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  • How the World Really Works

  • How Science Can Set Us Straight on Our Past, Present and Future
  • By: Vaclav Smil
  • Narrated by: Stephen Perring
  • Length: 10 hrs and 8 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: History, World
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (51 ratings)

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Summary

Brought to you by Penguin.

We have never had so much information at our fingertips, and yet most of us simply don't understand how our world really works. Professor Vaclav Smil is not a pessimist or an optimist, he is a scientist, and this book is a much-needed reality check on topics ranging from food production and nutrition, through energy and the environment, to globalisation and the future. For example, the carbon footprint of meat is well known, but did you know that the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel fuel goes into the production of each greenhouse-grown, medium-size, supermarket-bought tomato? The gap between belief and reality is vast. 

Drawing on the latest science, tackling sources of misinformation head-on and championing a rational, fact-based approach, in How the World Really Works Smil shows, for example, why the planet isn't 'suffocating' (even burning all the planet's fossil fuels would reduce oxygen levels by just 0.25 per cent) and that globalisation isn't 'inevitable' and nor should it be (the stupidity of allowing 70 per cent of the world's rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020). 

Ultimately, Smil answers the most profound question of our age: are we irrevocably doomed, or is a brighter utopia ahead? Compelling, data-rich and revisionist, this wonderfully broad, interdisciplinary masterpiece finds faults with both extremes. Looking at the world through this quantitative lens reveals hidden truths that change the way we see our past, present and uncertain future.

©2021 Vaclav Smil (P)2021 Penguin Audio

What listeners say about How the World Really Works

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  • Overall
    1 out of 5 stars

Nothing new, really tedious

Oil is used in everything, ok? just saved you the need to buy this book.

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    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars

Hope I never get this cynical

Interesting data based analysis of foundational principles of human existence but increasingly difficult to listen to due to poor understanding and cynical treatment of emerging technologies, particularly AI. Despite the authors claims of not making predictions about the future due to the vast array of possible outcomes making it impossible, he makes increasingly bold prophecies, especially about the near pointlessness of some technological pursuits in the face of fundamental resource and environmental imperatives - a self contradictory position reminiscent of the perfunctory judgement of everyone's 'favourite uncle'. The basic message is don't be dazzled by visions of a better technology enabled future, it's all about Amonia, Concrete, Steel and Plastic - perhaps but and he does not seem to understand the purpose of computer modelling as a means of rapidly exploring multiple future scenarios, constraints and opportunities - pointless bunk apparently.

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    2 out of 5 stars
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    1 out of 5 stars

Disappointed

Surprisingly dull, repetitive and unscientific.
Each chapter could have been one quarter of the length.

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  • ultrunner
  • 23-02-22

Tedious

This book is a good primer for aliens visiting planet Earth for the first time. Humans who have been living here for the last few decades and have been paying reasonable attention to what's going on will find the workings described here less revealing.

The first two chapters on energy and food production are interesting. The following chapters get increasingly tedious, as they are largely a rehash of known facts. A good sprinkling of numbers from statistical yearbooks helps the reader maintain some interest. But don't expect to find anything new here, if you've been keeping up with science and non-fiction literature in the past.

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  • andrew
  • 15-06-22

Great but too many numbers

It's an enjoyable look at the world but for an audio book there are too many numbers given in succession for one example or case. It makes it difficult to grasp the comparisons. You know, there are examples in two orders of magnitude more numerous than in other books. Also, in some cases, the examples are not illustrative to a regular person. You know, the number of words in this audio book is two point seven to the power of six, which is one point seven times more than in other audio books while a regular listener consumes about 5 hours of audio content per week.
It may work in print version, or at least it's easier to ignore or skip, but in audio version it's just too much. Other than that, a great book and food for thought!