• How the World Really Works

  • The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going
  • By: Vaclav Smil
  • Narrated by: Stephen Perring
  • Length: 10 hrs and 7 mins
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (557 ratings)

1 title per month from Audible’s entire catalog of best sellers, and new releases.
Access a growing selection of included Audible Originals, audiobooks and podcasts.
You will get an email reminder before your trial ends.
Your Premium Plus plan is $14.95 a month after 30 day trial. Cancel anytime.
Buy for $18.49

Buy for $18.49

Pay using card ending in
By confirming your purchase, you agree to Audible's Conditions of Use and Amazon's Privacy Notice. Taxes where applicable.

Publisher's Summary

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“A new masterpiece from one of my favorite authors… [How The World Really Works] is a compelling and highly readable book that leaves readers with the fundamental grounding needed to help solve the world’s toughest challenges.”Bill Gates

“Provocative but perceptive . . . You can agree or disagree with Smil—accept or doubt his ‘just the facts’ posture—but you probably shouldn’t ignore him.”—The Washington Post

An essential analysis of the modern science and technology that makes our twenty-first century lives possible—a scientist's investigation into what science really does, and does not, accomplish.

We have never had so much information at our fingertips and yet most of us don’t know how the world really works. This book explains seven of the most fundamental realities governing our survival and prosperity. From energy and food production, through our material world and its globalization, to risks, our environment and its future, How the World Really Works offers a much-needed reality check—because before we can tackle problems effectively, we must understand the facts.

In this ambitious and thought-provoking book we see, for example, that globalization isn’t inevitable—the foolishness of allowing 70 per cent of the world’s rubber gloves to be made in just one factory became glaringly obvious in 2020—and that our societies have been steadily increasing their dependence on fossil fuels, such that any promises of decarbonization by 2050 are a fairy tale. For example, each greenhouse-grown supermarket-bought tomato has the equivalent of five tablespoons of diesel embedded in its production, and we have no way of producing steel, cement or plastics at required scales without huge carbon emissions.

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 guide 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.

©2022 Vaclav Smil (P)2022 Penguin Audio

Critic Reviews

"A scientific panorama of our well-being and how it can be sustained in our current tumultuous times and beyond. [Smil] aims to combat the widespread “comprehension deficit” about basic scientific facts, and he seeks to “explain some of the most fundamental ruling realities governing our survival and our prosperity.” That aim is marvelously achieved…[this is] an exceptionally lucid, evenhanded study of the scientific basis of our current and future lives.”Kirkus, STARRED review 

What listeners say about How the World Really Works

Average Customer Ratings
Overall
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    364
  • 4 Stars
    121
  • 3 Stars
    44
  • 2 Stars
    12
  • 1 Stars
    16
Performance
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    369
  • 4 Stars
    80
  • 3 Stars
    21
  • 2 Stars
    5
  • 1 Stars
    7
Story
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars
  • 5 Stars
    307
  • 4 Stars
    100
  • 3 Stars
    39
  • 2 Stars
    20
  • 1 Stars
    13

Reviews - Please select the tabs below to change the source of reviews.

Sort by:
Filter by:
  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    1 out of 5 stars

Let me save you a credit: progress is hard

Are you ready for a lecture on a park bench from a 80 year old man about why nothing ever changes and everyone is wrong while he feeds the birds?
I don’t know what I was expecting from a book called “How the World Really Works,” but this guy is an absolute curmudgeon, and the whole book has a deeply patronizing tone.

What to do about climate change? The author reccomend a lower not just your expectation but also your ambitions. He’s known about climate change forever and hasn’t done anything about it. Did I mention how hard it is to make ammonia?

He repeatedly and deliberately presents other peoples projections as predictions to show how stupid they are. He then quickly follows up with a reminder about how sinister/lazy the media are for misrepresenting projections as predictions.

I don’t know how many young whipersnappers need to be told that progress is hard and change is slow, but if that’s you, you’ve found the book you need.

Narration was great.

16 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

A mixed bag

Pockets of extraordinarily interesting information interspersed amongst some rather banal histories. It’s worth reading, it’s worth owning, but don’t expect to be wowed on every ‘page.’

4 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars

It's risky to leave your main point until the end

The author seems over-eager to demonstrate his mastery of the material, too high-minded English science club. He spends the bulk of the book stating the benefits derived from the means that allow our current lifestyle, pointing out that there are not suitable alternatives, without stating what to me is the obvious - that these means are intrinsically harmful to humanity, stemming from the fact that unregulated capitalism, greed, apathy and overconsumption are the wrong ends.

Yes, nuclear power is far more efficient than coal, for example, but for one thing it produces radioactive waste for which we have no fail-safe storage, and even if we were to stumble on a completely efficient energy source that has no harmful by-products, the unrestrained use of energy only allows humans to more quickly exhaust other resources and externalize costs to pollution and resource depletion.

These basic things should have either been summed up at the start or interspersed throughout the book - not saved (incompletely at that) for the final chapters.

2 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Excellent

It’s really nice to read something based on reality and statistics without political influence. I’d recommend it.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars
  • KT
  • 07-09-22

Better to be pragmatic than a true believer.

Loved it, the use of factual data brings realism to my world view. I like to think positive about solving problems, but it's more effective to be scientific.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    5 out of 5 stars

Strong realist analysis

A wonderful title for gaining a realistic, apolitical appraisal of the major systems driving the world, inputs and outputs, and broad historical trends. Only gripes, hence 4 stars: the section on risk analysis was too long, and why focus on oxygen as a possibly threatened resource?

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

Sometimes repetitive.

The narrator is one of the best I have ever heard. Great pronunciation. The book repeats and repeats the same concepts, although it gives you a good idea of what energy sources are here to be for, at least, the rest of our lives.

1 person found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    3 out of 5 stars

Misleading Title

Misses the mark of what the title implies. The author takes a cherry-picked journey through some key areas of his interests and applies ample linear, old-school rationalizations to basic conclusions. Not a lot of new thought here or evidence to advance the discussion on key societal issues.

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    2 out of 5 stars

Man yells at cloud

I liked some of the other books of Mr Smil in the he past. This book however, ended up just leaving an irritating impression.
While the book does contain some interesting data points, it also spends a good chunk of its content crapping on everything in the modern world while offering only feeble incremental solutions while in the same time complaining no one has the solutions. On occasions the author contradicts himself between chapters.
The thesis also doesn't highlight what appears to be one of the keys to the solution, that of drastically reducing the world population, that seems to be only solution that comes to mind given the postulates in the book.

  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

A good documentary

Is a good and short essay about the energy sources and materials that fuels the civilization, but doesn't have the complexity that the title announced.

.