How the World Really Works


Against those who anticipate a smooth, timely transition to renewable energy and net-zero carbon emissions, Vaclav Smil argues that we are much more dependent on fossil fuels than we recognize so that an energy transition will be difficult and tumultuous. “The real wrench in the works: we are a fossil-fueled civilization whose technical and scientific advances, quality of life, and prosperity rest on the combustion of huge quantities of fossil carbon, and we cannot simply walk away from this critical determinant of our fortunes in a few decades, never mind years” (p. 5). Fossil fuels, he shows, continue to provide the majority of our primary energy (and have no easy substitute for trucking, flying, and shipping); they play an essential role in global food production, remain indispensable in the manufacture of the four material pillars of civilization (steel, concrete, plastic, and ammonia), and are central to globalization. After considering the global risks and environmental changes facing humanity, Smil ultimately rejects both catastrophism and techno-optimism, and instead forecasts “a complicated trajectory contingent on our—far from foreclosed—choices” (p. 9).


Vaclav Smil

Publication Date

27 January 2022





Resource Type


Systems Addressed

Climate • Economy • Energy • Food • Technology

Resource Theme

Sustainability and Transition
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