How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going
By Vaclav Smil
Viking, 2022

We don’t have a good track record at forcing sudden, comprehensive, top-down changes to complex systems we don’t fully grok. How the World Really Works helps us understand some of the most complex pervasive systems that affect us. Hopefully, this will lead to more skillful interventions.

Specifically, most of us don’t understand key aspects of how the world works — E.g., how the device where you’re reading this was built, how it came from China to your hands, how the electricity in its circuits was generated, etc. — and the energy needed to make it all happen.

Smil explains how modern societies operate by examining our energy needs, ranging from the generation of electricity to growing and harvesting food to the production of essential materials and the logistics of getting everything to the right place at the right time.

The uncomfortable conclusion is that we’re more dependent on fossil fuels than most of us realize. Decarbonizing won’t be quick, easy, or cheap. But we have to do it, and it’s best if we have a clear-headed understanding of the issues involved.

The book covers four areas affected by energy production:

  • Energy itself (i.e., its generation, conveyance, etc.)
  • Food production
  • Making fundamental materials
  • The components of global trade

There are also chapters that provide perspectives on three commonly misunderstood areas:

  • Risks (e.g., pandemics, natural events)
  • The environment
  • The future

The chapter on energy is perhaps the most important, as it lays the foundation for all that follows. The key takeaway: it’ll be a while before we have viable alternatives to fossil fuels for many fundamental uses. (Barring unforeseen technological breakthroughs.)

The chapters on the production of foodstuffs, essential materials (steel, ammonia, plastic, and cement), transportation, microchips, etc., make tangible our societies’ deep dependency on fossil fuels for each of these critical aspects of our lives.

The last three chapters provide correctives to either overly optimistic or apocalyptic pronouncements one hears about climate change by offering level-headed perspectives based on data, systems thinking, and science.

To be clear, How the World Really Works doesn’t advocate the use of fossil fuels. On the contrary, it clearly explains how they’re affecting the biosphere. What the book does do is reveal the extent of our dependency and the huge multi-generational challenge ahead of us.

In sum, the book is a reality check. It offers a sobering perspective on the challenges involved in tackling climate change — which is a real, serious, and wicked problem, and one we must approach with humility, open minds, and long-term commitment to change.

Smil writes,

The inertia of large, complex systems is due to their basic energetic and material demands — as well as the scale of their operations.”

The scale of our energy needs is very, very large. It behooves you to understand just how large they are; this book helps.

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