How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

How the World Really Works: A Scientist's Guide to Our Past, Present and FutureHow the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future by Vaclav Smil
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Smil sets forth a dizzying array of statistics backed up with extensive citations of sources. These range over many technical and scientific topics. He asserts that they show that human civilization as we know it depends on four “pillars”: steel, ammonia, cement, and plastics. He spends a great deal of time debunking the notion of decarbonization, i.e. the total cessation of using fossil fuels. That seems to me to be something of a straw man since I’ve never heard the term before this book, much less heard of anyone who advocated it. The reader could get the impression Smil opposes the green movement in general, although later in the book, that seems inaccurate. The book is almost written as a reference book rather than an opinion piece or textbook, although it has elements of all three.

Smil is no doubt an extremely well-read and competent scientist and writer, but the book isn’t going to fall into the pleasure reading category for many people. I read it because it was a book club choice. There were many interesting, even fascinating, tidbits of knowledge imparted among the drudgery of plowing through more statistics. I especially liked the chapter on assessing risk. Smil points out the degree to which people discount relatively risky, i.e. likely, dangers (like speeding in cars) while fearing things that are much less likely, e.g. terrorist attack. I knew this already, but it was interesting to see it quantified and exemplified. He concludes by saying, convincingly, that those crying apocalypse and those gushing over a new world order of health and plenty are wrong. He pretty much says everybody is wrong and things are just going to go on as they always have until something we can’t predict changes it. In the end the combination of tedium and the absence of any real useful guidance makes the book a disappointing read.

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