How the World Really Works

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

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'There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil' Bill Gates
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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 perils 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, making their complete and rapid elimination unlikely. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato requires the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel oil for its production; and we still lack any commercially viable ways of making steel, ammonia, cement or plastics on the scale required globally without fossil fuels.

Vaclav Smil is neither a pessimist nor an optimist, he is a scientist; he is the world-leading expert on energy and an astonishing polymath. This is his magnum opus and a continuation of his quest to make facts matter. Drawing on the latest science, including his own fascinating research, and tackling sources of misinformation head on - from Yuval Noah Harari to Noam Chomsky - 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 masterpiece 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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'Very informative and eye-opening in many ways' Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

'If you are anxious about the future, and infuriated that we aren't doing enough about it, please read this book' Paul Collier, author of The Future of Capitalism
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Product details

  • Paperback | 336 pages
  • 153 x 234 x 24mm | 409g
  • Viking
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 9780241454404
  • 17,152

Review Text

You can agree or disagree with Smil - accept or doubt his 'just the facts' posture-but you probably shouldn't ignore him . . . In Smil's provocative but perceptive view, unrealistic notions about carbon reduction are partly, and ironically, attributable to the very productivity that societies achieved by substituting machine work, powered by fossil fuels, for draft animals and human laborers
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Review quote

Very informative and eye-opening in many ways -- Ha-Joon Chang, author of 23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism It is reassuring to read an author so impervious to rhetorical fashion and so eager to champion uncertainty . . . Smil's book is at its essence a plea for agnosticism, and, believe it or not, humility - the rarest earth metal of all. His most valuable declarations concern the impossibility of acting with perfect foresight. Living with uncertainty, after all, "remains the essence of the human condition." Even under the most optimistic scenario, the future will not resemble the past -- Nathaniel Rich * New York Times * A grumpy, pugnacious account that, I would argue, is intellectually indispensable in the run up to this year's COP27 climate conference in Egypt. In short, How the World Really Works fully delivers on the promise of its title. It is hard to formulate any higher praise -- Simon Ings * New Scientist * You can agree or disagree with Smil - accept or doubt his 'just the facts' posture-but you probably shouldn't ignore him . . . In Smil's provocative but perceptive view, unrealistic notions about carbon reduction are partly, and ironically, attributable to the very productivity that societies achieved by substituting machine work, powered by fossil fuels, for draft animals and human laborers * Washington Post * This accessible and witty book cuts to the chase of what we need to know -- Caroline Sanderson * The Bookseller, 'Editor's Choice' * If you are anxious about the future, and infuriated that we aren't doing enough about it, please read this book -- Paul Collier, author of The Future of Capitalism "I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist," Smil writes in the introduction, with typically Smilian swagger. In fact, he is more of a numberist, a polymath with a gift for rigorously crushing complex data into pleasing morsels of information -- Pilita Clark * Financial Times * Smil's meticulously researched words are for anyone who wants his priors reexamined and feathers ruffled -- Joakin Book * AIER * Ambitious and eye-opening . . . provides valuable insight as opposed to the agenda-pushing rhetoric commonly found in mainstream scientific literature. Data-rich, informative and eye-opening, How the World Really Works is a captivating read -- Lily Pagano * Reaction * A compelling, fascinating, and most important, realistic portrait of the world and where it's going -- Steven Pinker, on Numbers Don't Lie
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About Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of over forty books on topics including energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. No other living scientist has had more books (on a wide variety of topics) reviewed in Nature. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, in 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
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Rating details

472 ratings
4.08 out of 5 stars
5 40% (188)
4 36% (168)
3 18% (87)
2 5% (22)
1 1% (7)
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