How The World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

How the World Really Works

How The World Really Works by Vaclav Smil was one of the most eye-opening books that I’ve read in a while. It cuts through all the ideas, studies, etc to show how the modern world that we live in is truly all about energy conversion. Energy makes the world go ’round. He shows how the modern world is literally built on Four Pillars cement, steel, plastics, and ammonia.

All four exist in some way due to cheap, accessible hydrocarbon energy that is simply converted energy from the sun.

Providing all Four Pillars without hydrocarbons is much, much, much more difficult than simply swapping a coal power plant for a solar farm. Figuring out the transition of energy conversions will be the challenge of the century.

What I Liked

I loved how concise and too the point this book was. It’s packed full of statistics and explanations of otherwise highly complex topics.

I loved, loved, loved how academic and realist this book is. Energy use has become so politicized with everyone cherry-picking their favorite anecdotes or wildly swinging between pollyanna naivete or aggressive doomerism. The author is just like here are the facts, here is the evidence. Energy is a tool (literally and figuratively). It has no meaning. Humans have to decide what we want and then how we get it.

What I Didn’t Like

Not a whole lot. There were a few bits of academic jargon here and there, but it was well-edited.

I wish he had given some examples of future outcomes like making cement without high heat, etc.

I know that he didn’t want to veer into the pollyanna, wishful thinking world…however, I think it would’ve been worth pointing out more about how human creativity and problem-solving abilities did figure out pressing needs in the past. For example, throughout the 19th century, people could see famine coming fast and furious. It was obvious. Guano bought humanity some time, even though we didn’t know how it would be solved until…we did with the Haber-Bosch process. I’m sure an academic does not want to say that “hard work always creates lucky breaks”…but that is something that came to my mind (and I hope turns out to be true with the hydrocarbon transition).


The history of life on our planet is a history of energy conversions. For hydrocarbons, photosynthesis transforms solar energy to plant matter for bacteria & geology to transform into coal, oil & gas. The luck of the modern world is that hydrocarbons had been sitting there, piling up for millions of years for us to put it to work.

Energy is the ability to do work. Our access to energy allows the average developed world citizen to have the equivalent of hundreds of humans doing work for each person around the clock.

Fossil fuels revolutionized agriculture. Without ammonia (the base ingredient in fertilizer), billions of us simply could not and would not exist. That industrial process was invented in 1913.

The agricultural revolution drove urbanization. And urbanization drives wealth. Successful (rather than squalid) urbanization rests on cheap steel, cheap cement, and cheap plastics…all of which had their “ammonia” moment in the early 20th century.

Electricity makes the modern world go round. It’s truly an understatement that if electricity stops….the modern world ends.

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