How the World Really Works – Book Review

It is important for investors, and indeed for everyone, to understand what factors are driving the world’s economies. This is particularly so when there are concerns about global warming and the alleged degradation of the environment as the world’s population continues to increase.

A good primer on this subject is a recently published book by Prof. Vaclav Smil entitled “How the World Really Works”. The author covers wide ranging topics from energy supply to food supply in a very analytic way based on established facts rather than polemics which he criticises as being far too common in the modern world.

His chapter on food production is particularly interesting and he shows how we now manage to feed 8 billion people reasonably well which would have been inconceivable 100 years ago. How do we do it? By using energy supplied mostly from fossil fuels to create fertilizers and by manufacturing farm machinery and road/rail/shipping transport to distribute the products efficiently. The author points out that if we reverted to solely “organic” farming methods we would be lucky to feed half the world’s population.

He covers the supply of key products such as steel, plastics and cement which are essential for our modern standard of living and how they are not only energy intensive in production but that there are few alternatives. He clearly supports the view that the climate is being affected by man’s activities but points out that the changing of energy production, food  production and the production of key products cannot be easily achieved. Certainly it will be difficult to achieve that in the timescales demanded by European politicians when the major carbon emitters of China, India, USA, and Russia are moving so slowly.

Meanwhile any forecasts of the use of oil declining or reserves running out should be treated with scepticism as the price of oil reaches a 7 year high of $95 per barrel. Perhaps investors in oil companies (I hold none) should not be too keen to exit the sector rapidly particularly as the book teaches you that forecasts of economic activity are notoriously difficult.

The author looks at the risks in the future for the world, many of which are uncertain. He mentions the risk of a big “Carrington event” – a geomagnetic storm occurring today would cause widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts, and damage due to extended outages of the electrical grid. If that is not enough to scare you he suggests that another pandemic similar to Covid-19 is very likely as such epidemics have happened about every 20 years in the past and might be more virulent in future. But planning for such events, which were historically well known, was minimal and continues to be so.

He does not propose solutions to global warming other than that we do have many tools to enable us to adapt and cope with the issue. For example, farming could be made more efficient and wasted food reduced. Electrification of vehicles might help in a minor way and he is particularly critical of the increase in the use of SUVs in the last 20 years which has been particularly damaging (I cannot but agree with him on that point). But this is not a book containing simple remedies to the world’s problems. It is more one that gives you an understanding of how we got to where we are now and where we might be going.

For example, the use of coal in energy generation can be much reduced, and oil/gas also to some extent. Nuclear fission is a good source of clean energy and fission is a possibility even if he was not aware of the latest announcements on the latter. But it is inconceivable that there will be short-term revolutions in energy supply.

Altogether the book is worth reading just to get an understanding of how the world currently works – as the book’s title suggests.

Incidentally some of the events covered in How the World Really Works are also discussed in my own recently published book entitled “A Journal of the Coronavirus Year” which covers not just the recent pandemic but the changes that have happened in the last 75 years of my lifetime. It’s now available from Amazon – see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Journal-Coronavirus-Year-2020-2021-Biographical/dp/0954539648/ for more information.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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