How The World Really Works

by Vaclav Smil

Library Journal Smil (emeritus, environmental science, Univ. of Manitoba; Numbers Don't Lie) presents a grimly realistic picture of the present and future of human society's impact on the environment. The first half of the book is largely accounting: meticulous audits of all of the energy inputs that go into producing food, basic materials, and the transportation and communication systems that connect the globe. Due to the complex and not fully understood interactions of the dynamic systems involved, he disclaims giving detailed solutions or even making long -term predictions. In doing so, the book charts a course between catastrophic fatalism and hopeful assumptions about future technological breakthroughs. Smil justifies this position by looking to the past, and points out how unforeseen natural and sociopolitical events such as COVID or the economic opening of China have dramatically challenged previous models. Ultimately, he sees hard choices and slow changes to be made within the inertia of our existing energy, agriculture, and manufacturing infrastructure as the surest way for a sustainable future. VERDICT An excellent encapsulation and synthesis of several of Smil's books from the past decade, offering a realistic assessment for environmentalists, economists, and anyone worried about how humanity will survive the next century.—Wade Lee-Smith

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Book list The author of may works concerning energy and the biosphere, Smil seeks to dispel misunderstanding of how our lives are sustained, physically, in light of the call for a carbon-zero, fossil fuel-free economy by 2050. While acknowledging steps that can promote zero-carbon emissions, Smil argues that it is unrealizable. To make his case, he analyzes energy-consuming arenas of modern economies, beginning with energy production itself. Even under national policies to substitute renewable sources for fossil fuel, the latter will still dominate at 70 percent of total energy production in 2050. To explain why, Smil delves into the energy requirements of food production, materials production (steel, ammonia, cement, plastics), and global transportation, all of which have increased markedly. With an eye to the accompanying increase of greenhouse gases, Smil offers assessments of risk incurred by individuals and in terms of the global environment's ability to support life's existential requirements of water and air. While not sanguine about climate warming, Smil equally dismisses predictions of catastrophe and technology-driven salvation, providing an information-dense presentation that will benefit open-minded readers engaged with climate and energy issues.

From Booklist, Copyright American Library Association. Used with permission.

Publishers Weekly Smil (Numbers Don’t Lie), an environmental studies professor at the University of Manitoba, quantifies the modern world in this arcane survey. To break down “how the world really works, and... use that understanding in order to make us better realize our future limits and opportunities,” Smil examines stats about energy and food production, globalization, and environmental challenges: readers will learn that it takes at least 21 gigajoules to synthesize a ton of ammonia; that worldwide steel production in 2019 used about 34 exajoules of energy; and that in ancient Egypt, 1.3 people could be fed per hectare of land. Smil spends a lot of time on environmental issues, arguing that moving away from carbon-based sources of energy is all but impossible in the short or medium-term, and criticizing many researchers’ environmental models as “flights of fancy unencumbered by real-world considerations.” While there’s no shortage of fascinating material, Smil neglects to suggest ways for dealing with the global issues he sums up—fossil-fuel dependence, global warming—leaving this feeling incomplete. The numbers are there, but they don’t add up to much. (May)

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Kirkus A scientific panorama of our well-being and how it can be sustained in our current tumultuous times and beyond. In seven chapters, Smil, the author of more than 40 books on science, nature, and current affairs, explores the science behind essential contemporary topics: energy generation, food production, material dependence, globalization, large-scale risks, responses to environmental threats, and predictive uncertainty. The author aims to combat the widespread “comprehension deficit” about basic scientific facts, and he seeks to “explain some of the most fundamental ruling realities governing our survival and our prosperity.” That aim is marvelously achieved, as Smil sheds needed light on how global populations depend on particular technologies and industrial processes while debunking common misperceptions. Chief among these is the assumption that large-scale decarbonization is plausible in the near term. As several chapters demonstrate, we will most likely remain dependent on the consumption of massive amounts of fossil fuels for decades to come before alternative energy sources can be scaled to meet global demand. The author provides a revelatory overview of where human health and affluence come from, how they might be preserved in spite of alarming signs of ecological collapse, and which specific disruptions to them, such as those posed by viral pandemics or climate change, are actually most threatening. Throughout, Smil exposes the dubious assumptions of so-called “catastrophism,” the conviction that human life is doomed to extinction in the near future, as well as “techno-optimism,” an equally misplaced faith in the ingenuity of engineers to deliver utopian solutions to all our existential challenges. The author’s sober and illuminating assessment of contemporary realities shows how challenges can, seemingly, be managed in the coming decades even if the precise means of doing so—and the various complications that will inevitably unfold—cannot be reliably ascertained in advance. An exceptionally lucid, evenhanded study of the scientific basis of our current and future lives. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

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