthy. What bullshit.

4). Organic Agriculture: Smil claims that we can't get enough nitrogen from organic sources to grow adequate food to support our population. This is not true. Ecology action ( John Jevons How to Grow more vegetables) has shown that we can support one person on 4,000 square feet on a vegan diet, which is about 30 people per hectare. Current global needs are 5 people per hectare. And this is without humane (specifically urine) recycling. Again: ignorance.

5). Dismissal of catastrophists: While Smil is again correct that catastrophists have been repeatedly wrong, he fails to adequately dismiss their actual arguments (rather just relying on dismissing their claimed end dates). How will we deal with key mineral (metals and fossil fuel) shortages, as well as degradation of farmland and natural waste sinks like forests and wetlands? While I agree the doomers are incorrect, Smil's emphasis on business as usual fails to take into account the very real shortages in material goods and energy that we are facing, and will face.
Profile Image for Kalyan Turaga.
113 reviews11 followers
March 16, 2022
Same as his old books. Vaclav is good at numbers, he connects the numbers and constructs a narrative; at the end of the day its a statistics book masqueraded as a coherent english book.
Is the book interesting NO
Will you read this book again NO
Why did you pick this book in first place? It's near to my topic of interest and I did not have good choices in the library.
Profile Image for Avi Roy.
38 reviews20 followers
April 17, 2022
The book is an antidote to the unbridled techno-optimism and the cynical environmental doom offered by dogmatic experts on social media.

Vaclav Smil has always been a detail-oriented thinker and writer, and his books have been dense volumes filled with every tidbit of information about the subject matter covered. However, in this book, he simplifies his previous research into seven easily digestible chapters that allow us to think about the future rationally while avoiding hyperbole and bias.

I highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Benny.
172 reviews14 followers
April 4, 2022
Vaclav Smil is a realist. When most people talk about carbon neutrality, what they have in mind is that the electricity grid of a country will be powered by mostly energy from renewable sources. However, the production of the four pillars of our material world - food, plastic, steel and concrete - requires a large energy input, which can only be powered by fuel and natural gas. Unless we come to major breakthroughs in how we produce these necessities, the carbon footprint of our modern world will continue to stay stubbornly high.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,399 reviews591 followers
November 9, 2022

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

How the World Really Works could be considered the capstone to Vaclav Smil’s impressive career in interdisciplinary research and analysis: having written over 40 books and 500 papers, he is considered “the” world-leading expert on energy (amongst other topics), and this current book attempts to synthesise and present what he knows to be fact in a world of increasing polarisation and misinformation. There was much that I found interesting here — so much about the functioning of our material world (from energy, container shipping, and food production, to the noninevitability of globalisation and the curiously out-of-touch human perception of risk) that I have accepted without examining — but I couldn’t help but be turned off by Smil’s frequently smug and superior tone (accented with snide asides and exclamation marks!) I liked that Smil positioned himself between the eco-doomsayers and the techno-optimists — calling that the rational middleground as we humans have never been good at predicting the future — but while I enjoyed the factoids, I’m still annoyed by the tone; my three stars are a refusal to take a stand on this book.

Inevitably, this book — the product of my life’s work, and written for the layperson — is a continuation of my long-lasting quest to understand the basic realities of the biosphere, history, and the world we have created. And it also does, yet again, what I have been steadfastly doing for decades: it strongly advocates for moving away from extreme views. Recent (and increasingly strident or increasingly giddy) advocates of such positions will be disappointed: this is not the place to find either laments about the world ending in 2030 or an infatuation with astonishingly transformative powers of artificial intelligence arriving sooner than we think. Instead, this book tries to provide a foundation for a more measured and necessarily agnostic perspective. I hope that my rational, matter-of-fact approach will help readers to understand how the world really works, and what our chances are of seeing it offer better prospects to the coming generations.

Right from the start, Smil stresses that decarbonising the economy (giving up fossil fuels) is a near-term impossibility because of the way our world is built (not to mention the staggering amounts of fossil fuels that go into, for instance, the manufacture and transport of a single wind turbine; not to mention the fact that he doesn’t believe there is an alternative to jet fuel for long distance flight; not to mention that Germany decommissioned their nuclear power plants and spent billions on solar technology that has eased their fossil fuel consumption by a percentage point or two.) A major thrust of the book concerns what Smill refers to as the four pillars of the modern world and he records that in 2019, we collectively consumed 4.5 billion tons of cement, 1.8 billion tons of steel, 370 million tons of plastics, and 150 million tons of ammonia. He makes the case that each of these essential consumables could not easily (if ever) be replaced by a more eco-friendly alternative, and as each of them requires massive amounts of fossil fuels for their production, he explains:

Global production of these four indispensable materials claims about 17 percent of the world’s primary energy supply, and 25 percent of all CO₂ emissions originating in the combustion of fossil fuels — and currently there are no commercially available and readily deployable mass-scale alternatives to displace these established processes.

Smil reports that the global annual demand for fossil carbon is around 10 billion tons, and while affluent economies (including China) give lip service to reducing consumption, it is reasonable to expect emerging economies (especially those in India and Africa) to ramp up their consumption in order to provide their citizens with the benefits of modern materials (as in the hygienic benefits of cement floors or the use of nitrogen-rich fertilisers to improve crop yields). Smil does make it clear that he’s not denying the ill effects of our carbonised economy, but he stresses that catastrophists calling for “net zero by whatever year” can’t will it into being without addressing how the world really works; this doesn’t come down to individuals giving up gas-fuelled cars and abandoning the suburbs (which are the kind of decisions that are ours to make, but which have an incredibly negligible effect on the big picture.)

An example of Smil snarking on the eco-catastrophists:

Some prophecies claim that we might only have about a decade left to avert a global catastrophe, and in January 2020 Greta Thunberg went as far as to specify just eight years. Just a few months later, the president of the UN’s General Assembly gave us 11 years to avert a complete social collapse whereupon the planet will be simultaneously burning (suffering unquenchable summer-long fires) and inundated with water (via a rapid sea-level rise). But, nihil novi sub sole: in 1989, another high UN official said that “government have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control,” which means that by now we must be quite beyond the beyond, and that our very existence might be only a matter of Borgesian imagination. I am convinced that we could do without this continuing flood of never-less-than-worrisome and too-often-quite-frightening predictions. How helpful is it to be told every day that the world is coming to an end in 2050 or even 2030?

And snarking on the techno-utopians

Crises expose realities and strip away obfuscation and misdirection. The response of the affluent world to COVID-19 deserves a single ironic comment: Homo deus indeed!

And, after making some good points about how, even forty years ago (despite having microchips and container ships, understanding the greenhouse effect) no one could have predicted the world we are living in today (and especially the offshoring of jobs that led to both rust belt America and the economic surge of China) Smil snarks on the futility of making predictions at all:

In the past, this tendency toward dichotomy was often described as the clash of catastrophists and cornucopians, but these labels appear to be too timid to reflect the recent extreme polarization of sentiments. And this polarization has been accompanied by a greater propensity for dated quantitative forecasts. You see them everywhere, from cars (worldwide sales of electric passenger vehicles will reach 65 million by 2040) and carbon (the EU will have net-zero carbon emissions by 2037). Or so we’re told. In reality, most of these forecasts are no better than simple guesses: any number for 2050 obtained by a computer model primed with dubious assumptions — or, even worse, by a politically expedient decision — has a very brief shelf life. My advice: if you would like a better understanding of what the future may look like, avoid these new-age dated prophecies entirely, or use them primarily as evidence of prevailing expectations and biases.

Again: Smil does write, “There is something new as we look ahead, that unmistakably increasing (albeit not unanimous) conviction that, of all the risks we face, global climate change is the one that needs to be tackled most urgently and effectively.” And it would seem that this entire book exists to make the point that decarbonising the economy would take a global accord to fundamentally change the way that our world actually works — at great cost to people alive today who probably won’t live to reap the benefits — and that both the eco-doomsayers and the techno-optimists are a distraction from actual reality. And, admittedly, this was worth wading through the snark to arrive at.

Being agnostic about the distant future means being honest: we have to admit the limits of our understanding, approach all planetary challenges with humility, and recognize that advances, setbacks, and failures will all continue to be a part of our evolution and that there can be no assurance of (however defined) ultimate success, no arrival at any singularity — but, as long as we use our accumulated understanding with determination and perseverance, there will also not be an early end of days. The future will emerge from our accomplishments and failures, and while we might be clever (and lucky) enough to foresee some of its forms and features, the whole remains elusive even when looking just a generation ahead.
Profile Image for Sai Krishna.
15 reviews3 followers
May 2, 2022
I eat fossil fuel.
I live in fossil fuel.
I commute in fossil fuel.
Fossil fuel is God. Period.

If I elaborate,

I eat(cheaply and abundant) because of the higher yields in rice, wheat and many vegetable crops with advent of fertilisers. why higher yield is a precondition? With normal yields - land, water and man labour is many orders higher and so we would not be able to feed 8 Billion population. Ammonia required for fertilisers is produced mainly by using Natural Gas, Liquified Petroleum Gas or Coal. Emissions from these account for 5% of total.

I live in a 2 bedroom, concreted cement, steel enforced apartment and more so equipped with all the latest consumer products where their primary composition includes plastic. These three pillars Cement, Steel and Plastic account for around 20% of CO2 emissions. Ubiquity of plastic can be seen right from the birth(maternity wards) to death(ICU’s). And not to forget the electricity(highest of all the emissions) needed to run all the latest gadgets is primarily powered by fossil fuel.

I commute in fossil fuel. No surprises here.(Electric mobility share is mere 2.5%)

Fossil fuels are a perennial imperative to the modern 8 billion people hosting planet. This dependency has been there for a century, and will be there for decades to come(as per author), albeit many techno-optimists and governments prophesying we will be net-zero by 2050.
Profile Image for Raghu.
392 reviews77 followers
June 28, 2022
In the recent decades, the world has witnessed two types of extreme forecasts about its future. The ‘climate change’ gurus and environmentalists have predicted doom for the world unless we transform into a zero-carbon world by 2050. They keep telling us the Earth is becoming hot and unlivable. Their projection is that sea water will invade coastal cities, forest fires would rage and glaciers and polar ice would melt. The other extreme comes from the techno-optimists. They believe Artificial Intelligence and new generations of microchips would solve most of our problems. Agriculture would move from fields to high-rise. Synthetic food products would reduce the need to grow food. Some of them, who could afford, may move to the planet of Mars and start a fresh, human colony. In this book, Prof. Vaclav Smil says such fantastic scenarios occupy the data streams, because the gap between delusion and reality is vast. He feels it is inexcusable that most of us do not grasp the core things about how modern life and the technologies that keep us alive function. He is concerned that the public is abandoning its grip on reality. ‘How the World Really Works’ is Smil’s effort to redress the balance. It shows the fundamentals of how we grow food, how we make the built environment and maintain it, and how we power all of this.

In seven chapters, Prof. Smil explains reality as it exists. It comprises energy, food production, our material world, globalization, the environment, our risks, and what the future holds. Appreciation of these realities would temper the wild enthusiasm about a carbon-free future in two decades and combat the despair of impending apocalypse in ten years. We learn the following essential lessons from the book: Our societies have increased their dependence on fossil fuels and electricity as its most flexible form of energy. It will be impossible to feed the world adequately without using fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are indispensable for making ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics, aka the four pillars of modern civilization. Rapid decarbonization of the Earth is an illusion and climate accords are not worth their name on paper. I shall give below a flavor to the author’s data-based approach to these arguments.

In food production, agricultural mechanization and synthetic agrochemicals have created a revolution between 1800 and 2020, reducing the labor needed to produce a kilogram of grain by 98 percent. Machines for pumping water, processing and drying crops, transporting harvests by trucks, trains and barges are all fossil fuel-intensive. So are the processes for making tractors, implements, combines, trucks, and silos. Producing agrochemicals demands even larger amounts of fossil fuels. Production of fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers that supply nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium consume vast amounts of fossil fuel energy to ensure the high crop yields. It is a facile argument to say that we can do the same with organic farming and renewables. Without chemical fertilizers, a hectare of land yielded 2 tons of corn in 1920. Today, the yield is 11 tons with synthetic fertilizers. Organic matter has low nitrogen content. Cereal straw, manure mixed with straw, fermented human waste and manure have between 0.3 and 4.0 percent of nitrogen. Solid nitrogen fertilizer contains 46% and ammonium nitrate 33%. This means the farmer must apply 10-40 times the mass of manure to supply the same amount of nutrient. It is no wonder most countries have adopted synthetic fertilizer-driven agriculture. There is inescapable evidence that our food supplies, whether grains, vegetables, birds, or seafood, have an indispensable need for fossil fuels.

Next, we come to the four pillars of modern civilization. In 2019, the world consumed 4.5 billion tons of cement, 1.8 billion tons of steel, 370 million tons of plastics and 150 million tons of ammonia. They are not replaceable by other materials soon. Such mass-scale production of these materials depends on using a high volume of fossil fuels. For example, eighty percent of global ammonia is used to fertilize crops. The rest is used to make nitric acid, explosives, rocket propellents, dyes, fibres and window/floor cleaners. Plastics are essential in our hospitals. Tubes feeding patients, delivering oxygen, monitoring blood pressure, catheters, intravenous containers, sterile packaging, basins, bedpans, thermal blankets, blood bags are all made from plastic. Most of us know how essential steel and cement are for our daily lives. The global production of these four ‘pillars’ claims 17% of the world’s energy supply and 25% of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. As of today, there are no available alternatives for these processes using renewables in the world of commerce.

The author then examines the many ‘clean energy nirvanas’ proposed by experts of the European Union and the US. The first nirvana is the limiting of global warming to just 1.5 deg Celsius by the end of the century. EU researchers say we can achieve it by reducing the average global per capita energy demand in 2050 by 52 percent compared to 2020. Is it sensible to assume the global energy demand in the next thirty years can get halved to what it is today? The period 1990-2020 showed global energy demand rise by 20%. Household consumption has been rising in all affluent nations. Car ownership rose by 13% in the EU between 2005-2017. China’s ownership of cars rose by a hundred-fold between 2000 and 2020.. Would India and Nigeria be any different? A low-energy world in 2050 looks unrealistic.

The second nirvana is reaching total decarbonization by 2050. Princeton University researchers concede fossil fuel emissions will keep rising to 2050. So the only way to reach this goal is by mass-scale carbon capture and storage. That means the capture of 1 to 1.7 gigatons of CO2 every year. It would need an altogether new gas capture, transportation and storage industry, handling 1.3 - 2.4 times the volume of today’s US crude oil production. This industry took 160 years and trillions of dollars to build to today’s capacity. The carbon storage would be on the Texas Gulf Coast with 110,000 kilometers of new CO2 pipelines. In today’s litigious and NIMBY (not in my backyard) resistance, it can take many decades for the planning, permissions and construction of these pipelines. That would lead to expensive cost overruns. The non-existent San Jose - San Francisco high-speed rail line, twenty-five years after the initial proposal, is an example.

The third nirvana, Prof. Smil says, looks even more bizarre. It is the Green New Deal of the US democrats which outlines 80% of global energy supply to be decarbonized by 2030 using wind, water, and solar (WWS) energy. The media, politicians, billionaires, and experts sell this nirvana. If this is achievable, why are we even spooking the world with a climate apocalypse? The plan does not outline how we will produce the four pillars of cement, ammonia, plastics and steel using only renewable energy. How the engines of globalization - shipping, flying and trucking - would be 80% decarbonized by 2030? Prof. Smil reminds us that in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, Germany went on a headlong quest to decarbonize with solar, wind, and biofuels. It boosted the share of solar and wind by 40%. Still, by 2020, Germany’s share of fossil fuel went down only from 84% to 76%. To achieve the 2030 goal, we have no magic wand to supply Africa, India and China with 90% of all their energy with renewables.

Experts like Bill Gates use phrases like ‘climate change is an existential threat’, without ever clarifying how. Democratic politician Ocasio-Cortez gave us time only till 2030 to ‘save the planet.’ Prof. Smil says most of the climate apocalypse gets prompted by taking the projections of climate models as scientific truths. We must see the climate models as heuristic exercises, a base for thinking about options and approaches and not prescient descriptions of the future. For example, the models developed in 1980 would not have included the meteoric rise of China in the next three decades and its impact on the atmosphere. National fortunes of Africa and Asia are not predictable with precision, but they affect climate outcomes if CO2 is the major element in climate change. The predictions about the future are to be used only as evidence of prevailing expectations and biases. Dubious assumptions and politically expedient decisions influence the numbers quoted for 2050 by computer models. Examples are the projections of 56 million electric passenger vehicles by 2040, net-zero carbon emissions in the EU by 2050, 8.2 billion global flying travelers by 2037, etc. Most of these forecasts have no more credibility than guesses.

The phenomenon of outlandish techno-predictions is not something new in the modern era. Prior to 1980, leading companies and scientists expected nuclear fission to eliminate all other forms of electricity generation in the not-too-distant future. They expected fast-breeder reactors to replace the earlier ones, producing more energy than they consumed. Others envisaged nuclear-powered flight, production of natural gas using nuclear explosions, and carving out new harbors through nuclear explosives. Negative predictions using computer models also dominated the world’s consciousness in the 1960s and 70s through absurd population explosion theories and the complete depletion of natural resources. Prof. Smil warns us not to be deceived into believing similar theories today as original or correct.

The techno-optimists think all revolutionary changes in the twenty-first century can happen in a decade. They don’t recognize that the vast scale of transformation is a major problem we face in displacing fossil fuel by new renewables. In the 1920s, it was possible to replace wood with coal because the total energy demand was an order of magnitude lower in 1920 than it was in 2020. Now, the world produces 4 billion tons of cement and 2 billion tons of steel every year. Even though the supply of new renewables increased fifty-fold in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, fossil carbon decreased only from 87% to 85%. Most of even this small decline was because of expanded hydroelectric generation. Prof. Smil believes even a fourfold increase in the recent pace of decarbonization would still leave fossil carbon dominant by 2050.

The author explains why learned people make such mistakes. The reason is they assign a quality or action to something that belongs to things of another category. This practice is behind the frequent, mistaken conclusion that everything can move faster at the pace of digital technology. Existential imperatives are not like microchips, doubling in capacity every eighteen months. Growing crops, producing and converting vast quantities of primary energies, building infrastructures, extracting minerals, manufacturing and distributing products have their own pace and constraints. Covid-19 showed humankind its limitations in combating a pandemic, despite our hubris of defeating nature. We had to live much like in medieval times, when people hunkered in their homes and avoided contact with one another. We emptied our cities and waited for the virus to tire of its dance. Science saved us with its brilliant mRNA vaccines and the internet mitigated the trauma of our daily lives. But the virus tempered our techno-hubris and arrogant fantasies.

Prof. Vaclav Smil concludes his book with the assertion that he is neither a pessimist nor an optimist, but just a scientist. When approaching the future, a realistic grasp of our past, present and uncertain future is the best foundation. Most likely, the future would be a mixture of progress and setbacks, of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and near-miraculous advances. The future is not pre-determined, but depends on our actions.

This book gives a rational, scientific account of where we are and how we got here. It shows us the fundamentals of where we can hope to be in a decade. Trying to predict beyond that horizon is irrational. All pundits and laypersons would benefit from reading the book.
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books292 followers
June 10, 2022
This is a gripping and intense book, one which will leave most readers more knowledgeable and less happy.

How the World Really Works has one clear point to make: that transitioning the world away from fossil fuels is much, much harder than it seems. To make this case Smil presents a torrent of research and calculations on a planet-wide range of issues, from how to fix nitrogen to the amount of oxygen available to humanity. Clearly organized and written, Smil hammers this point home relentlessly.
Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances.(5)

One of the major reasons for this skepticism about a post-carbon future is that civilization requires a lot of materials which rely on fossil fuels to exist. In one harsh chapter Smil identities four major ones: ammonia, a crucial input for food; plastics, extensively used throughout our lives; steel; concrete.
In 2019, the world consumed about 4.5 billion tons of cement, 1.8 billions tons of steel, 370 million tons of plastics, and 150 million tons of ammonia, and they are not readily replaceable by other materials - certainly not in the near future or on a global scale. (78)
Modern economies will always be tied to massive material flows, whether those of ammonia-based fertilizers to feed the still-growing global population; plastics, steel, and cement needed for new tools, machines, structures, and infrastructures; or new inputs required to produce solar cells, wind turbines, electric cards, and storage batteries. And until all energies used to extract and process these materials come from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in the production of these indispensable materials. (102)

Another reason is the sheer tidal force of human demand for more and better material goods. How the World Really Works doesn't see people in the west turning to voluntary simplicity or degrowth, nor does he think the developing world will stop, well, developing.
[N]on-carbon energies could completely displace fossil carbon in a matter of one to three decades ONLY if we were willing to take substantial cuts to the standard of living in all affluent countries and deny the modernizing nations of Asia and Africa improvements in their collective lots by even a fraction of what China has done since 1980. (200)

I said this was clearly written, and it is. One stylistic quirk might irk readers. Smil has a tendency to mockery and dismissal of anyone he disagrees with. Politicians, nonprofit leaders, science fiction writers, futurists (ahem), and others routinely receive the snide treatment. The text is immensely assured and wants to demolish the opposition.

Can we oppose this book? With a heavy heart I don't think so. I've seen versions of Smil's argument elsewhere, notably the point about fossil fuels for food. While I've been examining the political/economic literature around no-growth, degrowth, etc., I agree with the author that such a mindset revolution is unlikely to have any impact.

If he's correct, we should set aside the more optimistic climate change forecasts and prepare for a world where temperatures rise by at least 3 degrees centigrade.
Profile Image for Madly Jane.
620 reviews130 followers
August 2, 2022
I've been sitting here looking at the screen thinking how to write this review. While I read this book, I did related research and have spent weeks on it, more than the dates listed. I am laughing, because I read this book because it was attacked by two very good scholarly friends of mine. As a Leftie, I was very skeptical of a book titled this, and I had never read this author previously. But this is a beautiful summary of our reality and it has deeply affected me.

The first chapter is Understanding Energy which is a basic account of what energy is, how it is used globally. I was very fascinated about electricity because it's not like you can hold it in your hands like a can of oil. It's mysterious and powerful. Other forms of energy are like that, too, and it was pure science in the way that Smil explained what energy is and how it developed and how it is used. This chapter sets the foundation on how life and the world moves because of energy. Science 101. A general lesson.

But then Smil takes a leap and tells you how we produce food in detail and how energy is used to do that. He calls it Eating Fossil Fuels because producing and transporting food requires a carbon trail. I did not know much of this so I went to the library and read other people, including the two who said not to read Smil. He breaks it all down focusing on Chicken, Bread, and Tomatoes. But he doesn't leave out other crops when talking about nitrogen supply. I am a gardener and I really got caught up in the food chapter and spent over a week or two just on it. I never knew it took so much fertilizer to feed the world. But after research, I do now. Food production is probably one of the most important technologies that we have developed. After all, we have to eat or starve. And believe me, we have starved in history. He even talks about going back to pure organic farming and what that would mean. I checked that out because I always felt that we might could do that. But that's not going to happen.

The easiest chapter came next. Our Material World. This I knew a lot about because my father was an Engineer and I just happened to inherit his papers after he died. Smil calls this chapter The Pillars of the World and it is so true. There are four pillows holding the world up. Ammonia, Plastics, Steel, and Concrete. They are all indispensable at this point in time, but Steel and Concrete make the world we know. They shape it. Rome had cement roads and buildings and so do we. There are several ingredients that make up our current mixtures, all depending on use. We have concrete and steel everywhere, from buildings to highways to the mats cabled with steel mesh that are lowered in the bottom of the Mississippi River for erosion and flooding. It would take pages and pages to list all the items that deal with Ammonia, Plastics, Steel, and Concrete. A big book of them. That's part of our reality. And it is all carbonized.

These three chapters, energy, food, and materials are all about what really makes up our world. What we use every single day. How we make it, how we use it, and why it is needed. Our economies and lives are tied tightly to these material things. I do not believe we could ever do without them.

Smil asks 'How can we make these things with less carbon.' Hopefully we will create new technologies to help us.

The rest of the book is equal parts disturbing and up lifting. I could hardly decide. We have to understand how globalization works, how it developed, and where it is going. Also the challenges and negative factors. And how this gets politicized. I think it was very hard for me to deal with this chapter and perhaps this is where my two friends were in disagreement. Mostly with Smil's language.
I mean, think about it, why westerners traded with the Far East for spices hundreds of years ago doesn't need explaining. Why Egypt traded with people. Why anyone traded is clear. Each had something the other person wanted. Globalization has been here forever. Borders have been crossed, people have left their homes and went looking for lives in strange places. We have always been moving materials, people, and products from one place to another. We might have used donkeys or camels, or even small boats. Now we use planes and railroads and big ships. What's that line in Dune. The Spice must flow? Well, we are always moving and changing. This will not stop.

The next chapter was also something I knew a lot about Understanding Risks. The world is a scary place really. And we are always working against Nature, I suppose because we are part of it and yet, we are the most developed species. So we think about what we eat, how we spend our money, what to do when we are sick, getting a job and education, and so forth. All of us are the same here. But some of us have more troubles than others, even in just living everyday life. We die in car wrecks, we are shot down on the streets, we get cancer, we fear or not fear Covid, we get vaccines or not get them, we experiment with diets, we buy earthquake insurance on our houses, etc. etc. etc. And Smil, like Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, looks at how we are all biased in our thinking when we calculate risks. We are safer flying than driving a car is one such example. But even I hate to fly and have panic attacks thinking about it. Why? It's certainly not rational. Smil relates this to Covid and to Decarbonization, too. He's laid the groundwork for it in the previous chapters on showing what the world is and how it works, what it needs, right down to how much oil it takes to produce one tomato and the fact that nearly half of all fruit and vegetables that Europe eats are produced in one place in Spain that is is made of plastic and steel and uses fertilizers and water and then later several forms of transportation. One place. Cut that place out and half of Europe's fruits and veggies are gone. It's not politics. It's science.

Understanding the Environment was challenging for me and this is where I did a lot of research, hoping to find any crack in Smil's analysis which is really just writing facts that I double checked. I am on Twitter and I see everything he mentioned in that area. I cringed reading it. It is painful to think that we are in such chaos over Climate Crisis and hardly anything is being done. All the way through this book, Smil makes it clear that many things are not sustainable, but they do exist and we need them. He also refuses to be a fortune teller, when everyone on Twitter is definitely one. It was like being slapped a few times, I think that's good metaphor. With my other research, I began to see the reality of our situation. It is true that we need to decarbonize but it's also true that it will not happen like people are preaching on the news, on Twitter, on Facebook, in the New York Times, on Fox News, in opinion pieces, etc. It's just not true. Because hard science is working against all those claims. I kept asking myself will we have enough food to feed people. And we probably will. It's also obvious that we were not prepared for Covid, and we are not preparing now for any future epidemic and there will be one. Just like we are not telling the facts about what decarbonizing really means. I just know I am humbled now.

The sad truth is this. We need to do things right now to decarbonize, but I will never see the fruits of that labor. I am too old. That's the science of it. If you are 40 and up, you will not see the results of attempting to decarbonize the world. You will not see that change. Because the results are not happening now. There is no instant gratification. So will you pay more for energy when you can't see what it means or does for the future? Will you use less? I don't know.

This is a really good science book. If you hate numbers, you might not like it. Smil is really intelligent and that might bother you, too. But it all checks out really well. It's convincing. And I am a big skeptic. But this is my favorite read this year. I don't think any book will top it. It's made me think in ways that, well, make me uncomfortable and that's a good thing. But I actually feel optimistic now, that maybe we can mitigate some of our problems. I'll probably reread the book and it's highly recommended. My hardworking father who helped build bridges, highways, parking lots, dams, and flood control would have loved it. Some people just talk. Some people make things and change the material world. We need those people.
Profile Image for Barnaby Thieme.
527 reviews243 followers
July 27, 2022
Smil’s outstanding book How the World Really Works provides a data-based survey of the material and energetic foundations of the modern world, looking at electricity and food production and the “four pillars of civilization,” cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. It serves two primary purposes: to give an overall conceptual account of how the world works, per the title; and to give a factual context for rationally analyzing and discussing climate change.

As a conceptual account of the world, this book is extraordinarily useful and and illuminating. I learned about celular mitosis and trigonometry in secondary school, but not about how the clothes you buy at a department store are made and shipped from China, how we keep managing to feed an ever-growing population, how much steel we produce annually, or whether we’re in any danger of running out. (And, seriously, why not? How is the periodic table more important to know?)

Fortunately, the legendary polymath and quantifier of the big picture Vaclav Smil has come to the rescue, in what could very well be his most useful book for the general reader.

Throughout the book, but especially in the closing chapters, Smil makes a thoroughly-convincing argument that a basic factual understanding of the technological foundations of the world is necessary to cut through the bad information circulating in the climate change conversation. Many forecasts and strategies for dealing with the problem have no factual basis, such as calls for an overnight large-scale switch to solar and wind. Aside from the serious and unsolved problems of long-range transmission and storage for such solutions, he takes Germany as a test case, which has made massive investments in both renewables in the last twenty years and has increased its output many times, but in that same period has only managed to lower its fossil fuel usage by around 3%.

It is not that solar and wind are bad solutions, it is just that the realities are much more complex than facile suggestions embody. Miracle technologies are unlikely to save us overnight, and we can say that with a high degree of certainty, just looking at how heavily we’ve invested in our current infrastructure, and how massive our energy needs are.

If Smil has little use for techno-optimists, he is equally hard on the forecasters of doom. Predicting the future of complex systems has a very poor track record - there are too many unknowns, and humans have turned out to be extremely adaptive in surprising ways. Take food production:

“Catastrophists have always had a hard time imagining that human ingenuity can meet future food, energy, and material needs - but during the past three generations we have done so despite a tripling of the global population. Instead of megadeaths, the share of undernourished people in low-income countries has been steadily declining, from about 40 percent during the 1960s to only about 11 percent by 2019, and average daily per capita food supply in China, the world’s most populous country, is now about 15 percent higher than in Japan.”

Of the authors I've read on climate thus far, Smil has perhaps been the best in threading the needle, neither underselling the magnitude and difficulty of the problem, nor willfully dwelling on the worst possible outcomes in what often feels like expressions of anxiety as much as analyses of a complex problem.

It’s hard to know who to believe among the expert interpreters of complex scientific debates. Reasonable people can draw from different credible research to draw very different conclusions. I think to some degree it comes down to credibility, and for me, Smil ranks as highly credible, for two reasons. First is his use of his sources - I always closely check interesting or important claims for their references, and with Smil, I have pretty much always found that he uses sources responsibly and accurately, which I do not always find with every author. The second is that his point of view strikes me as relentlessly reasonable. Take this, for example:

“Being agnostic about the distant future means being honest: we have to admit the limits of our understanding, approach all planetary challenges with humility, and recognize that advances, setbacks, and failures will continue to be a part of our evolution and that there can be no assurance of (however defined) ultimate success, no arrival at any singularity - but, as long as we use our accumulated understanding with determination and perseverance, there will also not be an early end of days.”

It bothers me when authors seem to want to skip over the uncomfortable uncertainties and get back on what they take to be solid ground. And I really believe one of the most important things anyone can do in approaching this debate is to find ways, going into it, of tolerating the uncertainties and looking at various outcomes in terms of risks and probabilities.

I would recommend this book to pretty much anyone - especially, but not exclusively, anyone interested in climate change, and of those who are, especially to anyone convinced that most of humanity will die of famine around 2050 or that nuclear fusion and carbon capture will solve all of our worries in the next decade.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,447 reviews480 followers
July 17, 2022
This is like reading the phone book (for young people: a very long list of names and numbers). The author mentions this, that and the other thing (fertilizer, steel, cement, etc.) and then cites some related numbers. Overall, it doesn't add up to a coherent theme that justifies the title. It's more a hodgepodge of statistics and speculative interpretations of their meanings, like a supposed connection between ineffectual responses to COVID, flu epidemics and the 2008 financial collapse. But he doesn't do basic scientific thinking to try to distinguish between effectiveness and ineffectiveness of various policies or programs. As a result, he doesn't get at root causes or clarify obvious solutions. Instead he just says we'll make some progress but have inevitable setbacks. Whatever. You don't need to read a book to hear stuff like that.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint

Factfulness Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
The Climate Diet 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint by Paul Greenberg
72 reviews1,657 followers
October 8, 2022
This book selection was a rare deviation from my typical leisure reads. Normally I’m looking for the next fun sci fi thriller – but this time I decided to go for something timely and educational.
Did I learn something from this book? Yes!

I learned a few things:
#1 That this author is a HUGE asshole. Just the worst. He’s supposed to be a genius scientist…? Then why did he write a whole book just arguing with twitter trolls? This book is WILDLY condescending, just off the charts.

#2 This dude thinks he is smart as hell. And maybe he his… but I’m not interested in reading a whole book he wrote just to prove how smart he is… AND – maybe he isn’t? I’m not an expert on much, but I know a little about construction and this dude wrote some stupid shit about construction. Perhaps he fancies himself a bit more of a Jack of All trades than he really is?

#3 OK – in between being insulted and falling asleep, I learned a few cool things about climate change, energy, food production, and risks. HOWEVER – I had to fucking work to learn about those things. He doesn’t understand how to tell a cohesive story or build to a conclusion. It’s a fucking Where’s Waldo game trying to figure out what his actual points are. He loves ‘Starting at the beginning’ and giving you the whole fucking history of diesel engine… but by the end its like – what was the point of all that again? You might assume he is building to a revelation or conclusion... And you would be wrong. (see what I did there?)

So, RATINGS-RATINGS-RATINGS. 2 stars. That’s what you get Vaclav. TWO STARS. And if you’re familiar with my rating system, you’ll know 2 Stars means I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS BOOK. Yes I learned somethings, but you could learn the same shit spending an hour on Wikipedia. THIS DUDE IS OVER RATED AS FUCK.

Maybe you don’t trust me. Maybe you’ve heard good things about this book – or maybe you’re very interested in the topics? OK Darry, Darry OK. I’ll save you the trouble by walking through the book cliff notes style.

The book is organized:

Ch1 – Energy
Ch2 – Food Production
Ch3 – Material World
Ch4 – Globalization
Ch5 – Risks (Global)
Ch6 – Environment
Ch7 – The Future

But lets not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the Title and Subtitle

HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS: The science behind how we got here and where we’re going

They should have put REALLY in bold – because it’s not How the World Works. It’s how the World REALLY Works – the whole thing is an argument against… someone? Against some news anchor? Or some blogger he doesn’t like? I don’t even know. He's just arguing with strangers the whole time.

As a favor, I’ve come up with some more appropriate titles for Mr Smil:

I’m Very Smart: And I know lots of words!
I’m Smarter Than You: And I know lots of facts!
Global Warming: What is it and why are you so fuckin stupid?
Global Warming: There’s nothing your fat ass can do about it
How the World Works: You idiots wouldn’t understand
How the World Works: An old bitch complains about everything

I release my rights to any of those titles for the use of the Viking Publishing Company.

Intro: I mentioned he’s an asshole, but did I mention he’s a SMUG asshole? His intro starts like this: WHY WE NEED THIS BOOK? And the answer is because he’s so smart and you’re so stupid.

Chapter 1 – Energy.
First of all, you dipshits probably don’t even know what Energy Means. Oh… You call them Power Plants? WRONG! You fucking moron. They are Energy Plants. In between insults, he spends most of this chapter explaining how incredible oil is. Compared to burning wood, oil is AMAZING. Coal was good too, but oil… MUAH (Chef’s Kiss). And basically, the incredible energy density of oil is what has allowed for all of modern prosperity. We consume of TON of it. And poor countries need to catch up to our oil consumption. Yes, fossil fuels are causing climate change, but there’s no way to stop using TONS of oil.

Some interesting Facts
- Half the worlds electricity comes from fossil fuels
- 25% of fossil fuel production is used to create electricity
- We have 120 years of Coal reserves
- We have 50 years of Oil reserves
- China is the worlds largest consumer of fossil fuels
- There is literally no other option than Jet Fuel for long range air travel
- Jet Fuel works for planes, but not submarines, otherwise they would float. So subs are nuclear powered.
- There is no good way to store Large amounts of energy, like the amount it takes to run a city for a week. We can’t do it! That’s why green energies are limited.
o In fact, the only practical way to store energy, is to pump water to a high elevation. Can you believe that medieval shit?

Chapter 2 – Food Production: His point is that we have almost mastered agriculture. Like we are Wildly more efficient at producing food than our ancestors. BUT, the key to all that is fossil fuels. The REAL key is fertilizer. And the key to fertilizer is creating ‘reactive’ Nitrogen. And scientists do that using natural gas to create ammonia. Without Fertilizer, many more people would be hungry. Without natural gas, we’d have no fertilizer. He also talks about a lot of obvious things… like how tractors need diesel. Thanks Vaclav.

Some interesting Facts:
- The global mal-nutrition rate is under 10%
- Kansas is US leading Wheat Producer
- It takes 2.5 cups of diesel to make one loaf of bread
- IT takes half a wine bottle of diesel to make one chicken
- It takes 5 tablespoons of diesel to make one tomato
o Tomatoes are the MOST fertilized crops
- Paleo Diet is Stupid
- Vegans are stupid
- Hungry people need dairy, eggs, and meat
- We waste a lot of food
o Half of all crops
o Third of all fish
o Fifth of all meat
- Meat is bad for global warming

Chapter 3 – He makes an interesting claim: The 4 pillars of the modern world are Concrete, Steel, Fertilizer, and Plastics. IMO, this is one of the cooler aspects of the book. It’s one of the few times he delivers on the title. Interesting to read about. Of course, his REAL point is that these 4 pillars are highly dependent on fossil fuels.

Fun Facts:
- The 4 pillars account for 25% of CO2 emissions.
- Africa is the fastest growing continent
- PVC is in 25% of healthcare products
- Iron is abundant in the earth’s crust
- 6% of the worlds steel energy goes to steel production
- Concrete eventually deteriorates
o Smil predicts a major reckoning in the 21st century for concrete repair or replacement
o He predicts mass abandonment of deteriorated concrete structures

Chapter 4 – Globalization. Just skip this whole chapter folks. It’s the worst. I LITERALLY fell asleep trying to read it. I think his point is that… global warming is a… Global problem. So like, doesn’t matter what the US does if China DGAF. Also, we need fuel to fly to china, or to ship food to india.

There were no fun facts in this chapter.

Chapter 5 – Risks. This was a sort of interesting chapter. He gets real with some numerical assessment of risks to the globe and individual lives. Tons of people worry about terrorist attacks – but really, you should be worried about car accidents or falling down. I’m not really sure what the takeaway is supposed to be though. I think we all understand that driving is more dangerous that flying… but so what? Flying is still scarier – can’t fix that. I guess we just need our leaders and policy makers to be rational on our behalf?

Throughout the book, he randomly explains how global warming works. I thought that was very interesting! (but annoying that you have to be a fucking detective to piece it all together – he can’t just explain anything in a straight forward way.)

I did my best to put it all together, and I'm very proud of myself:
Global warming is caused by radiation from the sun, that would normally bounce off the earth and leave the atmosphere, getting trapped and warming the earth. This has always been a thing, and that’s good, because without the earth would be frozen. The problem is that it has been getting hotter. The radiation is trapped by two things: Water vapor and trace gases. Traces gases are mostly CO2 ad CH4 (methane). The main radiation catcher is water vapor. BUT – when we add more trace gas to the atmosphere, it catches a little bit of radiation, which raises the temperature. BUT – a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor. So the impact of the trace gases is to increase water vapor, which is what really drives the temperature up. CO2 accounts for 75% of global warming. Methane accounts for 15%.

Fun Facts
- Japan has the longest life spans
- Spain has the second longest
- Women live longer than men
- Cardio vascular disease is 25% of US illness deaths
- Cancer is 20%
- No Riskier activity than base jumping
- Hurricanes are no riskier than lightening strikes
- We should be worried about a mega eruption from the Yellowstone Super volcano

Chapter 6 – The environment. Weird chapter. He gives the full list of pending environmental catastrophes (in addition to global warming):
- Climate Change
- Ocean Acidification
- Depletion of Ozone
- Atmospheric Aerosols
- Interference in Nitrogen and Phosphorous Cycles
- Freshwater
- Deforestation
- Chemical Pollution

It’s a good list, and it sort of supports his overall grumpiness about global warming. Like – why are we so crazy about global warming when there are plenty of other problems? HOWEVER – this random writer doesn’t dig into any of those… instead, he totally switches gears and just writes about Air, Water, and Food. It’s a very random chapter. But he’s got a few useful notes. He hates the politicism of global warming, but if we really wanted to improve things, we should:
- Stop buying SUVs
- Improve building codes (required triple windows?)
- Eat less meat
- Waste less food
Good notes, and his point is that no one is going to do that. Efforts to improve global warming are a sham.

Chapter 7 – It’d be great if he closed strong right? Sum everything up. Drive home his big points. Nope. He just re-iterates all the bitching he does throughout the rest of the book. He spells some words with Greek letters – waste of fucking time. He shits on Greta Thunberg – real class act.

To close this review out - if you are interested in any of those topics - look them up online. I'm sure there are some good articles that actually make sense. This book sucks.
Profile Image for Nina.
286 reviews
May 31, 2022
There is a common misconception in our modern age that all of the advanced technologies we employ in our everyday lives are signs of our superior intelligence and sophistication in comparison to our ignorant backwards forebears. This isn’t a new thing. One of my least favorite works of 19th century literature, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, is based on the premise that a 19th Century man inadvertently transported to the Middle Ages would be able to almost single-handedly manufacture electronics, telephones, firearms, etc. because anyone who uses these technologies on a regular basis would obviously be able to make them from scratch from the materials available to him in 6th Century England. The people of our era, in turn, think we are smarter than the people of Mark Twain’s era because we know how to use smartphones and video game controllers, but in reality most of us wouldn’t even have a clue how to darn our own socks, let along manufacture cell phones and build the infrastructure required to make them function properly (towers, electric plants, power lines, satellites, etc.) In a society where everyone has to develop a specialized skill set in order to earn their daily internet service, only the specialists directly involved in the creation of a given product or service have much understanding of what goes into creating that specific product or service and the knowledge of even those individuals tends to be limited to what is required to fulfill their job functions. Most of us know very little about what it takes to produce the food we gorge ourselves with, the clothing we discard as soon as it goes out of fashion, and all the gadgets and machines that make our lives so much easier to bear than those of our ignorant backwards forebears.

In How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future, Václav Smil attempts to plug some of our knowledge gaps regarding the fundamental building blocks of modern industrialized society and the complex interactions amongst them. The first chapter focuses on energy. The second chapter focuses on food production. The third chapter focuses on the four synthesized substances the author deems to be the most important to keeping our society humming along: ammonia, plastics, steel, and concrete. The fourth chapter focuses on globalization. The fifth chapter focuses on understanding risks. The sixth chapter focuses on the environment. The seventh chapter focuses on forecasting the future.

One of the author’s key goals is to illustrate how dependent industrial society is on fossil fuels, which are so essential for modern methods of food production, transportation, construction, and manufacturing that transitioning away from these fuels will be far more difficult than the more optimistic wing of the environmental movement would have us all believe. Technologies that appear, on the surface, to represent alternatives to fossil fuels turn out to have major limitations and/or to require significant fossil fuel inputs to manufacture or power them. He has very little time for the techno-optimists, though he doesn’t have much time for the gloomy doomers either. As I am one of the latter, I was dubious about some of the more hopeful things he had to say, but I thought he did a pretty good job of explaining his positions. The only major criticism I have is that the book is extremely anthropocentric, with very little discussion of how other forms of life on the planet are impacted by what we humans do and how we do it. It also would have been nice if he had incorporated some tables, charts, and graphs, rather than just throwing a bunch of numbers at you in the text, but that’s a fairly minor quibble.

I struggled a bit on the rating, but call it 3.5 stars rounded up to 4 because any effort to shed some light on these issues is welcome in a world where people seem to think it will be easy to swap out fossil fuels for some other energy source.
20 reviews3 followers
July 9, 2022
I really wanted to like this book. It was recommended by Bill Gates (so it must be good, right?). The title said - "How the world *really* works" - which implied that I may know how the world works but not how it *really* works - and I could get that understanding from reading just 1 book?! Not even a trilogy?! Sign me up!

I was deceived.

The introduction starts out something like this - "Look I know how the world really works. I have spent a lot of time studying this. Anyone who disagrees with me is delusional. By the way, there is going to be a lot of numbers in this book. If you don't know how to count, check the Appendix - where I teach idiots like you how to count".
That easily tops as the most aggressive intro I have ever seen! I was instantly hooked, just like someone with low self-esteem gets hooked to an abusive partner.

Chapter 1 - "Numbers. Numbers. More numbers ... Hey am I hearing you complaining? I told you there would be numbers! ... More numbers ... Fossil fuels are awesome!"
I was a bit surprised at this point but whatever ...

The chapter continues (paraphrasing) -
"Electricity is bad. Look I don't understand how electricity really works. And if *I* cannot understand how electricity works, how can anyone understand how electricity works? In fact the great Richard Feynman couldn't explain electricity without using this thing called Calculus ... yuck! So dear reader my point is - if we don't understand how electricity works, should we be using it? I don't think so. I think we should be using more crude oil".
This was a bit bizzare and started ringing some alarm bells in my head. Is it possible that the author doesn't understand how the world really works?

At this point I was expecting the author to come out as a climate change denier. While he didn't actually say that, he came very close (paraphrasing) - "Look all this climate change nonsense has been blown way out of proportion. Notice that they are advocating for *net* zero, not *absolute* zero carbon emission - so we can continue burning crude oil! Just close your eyes and pretend the problem doesn't exist. It's all going to be fine ..."

At this point I concluded that Mr. Smil in fact, does not know how the world really works - and stopped reading the book.
Profile Image for Jason Furman.
1,209 reviews820 followers
October 1, 2022
The best of this book is astoundingly good--particularly the first several chapters on energy, foods and what Vaclav Smil calls the four pillars of the modern world (cement, steel, plastic and ammonia). As it went on, however, to topics like globalization, viruses, diets, and more, it felt a little bit more listy, in some cases obvious, and I was occasionally annoyed by Vaclav Smil's somewhat smug tone of condescension towards just about everyone else who thinks about these issues.

Smil's strength is he looks at how things work as a whole, using large numbers to capture the massive amounts of energy we use, how that energy is turned into food, alternatives for the sources of it. If you ask people what is essential to the modern world that we couldn't live without many would probably say microchips, but Smil points out we got pretty far as a civilization without them--but that without cement, steel, plastic and ammonia we could not have anything resembling modern cities, health care, ability to feed the world, and more.

Overall Smil is not particularly specific about policy but is a pragmatist whose message is that it will be impossible to make radical transformations anytime soon, whether those transformations are the cessation of fossil fuels or shifting to urban agriculture. A lot of his thinking and arguing is a little bit more total analysis ("cannot entirely get rid of blank") than marginal analysis ("the cost of getting rid of some of blank is less than the benefit").

Overall I do recommend it--but if you just read the first half you'll get most of the benefit.
Profile Image for Sarah ~.
734 reviews806 followers
June 19, 2023
الكتاب بالمجمل جيد وجيد جدًا، لكن أزعجني موقف الكاتب من الاحتباس الحراري. لا، هو ليس من منكريه لكن من الآخرين؛ الذين يرون أن على جميع الدول أن تتحمل نفس القدر من المسؤولية تجاه تخفيف انبعاثات الكربون دون اعتبار لكون أننا بالمشكلة أساسًا بسبب العصر الصناعي الذي دمر الكوكب والدول الكبرى مثل بريطانيا وأمريكا وفرنسا وغيرهم، لذا، لماذا تتحمل دولة صغيرة ونامية ولازالت في أولى خطوات التقدم نفس القدر من المسؤولية مثل دولة تدمر الكوكب منذ 250 عامًا .
Profile Image for jrendocrine.
558 reviews35 followers
August 7, 2022
I would never have picked up this book except for a good pal at work who recommended it. Now I’ve (thankfully) finished it, whilst he is stalled on Ch 3; serves him right. I pretty much loathed it – it’s information packed but written like a hyper-frenetic and arrogant computer-Hal spewing out endless lists of facts (supported by a 31 page reference section) that I will never remember, not one of them. Further, I will not likely remember any concept that I didn’t know before reading the book except the one: we are not about to be done with fossil fuels.

About every page is insufferable (please don’t ask why I read it then, sometimes I just do) – here is an example of the author’s parenthetically heavy (literally) style:

P 169 “The list of these critical biospheric boundaries includes nine categories: climate change (now interchangeably, albeit inaccurately, called siply global warming), ocean acidification (endangering marine organisms that build structures of calcium carbonate), depletion of stratospheric ozone (shielding the Earth from excessive ultraviolet radiation and threatened by releases of chlorofluorocarbons), atmospheric interference in nitrogen and phosphorus cycles (above all the release of these nutrients into fresh and coastal waters), freshwater use (excessive withdrawals of underground, stream and lake waters), land use changes (due to deforestation, farming, and urban and industrial expansion, biodiversity loss, and various forms of chemical pollution.”

Or in his concluding chapter “Understanding the Future” – p 227
“…describe the advances complexities and nuances of the world that we have created by our accomplishments and failures during the intervening 75 years. To stress this impossibility, just think in national terms. In 1945 Japan’s wooden cities were (save for Kyoto) essentially leveled. Europe was in postwar disarray, shortly to be split by the Cold War. The USSR was victorious but at an enormous cost, and it remained under Stalin’s ruthless rule. The US emerged as an unprecedented superpower…. ETCETERA”

By the way, Smil gets in a few, probably reasonable digs at Hariri's Homo Deus, but what for?

Okay, if that looks appetizing to you, have at it!
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 10 books333 followers
December 14, 2022
"How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going" saiu este ano e tem sido imensamente discutido pela crítica, o que não diria dever-se, apesar de também, a Bill Gates, mas essencialmente ao longo percurso científico de Vaclav Smil (78 anos) a discutir estas matérias o que lhe confere um grau de autoridade e confiança muito elevados. No imediato, e apesar do livro se focar na questão ambiental, nomeadamente no aquecimento global, compararia este a "Factfullness" (2018) de Hans Rosling, pelo modo como desfia números e factos sobre a energia que sustenta o nosso modo de vida, desconstruindo teias de histórias que têm vindo a moldar a nossa visão do mundo.

Começando pela frase com que se apresenta, "I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works", naturalmente que o trabalho que aqui faz não agradará a muitos, diria mesmo, a uma boa parte dos ativistas que têm trabalhado para alertar para as questões climáticas. Smil coloca na balança os números do planeta em que vivemos, as matérias primas, a energia, as pessoas e as suas necessidades, e olha para a História, e para aquilo de que é feita a nossa espécie. O resultado não é uma equação simples, muito menos fácil de transformar.
O problema levantado é a dura realidade, não apenas do planeta, mas da espécie que somos, colocando frente a frente, aquilo que teoricamente desejamos que seja a nossa realidade e aquilo que na realidade somos. Assim, para o lado ativista das questões ambientais este discurso, apesar de reconhecido na sua base científica como factual, é acusado de maquiavélico, porque dá argumentos ao outro lado, os da negação das alterações climáticas. Mas a questão de fundo é que não podemos olhar para a questão como tendo dois lados, de crentes e não crentes, temos de olhar para a espécie, e perceber de que é feita, e compreender que a mudança é a ação mais difícil para qualquer ser-humano. Temos de olhar para o planeta como um todo, mas não podemos olhar para todos os países como iguais. Não podemos desejar um mundo em que uma parte de nós tem smartphones no bolso, e a outra parte deve ficar à porta a aguardar a sua vez, porque entretanto nós para criar todo este bem-estar consumimos os recursos do planeta que também era deles.

Podemos atacar Smil, dizendo que este coloca o dedo na ferida mas não oferece soluções, o que em parte é verdade, mas isso não torna o seu trabalho menos importante. O caminho para a mudança faz-se pela tomada de consciência do problema nas suas múltiplas dimensões, e esse só pode ser feito com honestidade e verdade. Gritos e drama tendem a criar aversão, e quando misturados com argumentos erróneos criam descrédito.

Existem vários pontos que podemos retirar desta leitura, a primeira, que já vinha em "Factufullness" é que o crescimento populacional vai começar a decrescer em breve, e isso vai ser fundamental na transformação da nossa presença no planeta. A segunda, é que a ideia de uma economia totalmente global cria mais problemas do que resolve como se viu durante a pandemia, e que a sua diminuição pode ser outro enorme contributo para diminuição da nossa pegada. Nada disto põe em questão tudo o que está a ser feito, e tem de ser continuado, no sentido de melhorar e otimizar os recursos que usamos.

Profile Image for Pete.
892 reviews55 followers
May 11, 2022
How the World Really Works : A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future (2022) by Vaclav Smil is Smil’s latest easier to read book. Smil is a 79 year old academic whose books describe the world with numbers that are both remarkable in their detail and remarkable for their overview of the vastness of human enterprise. This book is particularly recommended for anyone interested in Climate Change.

The book has seven chapters. The first looks at energy, the second at food production, the third covers four materials that are massively produced and crucial for humanity, the fourth examines globalization, the fifth Smil’s assessment of various risks, the sixth the environment and the seventh looks toward the future.

In the chapter on energy Smil points out the incredible amount of energy that each person on earth now uses and how our energy usage has exploded in the past 200 years.

“Moreover, within a lifetime of people born just after the Second World War the rate had more than tripled, from about 10 to 34 GJ/capita between 1950 and 2020. Translating the last rate into more readily imaginable equivalents, it is as if an average Earthling has every year at their personal disposal about 800 kilograms (0.8 tons, or nearly six barrels) of crude oil, or about 1.5 tons of good bituminous coal. And when put in terms of physical labor, it is as if 60 adults would be working non-stop, day and night, for each average person; and for the inhabitants of affluent countries this equivalent of steadily laboring adults would be, depending on the specific country, mostly between 200 and 240. On average, humans now have unprecedented amounts of energy at their disposal.”

Smil points out that so far attempts at reducing fossil fuels have not done well

“Germany will soon generate half of its electricity from renewables, but during the two decades of Energiewende the share of fossil fuels in the country’s primary energy supply has only declined from about 84 percent to 78 percent:”

The chapter on food is really fascinating. Smil points out how yields have risen amazingly in the past 200 years. Smil points out how fossil fuels to make fertilizer and to keep chickens warm and to ship foods to us means that each kilogram of food uses substantial amounts of energy and fossil fuel inputs to create fertilizer. Smil calculates how much diesel fuel, as a unit, is required for each kilogram of chicken, tomatoes and wheat are used. It’s remarkable how much is required.

The material chapter looks at the volumes of four crucial materials that we extensively use; Amonia, plastic, steel and concrete. The chapter is again full of the incredible increase in the use of these materials and how important they are for humanity.

The chapter on globalization looks at how we have long been a global society, but how prior to diesel powered shipping, kerosene powered aircraft and the telecommunications revolution we’ve become much more of a global society. Covid 19’s impact on globalization is then discussed.

The sixth chapter on the environment is very interesting. Smil goes through various scenarios including oxygen depletion and rates them on their likelihood. He also looks at scenarios for rapid C02 emissions reductions and states :

“Computers make it easy to construct many scenarios of rapid carbon elimination—but 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 and ignoring the embedded nature, massive scale, and enormous complexity of our energy and material systems. Three recent exercises provide excellent illustrations of these flights of fancy unencumbered by real-world considerations.”

Smil then goes on to highlight the substantial problems with various scenarios.

Finally Smil looks toward the future. Here he is reticent to make predictions but he does point out that those that do should be familiar with the state of the world numerically and aware of the problems with forecasting.

How the World Really Works is a gem of a book from a remarkable writer. It’s not easy going, although it is far easier to read than most of Smil’s other works. But for anyone who really wants to ponder the state of the world it’s definitely a must read.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Hryshchenko.
40 reviews8 followers
October 13, 2022
Відносно пізнавальний текст, який стерпно написано й дуже добре перекладено (хоча перекладати "wishful thinking" як "зиченнєве мислення" трохи химерненько). На жаль, неупередженість і виваженість авторових висновків для мене опинилася під сумнівом, коли професор Сміл зламався на питанні веганства й раціону, як російські ліберали – на питанні Криму.

Хоча він і обстоює помірне споживання м'яса з міркувань екологічної доцільності, у загалом сухий за викладом аналіз все ж таки прорвалися цілком необов'язкові й недоречні ремарки: від побіжно-в'їдливого "а чи знають вегани, який вуглецевий слід у помідорів?" (Вацлаве, помідори їдять не лише вегани) до коментаря про важливість м'яса для еволюції нашого мозку (Вацлаве, з нашим мозком уже давно все ок) та зауваження про те, що куди ж ми будемо дівати солому, як не буде тваринництва (Вацлаве, ніхто не забирає в тебе твої курячі котлетки, заспокойся). Усі ці розумування, урешті, підвели автора до фактично нічим не обґрунтованого з його боку висновку, що нагодувати світ без м'яса й молочки не вийде.

Проте невдовзі Вацлав геть пустився берега, коли узявся розглядати тему оптимальної дієти. Поклавши собі з'ясувати, яка вона, Сміл каже: всі ці ваші наукові дослідження у цій сфері збіса плутані й неоднозначні, тож давайте-но просто подивимося, що їдять нації, які найдовше живуть, і ось вам уся відповідь. Висновок, якого він доходить у кінці цієї розвідки, не менш геніальний за її методологію і своїм змістом і формою зводиться до такого: японці живуть у середньому 83 роки, а іспанці – 82, однак іспанці дозволяють собі куштувати куди більше м'яса, тож подумайте, чи не варто пожертвувати тим роком заради смачнющого бекончику, хамончику, ковбасок і т.д. і т.п., ммммм, ням-ням-ням.

На початку й наприкінці книжки автор наголошує, що в ім'я об'єктивності не займає ніякої позиції і не схиляє ні до яких конкретних рішень. Ну, не знаю, не знаю.
Profile Image for John Devlin.
Author 22 books79 followers
March 7, 2023
I’ve read Vaclav’s energy book.

In what ever he writes he goes deep. Every time his analysis takes on a topic and you think he’s exhausted all the consequences Vaclav finds another level and a way you go with another flurry of facts.

Cut fossil fuels and go carbon zero and you can’t feed half the world.
Forget cars, fossil fuels are integral to creating fertilizer, concrete steel, and plastic.

There’s no way to go carbon zero when China is 60% of the rise. How altruistic is China? Do they support Ukraine against Russia? Nope.

His analysis is steeped in numbers and his facts brook no refutation.
July 2, 2023
This book was quite annoying. It mostly consists of dry statistics and it felt like Factfulness but without intriguing arguments and engaging stories…
Profile Image for Rick Wilson.
700 reviews259 followers
August 24, 2022
It’s really good. A tour of the modern world and what materials and structures (like shipping) underpin it.

It is a little bit of a collection of desperate topics strung together. They all have to do with our modern world but I almost wish Smil had taken a deeper look at some of the more tangible things. It seems like everyone and their brother has an opinion on climate change and where technology is going. But maybe that’s just the bubble I’m in.

Anyways. Great read. Bit dry. But wonderful information.
Profile Image for Brahm.
481 reviews53 followers
November 10, 2022
3.5 stars or 7/10.

This was the first book we tackled for Decouple Reads!

How The World Really Works is the summation of Smil's extensive career studying pretty much everything, published at a time where many stand to benefit from a better understanding of energy, food, and materials come from, and associated risks and impacts to the environment.

The book is comprehensive, detailed, and well-referenced, while still being mostly readable and engaging (depends where your interests lie).

I struggled to identify the audience for the book. Smil tries to deploy complete impartiality in laying out the facts (while still spitting fire at some of the more absurd, extreme claims from both ultra-greens and techno-optimists) and in doing so, dulls the edge of his narrative. More of his pot-shots are directed at the ultra-greens (who stand to benefit the most from understanding how "things really work") which will cause that audience to tune out.

The audience would be someone who is already keenly interested in learning how the global sausage is made, because I'm not sure the book would hold the attention of someone who grabbed it in the airport thanks to a Bill Gates endorsement on the back cover. (maybe I am wrong!)

The book is laid out in seven chapters:
1. Understanding Energy: Fuels and Electricity
2. Understanding Food Production: Eating Fossil Fuels
3. Understanding our Material World: The Four Pillars of Modern Civilization
4. Understanding Globalization: Engines, Microchips, and Beyond
5. Understanding Risks: From Viruses to Diets to Solar Flares
6. Understanding the Environment: The Only Biosphere We Have
7. Understanding the Future: Between Apocalypse and Singularity

Being so wide-ranging it's inevitable that each chapter can't go into depth required on each topic. I thought Chapter 5 "Understanding Risks" was especially dry, actuarially comparing different risks in the hope of giving the reader more perspective on risk. I find Nassim Taleb a much more fun read on risk.

One great observation that I'll pilfer from another Decouple Reads member is the near-total lack of coverage of how politics, society, and culture impact the topics Smil discusses. This was likely an editorial choice in the name of scientific impartiality, but majorly kneecaps the effectiveness of the narrative, as readers are simply presented with a never-ending stream of facts (and some interpretation) but are left to apply these facts to real-world problems on their own.

Overall I'd recommend this book to people with a budding interest in climate, technology, globalization, and more. But for more more nuance I'd look at each chapter and recommend something else:

1. Energy - Smil's Energy and Civilization, or Epstein's Fossil Future.
2. Food - The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager
3. Materials - Maybe Epstein's Fossil Future again.
4. Globalization - Zeihan's The End Of The World Is Just Beginning
5. Risks - Taleb's The Black Swan (then Antifragile, then Fooled By Randomness)
6. Environment - ?? I need to read more here.
7. Future - ?? Mayyybe MacAskill's What We Owe The Future for a philosophical treatment, but I'm in the middle of it and not loving it, so...


Notes & quotes for future me:

p2: "Atomization of knowledge has not made any public decision-making easier"

p4: "The other major reason for the poor, and declining, understanding of those fundamental processes that deliver energy (As food or as fuels) and durable materials (whether metals, non-metallic minerals, or concrete) is that they have come to be seen as old-fashioned - if not outdated - and distinctly unexciting compared to the world of information, data, and images.

p5: "in 2020 the average annual per capita energy supply of about 40 percent of the world's population (3.1 billion people, which includes nearly all people in sub-Saharan Africa) was no higher than the rate achieved in both Germany and France in 1860!"

p5: "The real wrench in the works [on dealing with climate change]: we are a fossil-fuelled 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 a few years."

p6: "I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works"

p17: "by 2020 more than half the world's electricity will still be generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, mainly coal and natural gas."

p19: "when [energy use per capita] is put in terms of physical labour, it is as if 60 adults would be working non-stop, day and night, for each average person; and for the inhabitants of affluent countries this equivalent of steadily labouring adults would be, depending on the specific country, mostly between 200 and 240. On average, humans now have unprecedented amounts of energy at their disposal."

p21: "Modern economists do not get their rewards and awards for being preoccupied with energy, and modern societies become concerned about it only when the supply of any main commercial form of energy appears to be threatened and prices soar."

p25: "large nuclear reactors are the most reliable producers of electricity: some of them now generate it 90-95 percent of the time, compared to about 45 percent for the best offshore wind turbines and 25 percent for photovoltaic cells in even the sunniest of climates - while Germany's solar panels produce electricity only about 12 percent of the time."

p30: "On January 1 1974, the Gulf states raised their posted price to $11.65/barrel, completing a 4.5-fold rise in the cost of this essential energy source in a simple year - and this ended the era of rapid economic expansion that had been energized by cheap oil."

p36: "demand for electricity has been growing much faster than the demand for all other commercial energy: in the 50 years between 1970 and 2020, global electricity generation quintupled while the total primary energy demand only tripled."

p37: "If the COVID-19 pandemic brought disruption, anguish, and unavoidable deaths, those effects would be minor compared to having just a few days of severely reduced electricity supply in any densely populated region, and if prolonged for weeks nationwide it would be a catastrophic event with unprecedented consequences."

p38: "By 2020, setting net-zero goals has for years ending in five or zero has become a me-too game: more than 100 nations have joined the lineup... Given the fact that annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion surpassed 37 billion tons in 2019, the net-zero goal by 2050 will call for an energy transition unprecedented in both pace and scale."

p39: "In 2019, Germany generated 577 terawatt-hours of electricity, less than 5 percent more than in 2000 - but its installed generating capacity expanded by about 73 percent (from 121 to about 209 gigawatts). The reason for this discrepancy is obvious. In 2020, two decades after the beginning of Energiewende, its deliberately accelerated energy transition, Germany still had to keep most of its fossil-fired capacity (89 percent of it, actually) in order to meet demand on cloudy and calm days. After all, in gloomy Germany, photovoltaic generation only works on average only 11-12 percent of the time, and the combustion of fossil fuels still produced nearly half (48 percent) of all electricity in 2020."

p40: "[The EU's] 2050 net-zero emissions scenarios set aside the decades-long stagnation and neglect of the nuclear industry, and envisage up to 20 percent of all energy consumption coming from nuclear fission. Notice this refers to total primary energy consumption, not just to electricity."

p41: "Germany will soon generate half of its electricity from renewables, but during the two decades of Energiewende the share of fossil fuels in the country's primary energy supply has only declined from about 84 percent to 78 percent: Germans like their unrestricted Autobahn speeds and their frequent intercontinental flying, and German industries hum on natural gas and oil."

p47: "we could not harvest such abundance, and in such a highly predictable manner, without the still-rising inputs of fossil fuels and electricity. Without these anthropogenic energy subsidies, we could not have supplied 90 percent of humanity with adequate nutrition and we could not have reduced global malnutrition to such a degree, which simultaneously steadily decreasing the amount of time and area of cropland needed to feed one person."

p52: "Nitrogen is needed in such great quantities because it is in energy living cell: it is in chlorophyll, whose excitation powers photosynthesis; in the nucleic acids DNA and RNA, which store and process all genetic information; and in amino acids, which make up all the proteins required for growth and maintenance of our tissues."

p56: Embedded energy in bread: 250 ml of diesel fuel equivalent in a 1-kg sourdough loaf. p57; 300-350 ml of diesel fuel equivalent per kg of chicken. p61; 650 ml of diesel fuel equivalent per kg of greenhouse tomatoes.

p66: "I do not see the organic green online commentariat embracing [returning to a labour-intensive life of organic sharecropping] anytime soon."

p72: "The quest for mass-scale veganism is doomed to fail. Eating meat has been as significant a component of our evolutionary heritage as our large brains (which evolved partly because of meat eating), bipedalism, and symbolic language."

p92, on steel recycling: "[electric arc furnace, for steel recycling] electricity demand is enormous; even a highly efficient modern EAF needs as much electricity every day as an American city of about 150,000 people."

p101: "Multiplying these [wind turbine raw materials of steel, cement, and plastic] requirements by the millions of turbines that would be needed to eliminate electricity generated from fossil fuels shows how misleading any talks are about the coming dematerialization of green economies."

p101: "Electric cars provide perhaps the best example of new, and enormous, material dependencies... supplying [lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, graphite, steel, aluminum, plastics, etc.] materials for a single vehicle requires... extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials."

p130: A great deal of accreted globalization, especially many changes that unfolded during the past two generations, is here to stay. Too many countries now rely on food imports, and self-sufficiency in all raw materials is impossible even for the largest countries because no country possesses sufficient reserves of all minerals needed by its economy."

p131: "... such grotesque transactions as Canada, the country with per capita forest resources greater than in any other affluent nation, importing toothpicks and toilet paper from China, a country whose wood stocks amount to a small fraction of Canada's enormous boreal forest patrimony."

p132: "[Consider] the (justified or exaggerated, thoughtful or demagogic) fears about globalization's impact on national sovereignty, culture, and language; about diluting cherished peculiarities in the solvent of commercial universality..." - what an incredible sentence.

p133: "while in recent years it has looked increasingly as if most aspects of globalization will not soar to new highs, in 2020 this notion became entirely unexceptional: we may have seen the peak of globalization, and its ebb may last not just for years but for decades to come." (aligns with Peter Zeihan recent book)

p142: "Widespread fear of nuclear electricity generation is yet another excellent example of risk misperception."

p155: "The fact that US hurricanes now present a fatality risk no greater than lightning illustrates how their toll has been reduced by satellites, advanced public warnings, and evacuations."

p161: "A 2012 study estimated a 12 percent probability of another Carrington Event during the coming ten years" - this whole section is Black Swan forecasting.

p180: "almost since the very beginning of the media's interest in this complex process, the coverage of global warming has been replete with poorly communicated facts, dubious interpretations, and dire predictions, and over time it has definitely acquired a distinctly more hysterical, even outright apocalyptic, flavour."

p183: "so far, the only effective, substantial moves toward decarbonization have not come from any determined, deliberate, targeted policies. Rather, they have been by-products of general technical advances (higher conversion efficiencies, more nuclear and hydro generation, less wasteful processing and manufacturing procedures) and ongoing production and management shifts (switching from coal to natural gas; more common, less energy-intensive, material recycling) whose initiation and progress had nothing to do with any question for reduced greenhouse gas emissions. And, as already noted, the global impact of the recent turn toward decarbonizing electricity generation - by installing solar PV panels and wind turbines - has been completely negated by the rapid rise of greenhouse gas emissions in China and elsewhere in Asia." - yes, in part because those countries are building solar and wind equipment.

p184: "Oxygen's atmospheric concentration is not affected by any slight greenhouse gas-driven changes in temperature, but it has ben marginally declining because of the principal anthropogenic cause of global warming: the burning of fossil fuels."

p187: "A rising atmospheric level of CO2 [could mean] wheat and other crops could yield as much or more than today, even if the precipitation they receive is reduced by 10-20 percent."

p189: "To believe that our understanding of these dynamic, multifactorial realities has reached the state of perfection is to mistake the science of global warming for the religion of climate change." Wow! Smil, pulling no punches.

p193: "Computers make it easy to construct many scenarios of rapid carbon elimination - but 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 dethatched from technical and economic realities and ignoring the embedded nature, massive scale, and enormous complexity of our energy and material systems." Another great quote.

p196: "If [100 percent wind/water/solar needs less energy, costs less, and creates more jobs than current energy] is true, these claims and their enthusiastic endorsements raise the obvious question: why should we worry about global warming? ... Who could be against solutions that are both cheap and nearly instantly effective, that will create countless well-paying jobs and ensure care-free futures for coming generations? Let us all just sing from the green hymnals, let us follow all-renewable prescriptions and a new global nirvana will arrive in just a decade" - Smil thrashing 100% WWS pundits.

p197: "specific critiques of published rapid-speed transformation narratives are really beside the point: it makes no sense to argue with the details of what are essentially the academic equivalents of science fiction."

p198: "Why is it that some scientists keep on charting such arbitrary bending and plunging curves leading to near-instant decarbonization? And why are others promising the early arrival of technical super-fixes that will support high standards of living for all humanity? And why are these wishful offerings taken so often for reliable previsions and are readily believed by people who would never try to question their assumptions?"

p199: "There are no limits to assembling such models or, as fashionable lingo has it, constructing narratives."

p211: "techno-optimists, who promise endless near-miraculous solutions, must reckon with a similarly poor record."

p216: "Past transitions may have been relatively fast because the magnitudes involved were comparatively small."

p217: Category mistakes: assuming that since technology evolves so quickly, the physical world can evolve at anywhere near the same pace and scale. "While it has been possible to replace a billion landlines by mobile phones within a generation, it will not be possible to replace terawatts of power installed in steam and gas turbines by photovoltaic cells or wind turbines within a similar time span."

p219: Smil thrashes Yuval Harari and I love it: "Nothing sums up better the excessive nature of [overly optimistic forecasting] than the title of a 2019 bestseller, Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus." And on p220: "The response of the affluent world to COVID-19 deserves a single ironic comment: Homo deus indeed!"

p225: "Because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time after they have been emitted (for CO2, up to 200 years), even very strong mitigation efforts would not give a clear signal of success- the first significant decline of global mean surface temperature - for several decades."

p225: "A commonly used climate-economy model indicates the break-even year (when the optimal policy would begin to produce net economic benefit" for mitigation efforts launched in the early 2020s would be only around 2080." Wow!

p228: "As I noted in the opening chapter, I am not a pessimist or an optimist, I am a scientist. There is no agenda in understanding how the world really works."
Profile Image for RomeroCKev.
11 reviews
June 22, 2023
The world can be how you want to see it, of course, only if you want to get out of it, in the same way I think we can know how it has been and how it is thought to be, what the book writes is nothing more than the mind of an author committed to life. The energies that surround the world are many and I am surprised to see that some are real, although many people may see this book as a crazy trip through the mind, I feel that the author was well past when he wrote it although in many things in life You are not wrong. I feel that others are exaggerated, but the galactic always comes from the deepest spaces of the mind and from the person with galactic minds.
Profile Image for Barry.
900 reviews37 followers
July 17, 2022
This excellent and important work explains where the materials we rely on for modern living actually come from — our food, energy, housing, transportation, and electronics. Smil is not advocating for a position from either side of the political divide. He is a well-respected energy scientist and a realist, and he spurns the propaganda from both extremes— the climate doomsayers and the climate-change deniers. Of course there are significant environmental effects due to our use of fossil fuels, but making significant reductions will not be easy, let alone the pipe dream of zero carbon.

He shows that 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion comes from the production of 4 indispensable materials: ammonia, concrete, steel, and plastics. The world will continue to need and use these products, and there are currently no carbon-friendly alternatives to their production. And air travel will continue to require jet fuel for decades to come. It is not possible to power a wide-body jet with batteries or nuclear power.

None of this is to imply that certain reductions would not be possible or beneficial.

Murtaza wrote an excellent review and you should read his rather than mine. And then read the book!
Profile Image for ScienceOfSuccess.
110 reviews192 followers
August 7, 2022
Nothing extraordinary, few fun facts, and a lot of publicity hunting, can recommend if you need to pass time, but wouldn't pick up this one as serious read.
Profile Image for Tanya Fabrychenko.
152 reviews2 followers
March 9, 2023
«Вацлав Сміл уособлює тверезий голос науки і пише про складні речі елегантною і прозорою мовою». Саме на такий опис я повелась і вкрай розчарувалась.

Написано може й прозоро (дійсно багато статистичний даних), але зовсім не елегантно.

Не було якоїсь структури, автор стрибав від теми до теми, намагаючись якось пов’язати матеріал, але вдавалось це погано. Текст або був занадто простим з переливанням води, або занадто науковим з непотрібною деталізацією.

Було дуже багато динаміки цифр, яка подана текстом. Тобто: у 1960 році споживання картоплі було стільки тон, у 1970 - стільки, у 1980 - … і т.д. Сприймається це дуже важко, автору явно не розповіли про винайдення діаграм.

У Вацлава Сміла якась явна обідка на світ, що до COVID-19 завчасно не підготувались, хоча він «передбачив пандемію давно і чітко до року». І він декілька разів розжовував факт, як не вистачало масок, рукавичок, обмежень і тд по списку. Можливо, грає його вік (1943 рік народження), бо автор неодноразово звертав увагу, що люди 65+ у групі великого ризику, і відчував загрозу? але хз🤷‍♀️

Шось таке вийшло.

П.С. Переклад…😔 звідки взялись ці «прожект», «їда», «бистрий»?🤔
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