How The World Really Works

Updated: June 10, 2023

Vaclav Smil explores some of the fundamental areas that govern human survival and prosperity, addressing topics such as food production, energy, and globalization.

Favorite quotes from the book:

Simply put, energy is the only truly universal currency, and nothing (from galactic rotations to ephemeral insect lives) can take place without its transformations.

The pandemic has taught us this in often drastic ways, as doctors and nurses in North America and Europe ran out of personal protective equipment (PPE) - disposable gloves, masks, shields, hats, gowns, and booties - and as governments outbid each other in order to airlift limited (and highly overpriced) supplies from China, to which the Western producers of PPE, obsessed with cutting costs, had relocated most of their production lines, creating dangerous yet entirely avoidable supply shortages.

And until all energies used to extract and process these materials (ammonia, plastics, steel, concrete) come from renewable conversions, modern civilization will remain fundamentally dependent on the fossil fuels used in the production of these indispensable materials. No Al, no apps, and no electronic messages will change that.

This is why many researchers have argued that there is no "objective risk" waiting to be measured because our risk perceptions are inherently subjective, dependent on our understanding of specific dangers (familiar vs. new risks) and on cultural circumstances.

Quests to avoid unnecessary energy use, to reduce air pollution and water, and to provide more comfortable living conditions should be perennial imperatives, not sudden desperate actions aimed at preventing a catastrophe.