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Book Club Discussion Questions: How the World Really Works by Vaclav Smil

For those of you that haven't or couldn't attend book club lately, we're publishing this months' discussion questions here. All previous book club selections have been posted, complete with summary, discussion questions and, when necessary or appropriate, additional resources to better understand the topic or context. Here are the questions from our current title, How the World Really Works. We hope these questions spark discussions of your own.


How the World Really Works

by Vaclav Smil


“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. -- Publisher Description


Discussion Questions

  1. There were some large umbrella topics discussed over the past seven chapters, some of which have been pieced into political or socioeconomic principles. Where did you fall on some of the primary questions before the book? Did your reading this change any previous perspectives on them?

  2. Discuss the increasing rates of technological advancement and its parallel dependence on fossil fuels.

  3. Do you agree with Smil's assessment of when globalization became a reality? Of its inevitability or lack thereof?

  4. Were you surprised by your response to the book? To its style or a particular aspect?

  5. Based on your reading, did the book spark any new questions you wanted answered? What questions were answered for you?

  6. Do you think the author stayed true to his desire to stay neutral? Explain.

  7. Had you made the connection to the various levels of fossil fuel dependence?

  8. The question was raised last session about what types of books we appreciate and what types of nonfiction might be a good fit. After reading/listening to this book, would you be interested in reading more similar titles?

  9. Do you feel the author knew their subject well enough? Were the topics explained to your satisfaction?

  10. Can you glean any "life lessons" from this book?

  11. Significant space was given to the advancement of the food industry.

  12. Risks and risk management often don't get the notice they might deserve or need. What were some of the risks mentioned that surprised you? Was there an element of risk that you think is overblown? Underblown? Did this discussion change your understanding of the topic?

  13. A few times in the book, Smil mentions the idea that many of our perspectives have gone to one or the other extreme... natural Armageddon or utopian elevation from dependence. Where do you fall on this spectrum? Have you changed in your opinion in the last year, decade, longer?

  14. Discussion of fake news dissemination has one wondering: Where do you primarily get your news? How reliable do you find it? Have you ever fact checked your source?

  15. Where do you think the most reliable news comes from? The least reliable? The most biased? Unbiased?

  16. Were there any perspectives or facts within the book that you found particularly controversial? Do you agree or disagree with Smil's analysis? Where?

  17. Were you at all surprised by how long we have been talking about global warming and greenhouse gasses?

  18. While certain disparity gaps have been shrinking over the years, others remain fairly constant &/or extreme. Smil had his ideas. What are yours on where things stand and how to go about finding a solution? Do you have any eureka solutions or are you justifiably stumped?

  19. With COVID, we were made painfully aware of certain flaws in our current supply chains. What are some of your ideas on the handling of these issues in the future? Do you think there is a way in which to limit these problems?

  20. Discussion into our dietary habits was another topic that repeatedly showed up. Do you fit his pattern? What takeaways did you get from the discussion?

  21. What was your reaction to the amount of work &/or fossil fuel required for basic agriculture? What was your opinion on the 5 tablespoons of tomatoes or the amount of work goes in to a single loaf of bread?

  22. I found the discussions on concrete and plastics to be interesting. How did the invention of and improvements in everyday objects affect our development as a society? Was there a particular object that was discussed that surprised you?

  23. There was significant focus on the issue of global warming. After reading this book, has your understanding of the complex issues surrounding this situation grown or changed? How so? Did something especially stay with you?


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