A Free-Market Energy Blog

Book Review: “How the World Really Works” (Vaclav Smil)

By -- June 15, 2022

For those wishing to understand the challenges of climate change and the challenge in transitioning to decarbonized world, Smil’s book is a good start. He gives the reader plenty of numbers and analyses, but these do not overwhelm the simple conclusion that our energy reality makes the transition a long-term effort at best.

Smil’s book should be required reading for politicians, not only intellectuals and energy professionals, to help them understand the reality of controlling carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the real world. It is also an excellent tutorial for the layperson not familiar with the details and intricacies of energy, the economy, and climate change.

Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, an institution he joined 50 years ago. He was born in 1943 in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. After completing his undergraduate degree, he began study at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Charles University in Prague, earning the equivalent of a Master of Science degree.

He and his wife emigrated to the United States in 1969, several months after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. He received his Ph.D. in geography from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of Pennsylvania State University in 1971 and immediately took his first job offer from the University of Manitoba.

Reportedly he only attended one faculty meeting at the university during his tenure, but the school was happy for him to teach and write highly learned, important books.

Smil’s interdisciplinary research interests integrate energy, environmental, food, population, economic, historical, and public policy areas, which have led to him authoring 49 books.

There is barely an area of energy and the environment about which he has not published. The reader should understand that Smil suffers no foolish thinking about energy and its transition, which includes a serious focus on climate change and the environment.

The current book, 229 pages in length with 71 pages of notes and references, is a high-level review of the reality of how our world works. Each of the seven chapters in the book is titled “Understanding,” followed by the specific subject matter to be examined. His topics include energy, food production, our material world, globalization, risks, the environment, and the future.

The thesis of Smil’s book, and most of his other books, too, is that the clean energy transition people desire will take a long time and unrealistic assumptions about how fast it can be done, premised on flawed understandings of our energy system and its role in modern life, may make things worse. As he writes:

Complete decarbonization of the global economy by 2050 is now conceivable only at the cost of unthinkable global economic retreat, or as a result of extraordinarily rapid transformations relying on near-miraculous technical advances. But who is going, willingly, to engineer the former while we are still lacking any convincing, practical, affordable global strategy and technical means to pursue the latter? What will actually happen? The gap between wishful thinking and reality is vast, but in a democratic society no contest of ideas and proposals can proceed in rational ways without all sides sharing at least a modicum of relevant information about the real world, rather than trotting out their biases and advancing claims disconnected from physical possibilities.

The book is aimed at ordinary people – giving them a basic understanding of how dependent our world is on fossil fuels, and how important they are in providing us our food and materials necessary to sustain and improve our lives. Smil devotes a chapter to the “four pillars of modern civilization”: ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics. Few people know how these materials are produced.

Furthermore, people do not appreciate the role these materials play in our society and the reality that without fossil fuels these materials cannot be produced. What replaces them? The scope of our food production is well beyond the understanding of most people. They may appreciate that it is highly energy intensive to fly Chilean blueberries or New Zealand lamb to North America or Western Europe.

But people will be surprised to learn that a loaf of sourdough bread produced locally requires the equivalent of about 5.5 tablespoons of diesel fuel to get all the ingredients, bake the bread, and distribute it to stores. The supermarket tomato that Smil describes as little more than “an appealingly shaped container of water” arrives in our shopping cart courtesy of about six tablespoons of diesel. It is this realization of how much (or little) fossil fuel is imbedded in our everyday consumption that is striking.

Smil does not dismiss climate change. To the contrary, he believes it is a serious issue that must be addressed and sooner rather than later. His frustration is with the mythical solutions proposed that ignore the reality of how the world functions.

In Smil’s opinion, at the root of most of those solutions are failures in forecasting. Smil says “quantitative forecasts fall into three broad categories.” The smallest category is those dealing with processes whose function is well known and have a limited set of outcomes.

A much broader category are forecasts that point us in the right direction but with substantial uncertainties. This is where understanding risk assessment is critical. The third category of forecasts are the “quantitative fables” that “teem with numbers, but the numbers are outcomes of layered (and often questionable) assumptions.” In his view, “most of these forecasts are no better than simple guesses.”

For those wishing to understand the challenges of climate change and the challenge in transitioning to decarbonized world, Smil’s book is a good start. He gives the reader plenty of numbers and analyses, but these do not overwhelm the simple conclusion that our energy reality makes the transition a long-term effort at best.


For more of G. Allen Brooks, see Energy Musings: Insights into the Energy Industry, where this book review first appeared. It has been slightly edited and revised for publication here.


  1. John W. Garrett  


    NPR, this is your big chance to behave like grown-ups and do genuine investigative journalism. Here’s your big chance to “speak truth to power.”



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