How the World Really Works Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: How the World Really Works breaks down the physical underpinnings that keep everyday life going, from explaining energy to food production to the material constituents of our cities, and even globalization, risks, climate change, and what it’ll take for humans to have a good future.

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How the World Really Works Summary

A few years ago, a reporter followed Bill Gates around for a documentary. Standing in Gates’ extensive library, he asks him about his reading. If it’s about global energy, he always chooses Vaclav Smil, Gates says, a name I’ve never heard before. “Every single good book about energy is from him,” Gates claims.

He takes one off the shelf. And another. And another. They’re all dense tomes, but Gates has committed to reading everything he writes, he says. They even struck up a friendship over the years. The world’s richest person and a Czech-Canadian scientist. Smil has written over 40 books on energy, the environment, population change, food production, and countless other topics.

His latest, How the World Really Works, is his magnum opus. Believing important information should be accessible to anyone, Smil condensed his life’s work into a few understandable chapters in simple language. The result? Instead of his usual, 500-page textbooks, we get a more digestible yet still enlightening tour of the world in 7 parts.

Here are 3 key takeaways that show how the world really works — so we can change it for the better!

  1. Energy comes in many forms and from many sources, but only 3 have real relevance today.
  2. Our material world is literally built on 4 materials, all of which rely heavily on fossil fuels.
  3. An accurate grasp of reality requires a good understanding of numbers and magnitudes.

Ready to get the facts on life as we know it? Let’s jump in!

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Lesson 1: We mainly get our energy from 3 sources, and only 2 of those won’t cause environmental trouble in the long run.

They say that money makes the world go round, but actually, it’s energy. Without power in the form of heat and electricity, modern life would come to a screeching halt within days. But Canadians don’t freeze in the winter, and even half of Africa already has internet access.

While there are many forms of energy, from gravitational to chemical to biomass, only 3 kinds constitute basically all global consumption:

  1. Fossil fuels, like oil, coal, and natural gas, which account for 75-80% of humanity’s energy usage, depending on how you measure.
  2. Renewables, like solar, wind, and water energy, which make up around 16%.
  3. Nuclear power, which is only used for 4% of our energy consumption.

Each form of energy has advantages and disadvantages. Fossil fuels contain a lot of energy and are easy to transport and store. But their emissions harm the planet. Renewables are eco-friendly but fickle. We can’t fully rely on them with current technologies. And nuclear power, while both reliable and planet-sparing, has a bad reputation because of a handful of disasters and worst-case scenarios.

Given the mix of global energy, clearly, we have a long way to go in making heat and electricity sustainable — and while that way is a path we can see, it’ll be neither fast, nor easy, nor cheap, Smil says. Unlike the stuff the world is made of today, which brings me to…

Lesson 2: The world is built on 4 materials, and they all require extensive use of fossil fuels.

A common criticism of current politicians is that they live in their heads, but we, too, can easily become divorced from reality. We might scroll through the news and think we’ve got the world economy figured out, but if someone questioned us about our environment on a walk around the block, we’d likely have little to show for.

Take the parts your neighborhood is made of, for example. Do you know the most common constituents of our material world? There are 4:

  1. Concrete, which was invented by the Romans, then lost for 1,000 years, and now makes up half of everything we build, from roads to tunnels and buildings. 
  2. Steel, which not only reinforces much of the above concrete but also finds application in ships, skyscrapers, machines, train tracks, planes, and many other places.
  3. Plastic, which is light but durable and thus used in clothes, electronics, toys, everyday appliances, and pretty much everywhere else.
  4. Ammonia, mainly in the form of fertilizer, without which half the world would go hungry.

While all of these materials can be recycled to some degree, the processes for manufacturing them are energy-intensive, leading back to fossil fuels. Plastic, for example, is even made of petroleum, which is refined oil. It also causes most of its emissions while being made, not when it is swimming abandoned in the ocean (which is usually the part we focus on).

Innovations for making these four materials and the things they power carbon-neutral appear every day, but since even solar cells and wind turbines rely on them, it’ll likely be a while before the world will be “100% organic.”

Lesson 3: Master magnitudes of numbers for a better understanding of reality.

As useful as the many facts Smil shares about the world in the book are, perhaps its best idea comes from the appendix: Dedicate a few minutes to understanding the different magnitudes of numbers. This skill will serve you for the rest of your life.

Our world is more dominated by numbers than ever before. Every day, we hear about stock prices, government spending, and population numbers. Our phones track our steps, our boss asks us to analyze data, and our social accounts count our followers.

At the same time, those numbers often get twisted, misinterpreted, or show only half the picture. For example, while it is claimed that Germany still relies on fossil fuels for 78% of its energy, when you consider how much of that dissipates vs. gets used, the share of renewable energy sources goes up to 46%.

Yet, despite living in a numbers-based world, most of us can barely comprehend the difference between a million and a billion, let alone what it means to be trillions in debt, like the US government.

One way to remedy this is to look at numbers in exponentials of 10. Each next level of magnitude implies adding another zero. 101 is 10. 102 is 100. And so on. What’s more, the Greek, metric prefixes of deca (10), hecto (100), kilo (1,000), and then mega (millions), giga (billions), and tera (trillions) can help you make mathematical jumps faster.

Grasping the dimensions of modern monetary policy and technological improvements can be hard. Math helps us keep a firm grip on reality. Know your numbers, and you’ll stay on top of how the world really works!

How the World Really Works Review

How the World Really Works is an awesome, concise book to help us gain a rich understanding of where humanity is at, and what challenges we must overcome for a beautiful future. Fun, illuminating, and important. Highly recommended! For more about energy specifically, see Smil’s book about that topic.

Who would I recommend our How the World Really Works summary to?

The 19-year-old environmental activist who got caught up in a trend before understanding it, the 32-year-old high school teacher who wants to prepare her pupils for the real world, and anyone who’s interested in the underpinnings of everyday life.

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Niklas Göke

Niklas Göke is an author and writer whose work has attracted tens of millions of readers to date. He is also the founder and CEO of Four Minute Books, a collection of over 1,000 free book summaries teaching readers 3 valuable lessons in just 4 minutes each. Born and raised in Germany, Nik also holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration & Engineering from KIT Karlsruhe and a Master’s Degree in Management & Technology from the Technical University of Munich. He lives in Munich and enjoys a great slice of salami pizza almost as much as reading — or writing — the next book — or book summary, of course!