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

Book review by Deane Barker
tags: science
Vaclav Smil

The author is a physicist, and he attempts to explain how the world really works, meaning what’s is utterly necessary for humans to survive as a species.

For example, he explains why we need ammonia. Because we use it to make fertilizer ever since the Haber-Bosch process was established, and without that, half the population would die.

Also, we explains how absolutely everything we do and consume depends on fossil fuels, to the point of explaining how much fuel is takes to make a pound of beans, red meat, salmon, and shrimp (the latter is pretty bad for the environment, it turns out).

In doing so, he busts some myths – for example, chicken production has gotten so efficient, that it’s not that bad for the environment – they can be bred anywhere, year-around. Contrast that to tomatoes, which have to be artificially grown off-season and shipped around the world.

The enduring message of the book is that all the political, social, and environmental posturing in the world is limited by the basic laws of physics. Our society requires energy to function, and energy is simply transformed and converted all the time into other energy (at one point he explains how a tomato is just a “wrapper around oil” or something).

The book is sobering, but not depressing. It’s a realistic look at the world around us, and the challenges that face us as we try to save the planet and feed the human race.

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