From Microorganisms to Megacities
664 pp., 6 x 9 in, 178 b&w illus.
- Published: December 8, 2020
- Published: September 24, 2019
- Published: September 6, 2019
A systematic investigation of growth in nature and society, from tiny organisms to the trajectories of empires and civilizations.
Growth has been both an unspoken and an explicit aim of our individual and collective striving. It governs the lives of microorganisms and galaxies; it shapes the capabilities of our extraordinarily large brains and the fortunes of our economies. Growth is manifested in annual increments of continental crust, a rising gross domestic product, a child's growth chart, the spread of cancerous cells. In this magisterial book, Vaclav Smil offers systematic investigation of growth in nature and society, from tiny organisms to the trajectories of empires and civilizations.
Smil takes readers from bacterial invasions through animal metabolisms to megacities and the global economy. He begins with organisms whose mature sizes range from microscopic to enormous, looking at disease-causing microbes, the cultivation of staple crops, and human growth from infancy to adulthood. He examines the growth of energy conversions and man-made objects that enable economic activities—developments that have been essential to civilization. Finally, he looks at growth in complex systems, beginning with the growth of human populations and proceeding to the growth of cities. He considers the challenges of tracing the growth of empires and civilizations, explaining that we can chart the growth of organisms across individual and evolutionary time, but that the progress of societies and economies, not so linear, encompasses both decline and renewal. The trajectory of modern civilization, driven by competing imperatives of material growth and biospheric limits, Smil tells us, remains uncertain.
Vaclav Smil does for the history of energy what Thomas Piketty did for the history of inequality. And his findings are just as uncomfortable.
Rutger Bregman, historian and author of Utopia for Realists (2017) and Humankind (2020)
An epic, multidisciplinary analysis of growth.
Smil, whose research spans energy, population and environmental change, drives home the cost of growth on a finite planet. It is high: polluted land, air and water, lost wilderness and rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.... Growth urges us to think differently. That is desperately needed to manage the trade-offs in making renewables more efficient, improving economic incentives for fast adoption, minimizing environmental degradation and bettering lives in a swelling population.
Growth, whether biological, social or economic, may be normal, [Smil] says, but the exponential growth in economies and lifestyles we have seen in recent decades isn't, and can't continue without disastrous consequences.
Growth is filled with numbers, graphs and mathematical notation. Yet it's written to be easily understood by non-mathematicians, making brilliant but accessible use of statistics to illustrate salient features of growth in all its terrestrial forms (the book's scope is limited to Earth). In short, Growth is a compelling read.
Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses
A somewhat eccentric but really rather compelling read. The subtitle indicates its ambition. We do literally go from the growth dynamics of archaea and bacteria all the way to empires.... The joy of this book is less in the big picture than in the detail. And what a lot of it! The mind boggles at Smil's extensive reading and absorption of information. We get the speed at which marathons are run – over the entire course of human history; the growth rates of piglets and weight of chickens over time; sales of small non-industrial motors over time; the envelope for the maximum speed of travel; Kuznets cycles; Zipf's law for city size.... The middle section of chapters offer a fantastic overview of technical progress over long periods in a wide range of technologies. I love all this detail.
The Enlightened Economist
A rich and unique work from one of the leading interdisciplinary minds in the world today.... An outstanding reference guide for growth in its many forms, I don't hesitate to say that Growth should find its way onto the bookshelves of everybody interested in understanding the complexity of growth and how it affects the urban landscape.
In his new book, Growth — a dense, 500-page treatise that covers everything from 'microorganisms to megacities,'... Smil makes perhaps an even-more-off-putting proposition: that in order to 'ensure the habitability of the biosphere,' we must at the very least move away from prioritizing growth and perhaps abandon it entirely.
New York Magazine
Smil's weighty tome turns out to be both entertaining and erudite, exploring the benefits and limits of material growth to reach a fundamental point about the uncertainty of civilization's survival and the importance of maintaining a habitable biosphere to ensure it.