X-POSTED REVIEW: Vinsel on Smil, 'Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities'

Penelope K. Hardy's picture
Vaclav Smil
Lee Vinsel

Vinsel on Smil, 'Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities'

Vaclav Smil. Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019. Illustrations. xxv + 634 pp. $27.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-262-53968-5

Reviewed by Lee Vinsel (Virginia Tech) Published on H-Environment (August, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56955

Vaclav Smil’s Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities is an examination of growth in nature and societies, including technological systems, which spans the history of life and at moments the planet itself. It is a unique and ambitious volume, as Smil makes clear. I recommend it to everyone, academics and nonacademics alike. Few books have so shaped the way I see the world, in ways that often catch me by surprise.

After introducing his aims and reviewing other works that have examined his topic, Smil first reviews patterns of growth and the mathematical curves that describe them, including the history of the mathematicians and scientists who created the curves and the ways these mathematical representations have been put to use. In the next four chapters, Smil examines growth in various systems: first, nature, including microorganisms, trees and forests, crops, animals, and humans; second, energy systems, from wind and water mills through various engines to nuclear and solar power and electric light and motors; third, artifacts, from simple tools to transportation systems and electronics; and fourth, what he calls complex assemblies, including populations, societies, cities, and economies. A further chapter explores the question “what comes after growth?” and examines decline in everything from living organisms to technological systems to entire civilizations. A coda offers reflection on what these lessons about growth have to teach, including for existential issues like global climate change.

There are a few warnings about Growth that I give to everyone but are perhaps particularly apropos for readers of H-Environment. First, Smil has a relationship to statistics and quantification that many environmental historians and other humanities and qualitative social science scholars do not share. In 2020, Smil published his book Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World. That book’s title alone, especially when combined with blurbs from Bill Gates (who routinely refers to Smil as his favorite author) and Steven Pinker, is enough to set many historians’ teeth on edge. Of course, numbers lie—for example, when people derive them in misleading ways or when we act on metrics that turn out to have almost nothing to do with what we actually care about and hope to achieve. Second, Growth can, at times, be mind-bendingly boring. Personally, while I found parts of Smil’s description and history of growth curves fascinating, I experienced many others as overly long, tedious, and without point. Getting through this long book—there are over five hundred pages of text before endnotes and the like—takes fortitude.

But the benefits of reading Growth more than make up for these deficiencies. While many historians will not share Smil’s love of, even fetish for, numbers, the reality is that we simply cannot grasp the scale of technological and economic change in modern societies without quantities. Smil has an incredible ability to find good numbers on important topics. A shocking and frequently quoted fact from Smil’s work helps us see this clearly: “While the US consumption of cement added up to 4.56 gigatons during the entire 20th century, China emplaced more of it, 4.9 gigatons, in just three years between 2008 and 2010 and used even more of it (5.5 gigatons) to make concrete ... between 2009 and 2011” (p. 396). For readers unfamiliar with the term, a gigaton is a billion tons, and the increasing production of cement in recent years becomes really dismaying when one considers that making cement is a major contributor of greenhouse gases and one for which we have no real alternative at this time. Chugging through Smil’s quantitative reports of growth can be dull, but as we do—at least in my experience—something shifts within us. This book can change the way you think. Pick your favorite filmic metaphor, be it The Matrix (1999), Dark City (1998), Inception (2010), or what have you: Smil “hacks” your mind.

An interesting phenomenon is where Smil chooses to editorialize with his snarky and, to my mind, hilarious comments and where he chooses to remain stoically silent. Some lessons of the book have to be found by readers themselves. For example, I do not remember Smil ever explicitly saying something like this, but one big lesson I took away from his chapter on growth in nature is that, in a sense, it has reached limits in modern history while human production of stuff has so far been unlimited in unhealthy ways. For instance, as Smil describes, humans became taller during the twentieth century in many industrial and industrializing nations because of reliable access to high-quality proteins, but growth in human height has been stagnant since the latter decades of that century. Contrast this with steel production, another human product like cement that both emits vast amounts of greenhouse gases and for which we currently have no real alternative: global steel production was at 30 million tons, or megatons, in 1900, and by the beginning of World War II, which required huge amounts of steel for armaments, firms were putting out 140 megatons. By 1980, global production reached 700 megatons. But then when China’s steel industry came online, especially in the 1990s, production increased vastly. Smil writes, “By 2010, the total had surpassed 1.4 gigatons, and by 2015 it was over 1.6 gigatons, with two-thirds made in China” (p. 394). Look at it this way: the growth in steel production between 2010 and 2015 is higher than what took place between 1900 and the World War II.

Smil is very skeptical about the value of many forms of technological growth. He flogs techno-optimists, like Ray Kurzweil, who promise endless improvements in and accelerating returns from digital technologies. Indeed, Smil doubts digital technologies are giving us nearly as much benefit as their boosters claim, writing, “Add to this the flood of inane images including myriads of selfies and cat videos (even stills consume bytes rapidly: smartphone photos take up commonly 2-3 megabytes, that is 2-3 times more than the typescript of this book)—and the unprecedented growth of ‘information’ appears more pitiable than admirable” (p. xiv).

Regular readers of Smil know that there are targets he never tires of blowing away. Since at least his 2005 book, Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties, he has shown again and again that humans are simply dreadful at making predictions, an insight he applies equally to techno-optimists and what he terms “catastrophists.” He also has nothing but disdain for people who argue that “dematerialization”—that is, doing more with less—is going to get us off the hook for the environmental consequences of modern production. In more recent works, especially his 2022 book, How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We’re Going, Smil has argued even more explicitly that understanding technological and economic realities, like the ones found in Growth, makes one realize the idea that societies will really decarbonize by 2030 or even 2050 is an utter pipedream. This is especially true given that we have no viable replacements for what he calls the “four pillars of modern civilization”: ammonia, steel, concrete, and plastics.

Yet Smil very much wants societies to make the right environmental decisions. Books like Growth are his attempt to confront us with the hard realities of where we are at. Smil never falls into a shrill, panicky tone, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t serious. He believes that industrialized nations will have to accept a decline in quality of life and technology use if we are to head in the right direction. As he put it in a 2019 interview with the Guardian, “We could halve our energy and material consumption and this would put us back around the level of the 1960s. We could cut down without losing anything important. Life wasn’t horrible in 1960s or 70s Europe. People from Copenhagen would no longer be able to fly to Singapore for a three-day visit, but so what? Not much is going to happen to their lives.”[1] (Smil is often at his best in interviews, and readers would do well to track some down if they are looking for a good time. In addition to the one with the Guardian, great ones can be found online at the New York Times and Noēma magazine.)

While I do not often find myself agreeing with Gates, who I believe has promoted misunderstandings and overly rosy pictures of the role of technology in society time and time again, I agree with him that Smil is a great gift to the world. You should check him out.


[1]. Vaclav Smil, “Growth Must End: Our Economist Friends Don’t Seem to Realise That,” interview by Jonathan Watts, Guardian, September 21, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/21/vaclav-smil-interview-growth-must-end-econom....

Citation: Lee Vinsel. Review of Smil, Vaclav, Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. August, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56955

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