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How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going

by Vaclav Smil

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4481555,921 (3.86)7
"An essential analysis of the modern science and technology that makes our twenty-first century lives possible--a scientist's investigation into what science really does, and does not, accomplish. We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don't know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check--because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts. In this ambitious and thought-provoking book we see, for example, that globalization isn't inevitable--the foolishness of allowing 70 per cent of the world's rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020--and that our societies have been steadily increasing their dependence on fossil fuels, such that any promises of decarbonization by 2050 are a fairy tale. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato has the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel embedded in its production, and we have no way of producing steel, cement or plastics at required scales without huge carbon emissions. Ultimately, Smil answers the most profound question of our age: are we irrevocably doomed or is a brighter utopia ahead? Compelling, data-rich and revisionist, this wonderfully broad, interdisciplinary guide finds faults with both extremes. Looking at the world through this quantitative lens reveals hidden truths that change the way we see our past, present and uncertain future"--… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 13 (next | show all)
This is my first dip into the much lauded social critique by Prof. Smil on the affairs of our civilization and its dependence on converting energy to useful purposes.

In this volume he focuses on four pillars of our civilization: cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia. Without huge dependence on fossil fuels, he maintains, we would never be able to produce the volumes of these substances to drive our civilization forward.

He provides a convincing case, for example, that without manufactured fertilizers we would not be able to feed one-half of the world’s population.

Decarbonization of our food system, he believes, is an unobtainable delusion without significant changes the diet of people in developed nations, significant reductions in food waste, and allowances to African nations where malnourishment is still a significant social ill.

While his facts are compelling, the disorganization of his thoughts I find distract from the tale.

Smil is a realist at heart and doesn’t see the point in charging ahead with the empty promises of government intervention on climate change without social commitment at the grassroots.

He doesn’t accept prima facie some of the doomsday scenarios environmentalists foist on the narrative, scenarios his cases seem to support. ( )
  MylesKesten | Jan 23, 2024 |
This book presents multiple facts on our history and where it'd take us in the coming years. "The pillars of modern civilization are cement, steel, plastic, and ammonia." - we'll need some groundbreaking inventions to get rid of these essentials that depend primarily on fossil fuels. We need to start something serious right now however, we'll not see the outcome anytime soon. Despite that, we need to start something soon. ( )
  nmarun | Dec 10, 2023 |
This is an awesome book. Taught me so much about... how the world really works (surprise surprise).

Some big takeaways:

1. Carbon is a pollutant. Let's treat it as such.
2. Even if we do really well, it will be impossible to remove it from all our industrial processes. If we did, we'd have to go back to the Stone ages.
3. Therefore, we need to remove it. Pure and simple. As a result, I've started funding some direct air capture.
4. We need to do nuclear. Nuclear power is inexpensive and does not emit carbon. If ahs an excellent safety record. Most important - unlike carbon, the dangers it poses are not systemic.

Very well worth reading. Thank you for educating us all, Vaclav Smil!
  aquamari | Apr 5, 2023 |
I can't imagine a more authoritative source for assessing the state of the planet. Prof. Smil is the author of over 40 books on the subject and has thoughtfully and exhaustively treat every aspect of it in fine detail. You can't read any of his books without learning a huge amount and this one is no exception.

Warning, spoilers ahead. The grittiest, most crucial chapter is the one on energy. Anyone who thinks we have a chance of decoupling ourselves from fossil fuels should read it and weep (luckily, a good cry is often a positive precursor to meaningful action). Virtually everything we own, use, and depend upon seems to be made out of oil, created using oil, transported using oil, or all three. Same with everything we eat. Read the chapter on food. Then read the one about climate change. Connect the dots. Wake up. It's good for you. Good for all of us. Cheers, life is good! ( )
  Cr00 | Apr 1, 2023 |
The scientist Vaclav Smil has written numerous books explaining everything from Energy to Risk and this book is mostly a short summary of several of those books. The summaries are so cursory that the book becomes uncomfortable to read.

Unfortunately for the importance of the topic, the author comes off in this book like an old curmudgeon shouting at the TV. It seems that statements from environmental activities calling for a total and complete elimination of fossil fuels caused him to boil over so much that he wrote this book to tell them how unrealistic that was. He does this by describing how fossil fuels play a critical part in food production, as well as resources like cement, steel and fertilizer.

Although there are many negative aspects of this book, I would still recommend it to anyone interested in climate change. He provides numerous facts that need to be considered when discussing transitions away from fossil fuels. ( )
  M_Clark | Feb 17, 2023 |
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"An essential analysis of the modern science and technology that makes our twenty-first century lives possible--a scientist's investigation into what science really does, and does not, accomplish. We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don't know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check--because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts. In this ambitious and thought-provoking book we see, for example, that globalization isn't inevitable--the foolishness of allowing 70 per cent of the world's rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020--and that our societies have been steadily increasing their dependence on fossil fuels, such that any promises of decarbonization by 2050 are a fairy tale. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato has the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel embedded in its production, and we have no way of producing steel, cement or plastics at required scales without huge carbon emissions. Ultimately, Smil answers the most profound question of our age: are we irrevocably doomed or is a brighter utopia ahead? Compelling, data-rich and revisionist, this wonderfully broad, interdisciplinary guide finds faults with both extremes. Looking at the world through this quantitative lens reveals hidden truths that change the way we see our past, present and uncertain future"--

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