"How the World Really Works" by Vaclav Smil

Discover how energy, food production, and material consumption shape our world in Vaclav Smil’s "How the World Really Works." Essential for procurement, supply chain, and marketing pros.


The Procure 4 Marketing Team

9/11/20244 min read

a book cover with a map of the world
a book cover with a map of the world

Vaclav Smil’s "How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going" is an insightful exploration of the fundamental systems that underpin modern civilization. Smil, a distinguished professor and renowned expert in interdisciplinary studies, delves into the intricacies of energy, food production, materials, and the environment, offering a comprehensive understanding of how these systems shape our world. For procurement, supply chain, and marketing professionals, this book provides critical insights that can inform strategic decision-making and operational efficiency. This review explores key themes, critical analysis, and practical applications of Smil’s work for these fields.


"How the World Really Works" aims to demystify the complex systems that sustain our daily lives and economies. Smil’s detailed examination spans multiple sectors, from energy production and food supply chains to material consumption and environmental impacts. The book is structured around the core components that drive modern society, providing readers with a thorough understanding of how these systems function and interact.

Key Themes

1. Energy Systems: Smil emphasizes the central role of energy in shaping civilization. He explores the history of energy use, the transition from traditional biomass to fossil fuels, and the current push towards renewable energy sources. For procurement and supply chain professionals, understanding energy systems is crucial for managing costs, ensuring reliable supply, and planning for future transitions.

2. Food Production and Supply Chains: The book delves into the intricacies of global food production, highlighting the challenges of feeding a growing population. Smil discusses the environmental impacts of agriculture, the complexities of food supply chains, and the need for sustainable practices. Supply chain managers can gain valuable insights into optimizing food logistics, reducing waste, and enhancing sustainability.

3. Material Consumption: Smil examines the production and consumption of key materials, such as steel, cement, and plastics, which are foundational to modern infrastructure. He highlights the environmental and economic implications of material use. Procurement professionals can benefit from understanding these dynamics to make informed sourcing decisions and promote sustainable material use.

4. Environmental Impact: The book addresses the environmental consequences of industrial activities, emphasizing the importance of sustainable practices. Smil discusses issues such as carbon emissions, resource depletion, and pollution. Marketing professionals can use this knowledge to develop campaigns that highlight their company’s commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility.

5. Interconnected Systems: Smil underscores the interconnectedness of global systems, illustrating how changes in one area can ripple through others. This holistic perspective is essential for professionals who need to navigate the complexities of global supply chains and market dynamics.

Critical Analysis

While "How the World Really Works" offers invaluable insights, it also has its challenges and areas for further exploration.

1. Complexity and Depth: Smil’s detailed analysis and comprehensive coverage can be overwhelming for readers without a background in science or engineering. Professionals may need to invest additional time and effort to fully grasp the technical aspects and their implications for their specific fields.

2. Broad Scope: The book’s broad scope, covering multiple sectors and systems, may result in a less detailed exploration of specific areas. Professionals seeking in-depth analysis of particular topics may need to supplement their reading with additional resources.

3. Emphasis on Current State: While Smil provides a thorough examination of how systems currently operate, there is less focus on future trends and innovations. Professionals should consider this limitation and seek out additional sources for insights into emerging technologies and future developments.

Implications for Procurement, Supply Chain, and Marketing Professionals

1. Procurement: Understanding the fundamentals of energy and material consumption can help procurement professionals make more informed sourcing decisions. By recognizing the environmental and economic impacts of different materials and energy sources, they can select suppliers that align with sustainability goals and optimize cost-efficiency. Additionally, insights into global food production can inform procurement strategies in the agricultural sector.

2. Supply Chain: Supply chain managers can benefit from Smil’s analysis of food production and material consumption to enhance logistics and reduce waste. Understanding the interconnectedness of global systems can improve risk management and contingency planning. The book’s emphasis on sustainability can guide efforts to minimize the environmental footprint of supply chain operations.

3. Marketing: Marketing professionals can leverage the knowledge gained from "How the World Really Works" to develop compelling sustainability narratives. Highlighting a company’s commitment to responsible material use, energy efficiency, and environmental stewardship can resonate with environmentally conscious consumers. Additionally, understanding global trends and challenges can inform market positioning and strategic communication.

Practical Applications

1. Energy Management: Professionals can apply Smil’s insights to optimize energy use in their operations. This includes investing in energy-efficient technologies, exploring renewable energy sources, and implementing energy-saving practices. By reducing energy consumption, companies can lower costs and enhance sustainability.

2. Sustainable Sourcing: Procurement teams can use the book’s analysis to identify sustainable materials and suppliers. This involves evaluating the environmental impact of materials and choosing suppliers committed to sustainable practices. Sustainable sourcing can enhance a company’s reputation and meet regulatory requirements.

3. Efficient Supply Chains: Supply chain managers can implement strategies to reduce waste and improve efficiency based on Smil’s insights. This includes optimizing logistics, minimizing resource use, and adopting circular economy principles. Efficient supply chains can lower costs and improve resilience.

4. Sustainability Marketing: Marketing professionals can craft campaigns that highlight the company’s efforts to address the environmental impacts discussed in the book. This includes promoting energy-efficient products, sustainable sourcing practices, and corporate social responsibility initiatives. Effective sustainability marketing can attract environmentally conscious consumers and build brand loyalty.


"How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going" by Vaclav Smil offers a comprehensive and insightful exploration of the fundamental systems that drive modern civilization. For procurement, supply chain, and marketing professionals, the book provides valuable knowledge that can inform strategic decision-making, enhance operational efficiency, and promote sustainability.

While the book’s complexity and broad scope may present challenges, the insights gained are well worth the effort. By understanding the interconnectedness of energy, food production, material consumption, and environmental impact, professionals can navigate the complexities of global systems and drive positive change within their organizations.

In conclusion, "How the World Really Works" is a must-read for professionals seeking to deepen their understanding of the critical systems that shape our world. By applying the principles outlined in the book, procurement, supply chain, and marketing professionals can achieve greater success, sustainability, and resilience in their fields.