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Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  534 ratings  ·  80 reviews
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.
Hardcover, 664 pages
Published September 24th 2019 by The MIT Press
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Bill Gates
Dec 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
After astronaut Rusty Schweickart looked down on Earth from space for the first time, he described a sense of awe that has become common to almost every space traveler since: “You realize that on that little blue and white thing there is everything that means anything to you, all history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, all of it on that little spot out there you can cover with your thumb.” NASA calls this realization “the overview effect.” No matter what country you’re ...more
May 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: general-science
It seems that people's rating of Smil's book only 3 or 4 stars, instead of 5, stems from 2 reasons. 

The first and more frequent criticism seems to be that the book is too  encyclopedic. That criticism is certainly true. If you do not want an encyclopedic book about growth, then this book is not for you. While it synthesizes an incredibly wide breadth of facts about growth, the book lacks a grand synthesis of what it all means in terms of complexity or the the underlying laws that govern the grow
Nov 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Super nerdy, slightly repetitive exploration of a variety of growth trajectories. Not a casual read, but it does an excellent job at challenging prevailing assumptions, narratives, and metrics, and occasionally offers unexpected insights. The key message, reinforced throughout the chapters, is that we cannot expect unlimited growth on a planet with limited resources even though it's hard to predict the exact trajectory of complex systems. ...more
Anshu Anand
Apr 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing

CAUTION : Growth percentages ahead.

Vaclav Smil is a nerd’s nerd. “Growth” is a deconstruction of the whole nine yards of everything around us ! I picked it up as a challenge because every single review on the Internet described it as immensely unreadable. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone because it does read like a manual. But having finished it, below are chapter wise summaries.

Before I proceed, a few thoughts on the intent of a book like “Growth”. A computer today is powerful enou
Juan Farfán
Oct 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you want to understand the growth dynamics of microorganisms, animals, plants, humans, technology, artifacts, economies, societies and cities Vaclav Smil book is the best. Very comprehensive and clear, based on evidence Smil shows in a brilliant way how growth behaves at so many levels. It is amazing his understanding of so many topics. The book also gives a clear picture of our long term survival in a finite resource planet and the challenges involved. He explains clearly the myth of infinit ...more
Dec 08, 2019 rated it it was ok
Dry. Very very dry. All to make the basic point that Infinite growth isn’t feasible with finite resources. It could have been 30 pages, unless of course you need a reference book for seemingly hundreds of different growth curves.
Dec 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book was a major disappointment. I actually regretted not being a book quitter, because I basically dedicated my entire Christmas break reading time to it and it was not worth it. One of the other reviewers mentioned the fact that the first chapter, dedicated to the various types of growth functions, is highly challenging and overly technical. While I do agree that the book in general would benefit from good editing for clarity and readability, that was the only chapter in the book that con ...more
Mar 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very interesting, but extremely dry.

There is no doubt that prof. Smil is a genius. But unfortunately most of us aren't.
Grasping the core concepts of the books can be hard enough on themselves, and the lists of mind dazzling facts and references per page doesnt make it much easier.
Altogether a very good book, but maybe not suited for people who would like to have a lighthearted read

The broad conclusion can be found in the last chapter (and even in the last sections of the last chapter). If you
Laurent Franckx
Feb 27, 2021 rated it did not like it
Didn't finish it.
Some people qualify this book as "encyclopedic", but it really reads like the first draft of the literature study of a first year PhD student. It is just an enumeration of findings from papers, without any attempt to provide a narrative. Maybe interesting if you need a reference list for your own work, but that's where the merits of the book stop.
Mohamed Katergi
Jan 29, 2020 rated it liked it
The 3 stars are for the diversity and quantity of information in this book and the way they were compressed and converted into a useful content. However:

1. I would say that there remained certain important additional topics that could have been covered such as weapons, cryptocurrencies, electric vehicles, religions, and - most importantly - sciences and innovations.

2. In my opinion, measurement of Empires growth should have been based on a time×area or time×population being based on time or popu
Aug 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Very wide-ranging discussion of many kinds of growth from microorganisms to civilizations, with fascinating facts and debunking of techno-optimism, but not simplistic catastrophism either. Chapter 1 on common patterns of growth is perhaps the most difficult. If you feel you do not want to put the effort into understanding the more esoteric growth curves feel free to skip ahead. The important arguments are at the end of the preface and in the Coda, with chapter 6 the next most important. Not conv ...more
Dec 17, 2019 rated it did not like it
The influential book "The Limits to Growth" by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jørgen Randers published back in 1972 and the 30-years update in 2004 tackled similar issues.

I understand that in non-fiction books, there were a lot of books with the same topic as each author brought in their personal ideas. However, with the gap of almost 50 years, the concept brought by Vaclav's book was no better or with high certainty, worse than the book by the predecessor. This book overgeneralized everyt
Apr 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Growth is a Smil book.
The book has a plethora of information. And, it is provided in the relentlessly Smil way without nary an effort to make their digestion remotely attractive or palatable.
The book provides a ton of learning. And you also learn why good learning is so painfully, laboriously boring.
The book is all about the details. These are details that tell you that any generalized notions you have are wrong because they cannot accommodate the essential details.
The book talks about all types
Matthew LaPine
Feb 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
Vaclav Smil's "Growth" is a dense treatise on growth of everything, starting with the smallest and simplest things, and working methodically to infrastructure, populations, cities, nation-states and more. The costs and impacts of growth of each class of thing are explored in detail and presented in numbers-don't-lie bluntness. It finishes with a look at our current trajectory as a people, a society, a planet and a biosphere. Where are we going anyway? How can it be sustainable?

Smil's mathematica
Jonathan Mckay
Mar 08, 2021 rated it really liked it
23rd book of 2021: Nothing Lasts Forever

Humans are terrible at anything other than linear thinking. Our collective inability to understand the difference between linear and exponential growth during COVID shows even with life hanging in the balance, we choose wrong. In academia, exponential growth becomes dogma, where constraints are ignored and experts create trend-lines so divorced from reality that they can be “dismissed as meaningless mechanical calculations”. As Smil quotes: Anyone who be
Ondrej Urban
Mar 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
It's a rare privilege not to agree with what Bill Gates said recently but here we are - as informative and far-reaching as Growth is, it is not Smil's "latest masterpiece", whatever its publishing date might be.

Valcav Smil's books - and so far I've admittedly had only a limited exposure - tend to be written in a relatively dry academic language aimed at delivering precise information in an efficient manner. It might be a bit of a struggle at times but ultimately you are offered insights into ho
James Klagge
May 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An almost overwhelming book, but a necessary read. The first 4 chapters are somewhat slow going, where he discusses growth in many and various realms of life. It is a lot of information with rather little interpretation, but still readable. The heavy material comes in Ch's 5 & 6, where he discusses growth of societies and especially economic growth, and then what comes after growth. These last 2 chapters are sobering indeed. Smil is amazing for the breadth of knowledge he brings to the book. If ...more
Feb 09, 2020 rated it liked it
"This might be perhaps the simplest single-paragraphy summation of civilizational advances, a concise summary of growth that matters most. Our ability to provide a reliable, adequate food supply thanks to yields an order of magnitude higher than in early agricultures has been made possible by large energy subsidies and it has been accompanied by excessive waste. A near-tripling of average life expectancies has been achieved primarily by drastic reductions of infant mortality and by effective con ...more
Jul 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
In many ways the ultimate expression of Smil’s polymathic and synthetic mind, but as such also a perfect distillation of the limits of his mega-pattern thinking: he considers the patterns of growth across everything from bacteria to buildings to human civilizations. He notes that there are regular patterns that confirm (broadly) either to rise-and-fall bell curves or sigmoid curve patterns of exponential initial growth with an inflection point before leveling off toward some asymptote. Almost ev ...more
Feb 29, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, nonfiction
This book is well researched and the author is very knowledgeable, but is excessively long. There is so much data that is essentially trivia that the signal to noise ratio of the book is actually very poor. The core idea can be summarized as growth often does not continue indefinitely but follows a S-curve. For example, household adoption of the telephone started slowly, became parabolic, and then reached an asymptotic ceiling around 100%. The same applies to adoption of the radio, TV, computer, ...more
Mauricio Torres
Apr 02, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I hope that the book's careful reading conveys the key conclusion: before it is too late, we should embark in earnest on the most fundamental existential task facing modern civilization, that of making any future growth compatible with the long-term preservation of the only biosphere we have.

There have been significant reduction of the area of natural forests, mostly due to deforestation; a concurrent expansion of cropland to cover about 11% of continental surfaces; and an annual harvest of clo
Norman Lennox
May 24, 2020 rated it liked it
Sometimes, when I have finished reading a book, I would like to have been the editor. This book is one of these times. I would have asked the author if he was of the opinion that the subject of the book is an important topic. The answer is self-evident. Then, I would have asked the author if it was his intent to frame a book for the M.A./PhD community, or frame a book that would have a general appeal. The thrust of much of the book is more to the former. I would have hoped for the latter. If the ...more
Mar 26, 2021 rated it really liked it
Growth is one of the longest and most dense books I have ever read. Smil covers an enormous quantity of data and ideas in Growth. It took me 100-200 pages to get used to the writing style. Once I learned the patterns, I was able to progress with more enjoyment.

In Growth, Smil documents the growth (and decline) of many natural and biological phenomena. Smil makes the case that unlimited growth is a fallacy. There is always a stagnation or decline in any circumstance. The message is reassuring to
May 06, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Known for his authority on all things having to do with energy creation and usage, Vaclav Smil broadened his approach in his latest to discuss Growth in a manner of different disciplines, from addressing natural growth patterns found in nature to economic growth. In some of these instances, it feels like Smil overextends himself on certain topics (although his knowledge shown is much greater than I could achieve in a lifetime). When energy / engineering topics are at hand it feels full authority ...more
Sep 01, 2020 rated it liked it
A purely analytical view of everything on the planet. Every thing that grows that is. He dives into studies that chart trajectories of growth from organisms, to cities, to financial markets and everything in between. Do these all follow similar curves or is life actually more unexpected as it ebbs and flows?

“The growth of empires, expressions of extreme complexity, follows the same rules as the growth of bacteria or plant seedlings. [We may overestimate the additional complexity involved in huma
Ben Haley
Nov 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Vaclav is brilliant here like everywhere. Exponential growth cannot last forever in organisms, technology, or economies. It may plateau, crash, or fall gently back to earth. The timing and path are hard or impossible to predict. Vaclav walks us through hundreds of examples ranging from bacterial growth to improvements in energy production. And he hammers home a difficult point — the opposite of singularity – that our expectation of never-ending exponential growth is untethered to reality and doo ...more
Sep 13, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: could-not-finish
This one was actually too dense for me, and I liked his other work. As stated for another book by him, this is a REALLY really smart author who is pouring out all of his knowledge on a broad subject (notice the page count). This would need to be on your shelf/owned and read and re-read over a month or so. A re-reading would be needed, as would note-taking. This is several college courses and their respective textbooks rolled into one encyclopedia.

I actually couldn't finish this in the 40 days I
Peter Uetz
Feb 04, 2021 rated it liked it
"Growth" has a ton of information, but it's not organized or illustrated very well. For instance, Smil lists numbers and dates for pages after pages -- but why isn't he just putting them into tables? Similarly, he has a substantial number of figures, but most growth curves either lack guide lines to read them easily or other details (in the legend) to make them clear.
I am certainly a data freak and hence like the idea of the book, but the presentation is far from ideal. A very informative book,
Mar 19, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfic
I found this book to be ok - the author tries to be all-encompassing, and avoid the pitfalls of other authors who cherry pick their data - but still cannot avoid the appearance of cherry picking. Additionally, where the author's thesis is that growth - economic and otherwise, cannot last forever, and decline and stagnation is inevitable, he spends a lot less time and words on explaining that, than on upward trajectory. ...more
Steve Matthews
Jan 28, 2020 rated it did not like it
Many examples of growth—linear and exponential to show the limits of growth ending with big concerns about the unsustainable growth of human population and our growth dependent economy. A plod if a read. The last chapters about our limits of growth were the best. Should have started and ended there.
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Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Energy and Civilization, published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Articles featuring this book

Tech pioneer, cofounder of Microsoft, cochair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and author Bill Gates is an avid reader who has...
187 likes · 106 comments
“A sobering denouement had to come...exponential growth is a potent delusion-maker, and in 1999, 10 years after the Nikkei’s peak, I was thinking about the Japanese experience as we were waiting to claim our rental car at San Francisco airport. Silicon Valley was years into its first dotcom bubble, and even with advance reservations people had to wait for the just-returned cars to get serviced and released again into the halting traffic on the clogged Bayshore freeway. Mindful of the Japanese experience, I was thinking that every year after 1995 might be the last spell of what Alan Greenspan famously called irrational exuberance, but it was not in 1996 or 1997 or 1998. And even more so than a decade earlier, there were many economists ready to assure American investors that this spell of exponential growth was really different, that the old rules do not apply in the New Economy where endless rapid growth will readily continue.” 0 likes
“This might be perhaps the simplest single-paragraphy summation of civilizational advances, a concise summary of growth that matters most. Our ability to provide a reliable, adequate food supply thanks to yields an order of magnitude higher than in early agricultures has been made possible by large energy subsidies and it has been accompanied by excessive waste. A near-tripling of average life expectancies has been achieved primarily by drastic reductions of infant mortality and by effective control of bacterial infections. Our fastest mass-travel speeds are now 50-150 times higher than walking. Per capita economic product in affluent countries is roughly 100 times larger than in antiquity, and useful energy deployed per capita is up to 200-250 times higher. Gains in destructive power have seen multiples of many (5-11) orders of magnitude. And, for an average human, there has been essentially an infinitely large multiple in access to stored information, while the store of information civilization-wide will soon be a trillion times larger than it was two millenia ago.

And this is the most worrisome obverse of these advances: they have been accompanied by a multitude of assaults on the biosphere. Foremost among them has been the scale of the human claim on plants, including a significant reduction of the peak posts-glacial area of natural forests (on the order of 20%), mostly due to deforestation in temperate and tropical regions; a concurrent expansion of cropland to cover about 11% of continental surfaces; and an annual harvest of close to 20% of the biosphere's primary productivity (Smil 2013a). Other major global concerns are the intensification of natural soil erosion rates, the reduction of untouched wilderness areas to shrinking isolated fragments, and a rapid loss of biodiversity in general and within the most species-rich biomes in particular. And then there is the leading global concern: since 1850 we have emitted close to 300 Gt of fossil carbon to the atmosphere (Boden and Andres 2017). This has increased tropospheric CO2 concentrations from 280 ppm to 405 ppm by the end of 2017 and set the biosphere on a course of anthropogenic global warming (NOAA 2017).

These realities clearly demonstrate that our preferences have not been to channel our growing capabilities either into protecting the biosphere or into assuring decent prospects for all newborns and reducing life's inequalities to tolerable differences. Judging by the extraordinary results that are significantly out of line with the long-term enhancements of our productive and protective abilities, we have preferred to concentrate disproportionately on multiplying the destructive capacities of our weapons and, even more so, on enlarging our abilities for the mass-scale acquisition and storage of information and for instant telecommunication, and have done so to an extent that has become not merely questionable but clearly counterproductive in many ways.”
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