[Smil's] painstaking research on subjects too technical (or mundane) for most professional historians makes him an indispensable resource for understanding how the modern world came into being ... How the World Really Works represents the highly readable distillation of this lifetime of scholarship ... Reading Mr. Smil is a bit like watching a grumpy uncle put the naive cousins in their place at a proverbial Thanksgiving squabble ... there is something in How the World Really Works for everyone to hate. At the same time, Mr. Smil disavows both prediction and prescription, instead aiming to understand how we got here (to a time when half of the world enjoys at least a decent standard of living), because he believes that to be a prerequisite for clear and honest thinking about how to get where we want to go (to a decent standard of living to everyone in a sustainable manner) ... cuts through the excesses of alarmism and denialism. Critics will argue that this leads Mr. Smil to underestimate the chances of technological breakthroughs and environmental catastrophe alike. Both are possible.
In short order Smil summarizes the history of global energy, food, material production and trade. (Smil has dedicated books to each subject.) Salient details emerge ... Smil’s impartial scientist persona slips with each sneer at the 'proponents of a new green world' or 'those who prefer mantras of green solutions to understanding how we have come to this point.' Still, his broader point holds: We are slaves to fossil fuels. The global transition that we’ve only barely, unevenly, begun is not the work of years but decades, if not centuries ... Smil’s book can best be understood as a work of criticism. He finds a worthy target in the inane rhetorical battle, waged by climate activists (and echoed by climate journalists), between blithe optimism and apocalyptic pessimism ... It is nevertheless reassuring to read an author so impervious to rhetorical fashion and so eager to champion uncertainty...His most valuable declarations concern the impossibility of acting with perfect foresight ... This may not be a particularly galvanizing conclusion, but it is, yes, how the world works.
In his zeal to make his argument, Smil can over-reach ...This is a shame, because it detracts from a central argument that is undeniable: for all the vows that countries and companies are making to ditch fossil energy and reach net zero emissions by 2050, progress outside electricity generation has been achingly slow ... Yet the larger problem with the book is that, while it deftly diagnoses many of the obstacles to decarbonisation, it offers far too little in the way of policy remedies. Indeed, political considerations of any sort are curiously absent. For a scholar of Smil’s breadth, this is disappointing ... His deep understanding of the slow pace of past energy transitions may make him overly pessimistic about the prospect of a rapid green shift today. But the current crop of global leaders are offering depressingly little policy action to disprove his analysis any time soon.