How The World Really Works

  • Copyright: 2022
  • Pages: 229 (ex-notes)
  • Year(s) Read: 2022

Why Would You Read This Book?

To become a better filter of information.

You see a million pieces of information every day. This can suck up a lot of time and attention.

In a physical & literal sense, this book helps us focus on what is truly important (signal) and quickly dismiss the unimportant (noise).

If I wrote a book on how the world really works, it would focus on power. Coincidentally, the ability to do anything about the things in this book requires power.

I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist; I am a scientist trying to explain how the world really works, and I will use that understanding in order to make us better realize our future limits and opportunities.

Vaclav Smil, How the World Really Works (p.6)

Vaclav Smil is the opposite of a bullshitter.

He has written 40 books on energy. Not 40 Tweets on energy, 40 books on energy.

Picture this: We are at trivia night. Last round.

The host says, “What is the most important technological advancement in the past 120 years?”

All the teams submit their answer:

  • Computers! WRONG
  • Antibiotics! Honorable mention, but WRONG
  • TikTok! Honorable mention, but WRONG

Thankfully, we had just read How The World Really Works by Vaclav Smil.

The host reads our winning answer: Ammonia Synthesis!

We get our Trivia Night Gift Card, take the mic, and begin our acceptance speech: Forget Artificial Intelligence. FERTILIZER and CROP YIELDS!

Four billion people (50% of humanity) would be permanently fasting right now without ammonia.

Plants need nitrogen. But, mother nature plays hard to get. She put most of the nitrogen in the air in the wrong form, and plants can’t fly.

Eyewear Fashion Icon Fritz Haber figured out how to get the nitrogen into the right form. It sounds like he put the atmospheric nitrogen into a big air fryer and out popped ammonia, which plants LOVE.

The main reason I read is to figure out how the world works, so if you hand me a book by Vaclav Smil saying this is how it *really* works, then I have to read it.

This book starts off a little technical, but it moves quickly and is a smoother read than his 2019 masterpiece: Growth.

We are working on a similar review/summary of that book.


What we need is the dull, factually correct and accurate middle.

Because only from that middle will come the solutions. Solutions never come from extremes.

It’s also irresponsible to state the problem in ways where, when you look closer, it’s not like that.

There are these billions of people who want to burn more fossil fuel. There is very little you can do about that.

They will burn it unless you give them something different. But who will give them something different?

You have to recognize the realities of the world, and the realities of the world tend to be unpleasant, discouraging and depressing.

Vaclav Smil, New York Times Interview (4/22/2022)
silver steel mining crane on black rocky soil during daytime
  • It is easy to forget energy is one of the most important things in the world.
  • An abundance of useful energy underlies and explains all gains in standard of living.
  • It is all about photosynthesis and fossil fuels, baby.
  • We are fundamentally dependent on fossil fuels, and will be for decades.
    • With all the work on renewables, I was curious what tangible progress had been made.
    • The share of fossil fuels in the world’s primary energy supply went from 87% in 2000 to 84% in 2020.
  • Yes, it is wonderful to work on a new green world, but it is a LONG way away.
  • The real climate change/environmental question: Would I give up my SUV, air-conditioning, and steak to help my great grandchildren?
    • India and Africa want improved standards of living. This is going to stress the environment.
  • 2050 Paris Agreement is AMBITIOUS (read: unrealistic)
    • The goal is to decarbonize the energy supply fast enough to limit average global warming to no more than 1.5°C (at worst 2.0°C).
    • Given the fact that annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion surpassed 37 billion tonnes in 2019, the net-zero goal by 2050 will call for an energy transition unprecedented in both pace and scale. A closer look at its key components reveals the magnitude of the challenges.
    • Cannot even come close without nuclear fission.
    • Everything in the 2015 Paris accord is voluntary and non-binding.
  • Smil says there is no shortage of fossil fuel resources in the Earth’s crust.
    • 50 years of oil & gas at current production rates (excluding probable & possible reserves)
    • 120 years of coal
    • I don’t know though, I eat salads and workout, so I may live 50 more years and have to deal with this.
  • 1973 was a pivotal year in world history.
  • In 1973, OPEC raised prices 450%, from $2.59/barrel to $11.65, in a single year, ending the era of rapid economic expansion that had been energized by cheap oil (see Chapter 1 below).
    • Imagine if gas prices increased from the already elevated $4.50/gallon today to $20.25/gallon.
  • Complete reliance on renewable energy would require:
    • mass-scale, long-term (days to weeks) electricity storage
    • extensive grids of high-voltage lines to transmit electricity across time zones
  • Nuclear reactors are the most reliable producers of electricity:
    • Some generate electricity for 90-95% of the time
    • Best offshore wind turbines: 45%
    • Photovoltaic cells: 25%
    • “This is simple physics or electrical engineering, but it is remarkable how often these realities are ignored.”
  • Expect 2 billion more people (~10 billion total) by 2050.
  • Need synthetic nitrogenous fertilizers for the foreseeable future.
  • The four pillars of modern civilization are:
    • Ammonia
    • Steel
    • Concrete
    • Plastic
  • Peak US cement demand: 128 million tons in 2005.
  • China produced 2.2 billion tons of cement in 2019.
  • In 2018 and 2019, China produced nearly as much cement as the US did during the entire 20th century.
  • Electric vehicles require ~225 tons of raw materials per car. (see below for itemization)
  • Globalization: Some is here to stay. Some maybe not.
  • America has lost 7 million manufacturing jobs since 2000, mostly attributable to globalization.
  • Everyone with a computer or smartphone can now see worldwide shipping and aviation activities in real time, just by clicking on the MarineTraffic website.
  • Self-sufficiency (at the country-level) is impossible even for the largest countries because no country possesses sufficient reserves of all minerals needed by its economy.
  • Three decades of large scale international conferences have had no effect on the course of global CO2 emissions.
  • Until there are legally binding agreements, we should be highly skeptical of the seriousness of any political climate discussion.
  • Decarbonization improvements have mostly been by-products of general technical advances.
  • Buy triple-paned windows (simple, effective way to save energy).
  • Doubt everything.

If you skip the book, I highly recommend the New York Times interview linked in the quote above (and again here).

Detailed Highlights

Vaclav Smil

Chapter 1: Understanding Energy

It is hard to even define what energy is.

As Richard Feynman said, “We do not have a picture that energy comes in little blobs of a definite amount. It is not that way.”

The most common definition of energy is: the capacity for doing work.

There are different forms of energy:

  • gravitational energy
  • kinetic energy
  • heat energy
  • elastic energy
  • electrical energy
  • chemical energy
  • radiant energy
  • nuclear energy
  • mass energy

There are formulas for all of these, but we cannot reduce these energies into a single, easily described entity in our mind.

This made me breathe a huge sigh of relief because I have always felt dumb for being unable to pin down exactly what electricity is.

scenic view of thunderstorm

For most of its inhabitants, the modern world is full of black boxes, devices whose internal workings remain to different degrees a mystery to their users.

Electricity can be thought of as a ubiquitous and ultimate black box system: although many people have a fairly good understanding of what goes in (combustion of fossil fuel in a large thermal plant; falling water in a hydro station; solar radiation absorbed by a photovoltaic cell; the splitting of uranium in a reactor) and everybody benefits from what comes out (light, heat, motion), only a minority fully understand what goes on inside the generating plants, transformers, transmission lines, and final-use devices.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p. 32-33)

All forms of energy can be measured in the same units joule is the scientific unit; calories are often used in nutrition.

Most of us are not going to be texting our friends about joules, but it helps with comparisons in the book.

In almost all cases, Smil relates any numbers to everyday experience.

Basically, a joule is the energy it takes to move 2.2 pounds a meter per second.

  • J = joule
  • kg = kilogram (2.2 lbs)
  • m = meter
  • s = second

The economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services.

Robert Ayres, (p. 21)

World’s Biggest Oil Fields and when they were first drilled:

  • Saudi Arabia: Ghawar (1948)
  • Saudi Arabia: Safaniya (1951)
  • Saudi Arabia: Manifa (1957)
  • Iran: Gachsaran (1927)
  • Iraq: Kirkkuk (1927)
  • Kuwait: Burgan (1937)
  • Russia/USSR: Romashkino (1948)
  • Russia/USSR: Samotlor (1965)

Notably, the largest oil fields were all drilled before 1965…

What Do We Get From a Barrel of Oil? | by Daniel Ganninger | Knowledge Stew  | Medium
Crude Oil Barrel (42 gallons)

From 1940 to 1970, crude oil was so cheap that there were no incentives to use it efficiently. (p. 29)

Page 30 is one of the most interesting lessons in 20th century history.

OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) was set up in 1960 in Baghdad, Iraq. With only five countries at the time as members, it was not large enough to assert itself then, but it became powerful over the next decade as American extraction peaked in 1970.

In April 1972, the Texas Railroad Commission lifted its limits on the state’s output and hence surrendered its control of the price that it had held since the 1930s.

In 1971, Algeria and Libya began to nationalize their oil production, and Iraq followed in 1972, the same year that Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia began their gradual takeover of their oilfields which until that point had been in the hands of foreign corporations.

Then in 1973, the US ended its limits on the import of crude oil east of the Rocky Mountains.

Suddenly, it was a sellers’ market, and on October 1, 1973 OPEC raised its posted price by 16% to $1.01/barrel, followed by an additional 17% rise by six Arab Gulf states and, after the Israeli victory over Egypt in Sinai in October 1973, it embargoed all oil exports to the US.

On January 1, 1974, the Gulf states raised their posted price to $11.65/barrel, completing a 4.5-fold rise in the cost of this essential energy source in a single year and this ended the era of rapid economic expansion that had been energized by cheap oil.

Highlighting the persisting dependence on oil, even in this era of high-tech electronic miracles, it is still impossible to store electricity affordably in quantities sufficient to meet the demand of a medium-sized city (500,000 people) for only a week or two.

white nuclear plant silo under orange sky at sunset
Nuclear Power Plant

Modern nuclear reactors, if properly built and carefully run, offer safe, long-lasting, and highly reliable ways of electricity generation; as already noted, they are able to operate more than 90% of the time, and their lifespan can exceed 40 years.

Still, the future of nuclear generation remains uncertain. Only China, India, and South Korea are committed to further expansion of their capacities.

In the West, the combination of high capital costs, major construction delays, and the availability of less expensive choices (natural gas in the US, wind and solar in Europe) has made new fission capacities unattractive.

Moreover, America’s new small, modular, and inherently safe reactors (first proposed during the 1980s) have yet to be commercialized, and Germany, with its decision to abandon all nuclear generation by 2022, is only the most obvious example of Europe’s widely shared, deep anti-nuclear sentiment.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p.40)

Chapter 2: Understanding Food Production

Securing a sufficient quantity and nutritional variety of food is the existential imperative for every species.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p.44)
  • 1 hectare = 2.47 acres = one soccer field
top view photo of soccer field during day

Food production allowed for no more than 3 people per soccer field until the 16th century.

No improvement has been so existentially fundamental as our ability to produce, year after year, more than enough food.

Now most people in affluent and middle-income countries worry about what (and how much) is best to eat in order to maintain or improve their health and extend their longevity, not whether they will have enough to survive. (p.46)

Agriculture growing food crops for people and feed for animals must be energized by solar radiation, specifically the blue and red parts of the visible spectrum.

Chlorophylls and carotenoids, light-sensitive molecules in plant cells, absorb light at these wavelengths and use it to power photosynthesis, a multi-step sequence of chemical reactions that combines atmospheric carbon dioxide and water as well as small amounts of elements including, notably nitrogen and phosphorus to produce new plant mass for grain, legume, tuber, oil, and sugar crops.

Part of these harvests is fed to domestic animals to produce meat, milk, and eggs, and additonal animal foods come from mammals that graze on grasses and aquatic species whose growth depends ultimately on pytoplankton, the dominant plant mass produce by aquatic photosynthesis. (p. 48)

white and black loaves on table
Two Loaves of Sourdough

In 1801, to produce wheat took about 150 hours of human labor per soccer field.

Altogether, it took about 10 minutes of human labor to produce two loaves of bread.

In 2021, to produce wheat takes less than 2 hours of human labor per soccer field.

Altogether, it takes about 2 seconds of human labor to produce two loaves of bread. (p. 51)


Nitrogen is in every living cell.

I am always amused when I see yet another list of the most important (or the greatest) modern inventions containing computers or nuclear rectors or transistors or automobiles…and always missing ammonia synthesis!

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p. 255)

It is abundant it makes up nearly 80% of the atmosphere yet it is a key limiting factor in crop productivity and human growth.

This is one of the great paradoxical realities of the biosphere and its explanation is simple: nitrogen exists in the atmosphere as a non-reactive molecule (N2) and only a few natural processes can split the bond between the two nitrogen atoms and make the element available to form reactive compounds.

In 1909, Fritz Haber (from above) invented ammonia synthesis (what a guy!).

It took a while to get going, then, after World War 2, nitrogenous fertilizers took off and that’s why we have the crop yields that we do.

Bread, Chicken, Tomatoes
red and green fresh tomatoes

Given that vegans extol eating plants, and that the media have reported extensively on the high environmental cost of meat, you might think that gains in the energy cost of chicken have been surpassed by those in the cultivation and marketing of vegetables.

You would be mistaken to think that.

The opposite has been true, in fact, and there is no better example to illustrate these surprisingly high energy burdens than taking a close look at tomatoes.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p.59)

Smil is smart, yet compassionate.

He knows this will all be forgotten unless he can make it relatable.

He expresses the needs for diesel fuel in terms of volumes per unit of edible product.

Grain is the cheapest, meat is the most expensive (in terms of energy).

For instance, sourdough bread is the simplest kind of bread and it is easy to make.

Growing the grain, milling it, and baking a 1-kilogram sourdough loaf requires an energy input equivalent of at least 250 milliliters of diesel, a volume slightly larger than the American measuring cup. (p.56)

group of hen inside cage
  • Bread: 210-250 mL/kg (slightly more than an American measuring cup)
  • Chicken: 230-350 milliliters of crude oil (half a bottle of wine) to produce 2.2 pounds of chicken
  • Tomato: 650 mL/kg!
  • Seafood: 700mL/kg (nearly a full wine bottle of diesel fuel)

The interesting thing about bread is it requires minimal energy when it is made locally.

As it turns out, only a small share is made where it is bought. Transportation costs from factory-type bakeries can make the energy consumption as high as 600 mL/kg.

white dump truck near pine tress during daytime

As you can see above, chicken is surprisingly efficient to produce, which is why it has become the dominant meat in all Western countries (globally, pork still leads, thanks to China’s enormous demand). (p.58)

Smil hates on tomatoes because they require so much energy. Even though they have a lot of vitamin C, it is “overwhelmingly, just an appealingly shaped container of water, which comprises 95% of its mass.” (p.59)

Unfortunately, the seafood we like to eat (salmon, sea bass, tuna) are carnivorous, and for their proper growth they need to be fed protein-rich fish meals and fish oil derived from catches of wild species such as anchovies, pilchards, capelin, herring, and mackerel. (p.63)

Aquaculture is getting better, though.

  • Wild caught: 96 million tons (2018)
  • Aquaculture: 82 million tons (2018)

Yes, sushi is to blame for tuna becoming an endangered species.

a fish farm in a blue sea under a blue sky

Can we return to purely organic cropping, relying on recycled organic wastes and natural pest controls, and could we do without engine-powered irrigation and without field machinery by bringing back draft animals?

We could, but purely organic farming would require most of us to abandon cities, resettle villages, dismantle central animal feeding operations, and bring all animals back to farms to use them for labor and as sources of manure. (p. 66)

…but the readers of this book now understand that our food is partly made not just of oil, but also of coal that was used to produce the coke required for smelting the iron needed for field, transportation, and food processing machinery; of natural gas that serves as both feedstock and fuel for the synthesis of nitrogenous fertilizers; and of the electricity generated by the combustion of fossil fuels that is indispensable for crop processing, taking care of animals, and food and feed storage and preparation.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p.75)

Chapter 3: Understanding Our Material World

The four pillars of modern civilization are:

  • Ammonia
  • Steel
  • Concrete
  • Plastic

Silicon (Si) made into thin wafers (the basic substrate of microchips) is the signature material of the electronic age, but billions of people could live prosperously without it; it is not an existential constraint on modern civilization.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p.77)
farm tractor harvesting on field

In 2019, the world consumed:

  • 4.5 billion tons of cement
  • 1.8 billion tons of steel
  • 370 million tons of plastics
  • 150 million tons of ammonia

They are not readily replaceable by other materials certainly not in the near future or on a global scale. (p.78)

You would not believe the things they are doing to plastic. I thought plastic is basically plastic. They keep trying to do new things to it to create new plastics. (p. 84-88)

Steels (the plural is more accurate as there are more than 3,500 varieties) are alloys dominated by iron (Fe). (p.88)

Since you were dying to know, it is hard to recycle the steel from a ship. They dismantle them mostly on beaches in Pakistan (Gadani, northwest of Karachi), India (Alang in Gujarat), and Bangladesh (near Chittagong). (p.92)

photo of old ship under cloudy sky

Not that we need to know this, but it is interesting in a complex world economy to learn what happens where.


The process starts with blast furnaces (tall iron and steel structures lined with heat resistant materials) that produce liquid (cast or pig) iron by smelting iron ore, coke, and limestone.

The second step reducing cast iron’s high carbon content and producing steel takes place in a basic oxygen furnace (“BOF”).

The process was invented in the 1940s and commercialized in the 1950s.

Today’s furnaces are large, pear-shaped vessels with an open top used to charge up to 300 tons of hot iron, which gets blasted with oxygen blowin in from both top and bottom.

The reaction reduces the metal’s carbon content (to as little as 0.04%) in 30 minutes.

The combination of a blast furnace and a basic oxygen furnace is the basis of modern integrated steelmaking.

Final step(s): transfer the hot steel to continuous casting machines.

selective focus photography cement

Cement is produced by heating (to at least 1,450° C) ground limestone (a source of calcium) and clay, shale, or waste materials (sources of silicon, aluminum, and iron) in large kilns.

This high temperature recipe produces clinker (fused limestone and aluminosilicates) that is ground to yield fine, powdery cement. (p.94)

Peak cement demand in the United States was reached in 2005: 128 million tons (run rate of about 100 million tons a year).

How much China produced in 2019: 2.2 billion tons.

Electric Cars
electric cars charging on stations

A typical lithium car battery weighs about 450 kilograms. (p. 101)

  • Lithium: 11 kg
  • Cobalt: 14 kg
  • Nickel: 27 kg
  • Copper: 40 kg
  • Graphite: 50 kg
  • Steel, aluminum, plastic: 181 kg

(Those numbers add up to 323 kg, so I’m not sure what the rest is made of.)

Supplying these materials for a single vehicle requires processing about 40 tons of ores, and given the low concentration of many elements in their ores it necessitates extracting and processing about 225 tons of raw materials.

If 25% of vehicles become electric by 2050, demand for lithium would increase 18-20x, cobalt 17-19x, and nickel 28-31x.

A lot of cobalt comes from the Congo. They use child labor to get it. No free lunches in those hand-dug mine shafts.

We are living in a material world.

Chapter 4: Understanding Globalization

If low labor costs were the sole reason for locating new factories abroad as many people seem to erroneously believe then sub-Saharan Africa would be the most obvious choice, and India would almost always be preferable to China.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p. 105)
person with toy airplane on world map

China provided a combination of other attractors above all, centralized one-party government that could guarantee political stability and acceptable investment conditions; a large, highly homogeneous and literate population; and an enormous domestic market that made it the preferred choice over Nigeria, Bangladesh, and even India, resulting in a remarkable collusion between the world’s largest communist state and a nearly complete lineup of the world’s leading capitalist enterprises.


Post-1950 globalization was enabled by a combination of four fundamental technical advances (p. 116):

  • Diesel engines: which power the ships that carry oil & grain
  • Gas turbines: used for jet airplanes
  • Container ships: Massive bulk carriers for liquids & solids, and containerization of other cargoes
  • Microprocessors: Quantum leaps in computing and information processing (1971 Intel)

Chapter 5: Understanding Risks

This chapter is interesting, but seems out of place in the book.

Most people and most governments find it difficult to deal properly with low-probability but high-impact (high-loss) events. (p. 164)

Public reaction to risks is guided more by a dread of what is unfamiliar, unknown, or poorly understood than by any comparative appraisal of actual consequences. When these strong emotional reactions are involved, people focus excessively on the possibility of a dreaded outcome (death by a terrorist attack or by a viral pandemic) rather than trying to keep in mind the probability of such an outcome taking place. (166)

Chapter 6: Understanding the Environment

This chapter was a reminder of my AP Environmental Science class in high school.

Smil says we can basically ignore everything we hear about living on Mars.

All that Ammonia Synthesis and fertilizer talk earlier has a downside. Phosphorus and soluble nitrogen contaminate water and support excessive algal growth. The algae hog all the oxygen and everything dies.

If you live in Florida, you have probably dealt with this and learned that there are no easy, inexpensive and rapid solutions.

Smil focuses on three existential fundamentals: What is the outlook for oxygen, water, and food supply on a warmer earth?

  • Oxygen: Burning fossil fuels removes about 27 billion tons of oxygen a year from the atmosphere. Good news, this is an annual decline of 0.002%. It would take 1,500 years to lower oxygen levels by 3%.
  • Water: Uneven issues. Some places will be fine. Others, not so fine.
  • Food: There will be enough food. Crop yields continue to improve. It would be beneficial environmentally if more people shifted from beef to other forms of protein.

Simple, effective way to save energy: tripled-paned windows. (p.190)

Was there a single climate modeler who predicted in 1980 the most important anthropogenic factor driving global warming over the past 30 years: the economic rise of China?

The reality is that any sufficiently effective steps will be decidedly non-magical, gradual, and costly. (p. 204)

Chapter 7: Understanding the Future

Quantitative forecasts fall into three broad categories.

1. The smallest includes forecasts that deal with processes whose workings are well known and whose dynamics are inherently restricted to a relatively confined set of outcomes.

2. The second, and a much larger category, includes forecasts point in the right direction, but with substantial uncertainties regarding the specific outcome.

3. The third category is that of quantitative fables: such forecasting exercises may teem with numbers, but the numbers are outcomes of layered (and often questionable) assumptions, and the processes traced by such computerized fairy tales will have very different real-world endings.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p. 207)

Smil gives some examples.

Category 1

An example of Category 1 is demographics. It takes 2.1 children per woman to replace parents.

If you take a country that has been below the replacement level (1.5 – 1.8), it is unlikely that trend is going to reverse to bring any substantial population increase within the next 10 years.

While it is impossible to pinpoint the value, a forecast can offer a relatively narrow range of highly plausible outcomes.

Category 2

An example of Category 2 is electric car adoption.

In contrast [to Category 1], even short-term projections involving complex systems – those that reflect interplays of many technical, economic, and environmental factors, and which can be strongly affected by a number of arbitrary decisions such as unexpectedly generous government subsidies or new laws or sudden policy reversals – remain highly uncertain, and even near-term outlooks result in a broad range of possible outcomes.

Near-term forecasts for the worldwide electrification of road transport have almost uniformly overestimated the actual share: between 2014 and 2016 it was put as high as 8-11% by 2020, while the actual share was just 2.5%.

Category 3

The third category of quantitative forecasts is the one that merits a closer look, because in retrospect many of them have not only failed to capture at least a proper order of magnitude, but their claims and conclusions have turned out to be completely at odds with what actually happened.

Vaclav Smil, How The World Really Works (p. 208)

He points to the failure of all doomsday and extremely optimistic predictions.

“While we cannot be specific, we know that the most likely prospect is a mixture of progress and setbacks, of seemingly insurmountable difficulties and near-miraculous advances.”

See also:

Thanks to James Bunch for reading drafts of this.