How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going

Viking. May 2022. 336p. ISBN 9780593297063. $28. SCI
Smil (emeritus, environmental science, Univ. of Manitoba; Numbers Don’t Lie) presents a grimly realistic picture of the present and future of human society’s impact on the environment. The first half of the book is largely accounting: meticulous audits of all of the energy inputs that go into producing food, basic materials, and the transportation and communication systems that connect the globe. Due to the complex and not fully understood interactions of the dynamic systems involved, he disclaims giving detailed solutions or even making long -term predictions. In doing so, the book charts a course between catastrophic fatalism and hopeful assumptions about future technological breakthroughs. Smil justifies this position by looking to the past, and points out how unforeseen natural and sociopolitical events such as COVID or the economic opening of China have dramatically challenged previous models. Ultimately, he sees hard choices and slow changes to be made within the inertia of our existing energy, agriculture, and manufacturing infrastructure as the surest way for a sustainable future.
VERDICT An excellent encapsulation and synthesis of several of Smil’s books from the past decade, offering a realistic assessment for environmentalists, economists, and anyone worried about how humanity will survive the next century.
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