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Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

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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.

664 pages, Hardcover

First published September 24, 2019

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About the author

Vaclav Smil

96 books3,623 followers
Vaclav Smil Ph.D. (Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of Pennsylvania State University, 1971; RNDr., Charles University, Prague, 1965), is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 121 reviews
Profile Image for Bill Gates.
Author 10 books509k followers
December 12, 2019
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 from, you return from space with a feeling that our home is tiny, fragile, and something we need to protect.

Anyone who reads the new book Growth, the newest of 39 brilliant books by one of my favorite thinkers, will come away with similar urgency. The author, the Czech-Canadian professor Vaclav Smil, approaches things from a scientist’s point of view, not an astronaut’s, but he reaches the same conclusion: Earth is fragile and “before it is too late, we should embark in earnest on the most fundamental existential [task] of making any future growth compatible with the long-term preservation of the only biosphere we have.”

Before I get into how Smil came to this conclusion, I should warn you. Although Growth is a brilliant synthesis of everything we can learn from patterns of growth in the natural and human-made world, it’s not for everyone. Long sections read like a textbook or engineering manual. (“A plot of the annual totals of passenger-kilometers flown by all US airlines between 1930 and 1980 produces a trajectory that is almost perfectly captured by the quartic regression (fourth order polynomial with r2=0.9998), and continuation of this growth pattern would have multiplied the 1980 level almost 10 times by 2015.”) And it has 99 pages of references!

As Smil writes, “My aim is to illuminate varieties of growth in evolutionary and historical perspectives and hence to appreciate both the accomplishments and the limits of growth in modern civilization... Simply put, this book deals in realities as it sets the growth of everything into long-term evolutionary and historical perspectives and does so in rigorous quantitative terms.”

When Smil says “the growth of everything,” he means everything. Chapter 1 introduces a lot of technical detail behind the three most common growth curves seen in our natural and built environments: linear, exponential, and hyperbolic. Even if you don’t like math, don’t let this chapter scare you off, because it makes a really important point: It destroys the idea that you can take an early growth curve for a particular development—the uptake of the smartphone, for example—and use it as the basis for predicting the future. Yes, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made a surprisingly accurate prediction about the exponential growth in the number of transistors on a chip. But even that “law” is likely reaching the end of its useful life. Transistors are now so small, we’re running into problems making them even smaller.

The next few chapters are easier to follow. Chapter 2 is all about the growth of living systems—from microorganisms to sequoia forests, and from humans to dinosaurs. (By the way, did you know that the T. rex weighed only a bit more than a male African elephant, and a tapeworm can live 25 years?) My favorite part of this chapter was Smil’s discussion of food production, which is instructive for our foundation’s work in agriculture and does a good job of explaining what kinds of productivity gains are possible.

In chapter 3, he lands on a topic he knows better than just about anyone else: the development and diffusion of new sources of energy—from traditional water wheels to nuclear reactors. He has covered a lot of this terrain in previous books such as his masterful Energy and Civilization: A History. But here he’s setting the stage for subsequent chapters on technological developments that were made possible by the conversion of resources like water, wind, carbon, and solar radiation into energy.

When I read chapters 4 (artifacts, such as cathedrals, cars, and computers) and 5 (societies and economies), I had to marvel over how Smil’s mind works. The way he synthesizes information from dozens of different domains is amazing. I also marveled over all the miracles that modern civilization is built on, including power grids, water systems, air transportation, and computing. The book gave me new appreciation for how many smart people had to try things out, make mistakes, and eventually succeed.

Smil’s goal for these chapters is to show that no matter what domain you’re talking about, eventually you hit growth limits. Steel, the backbone of modern economies, is a great example. After many years of metallurgical and mechanical innovation, we’re simply not able to make it a lot cheaper or with a lot less energy. Ultimately, his analysis shows that what we’re trying to do in terms of changing our physical economy and the energy flows upon which it is built would be unprecedented in our history.

In chapter 6 and in a brief coda, Smil sounds less like an academic than an activist. He concludes that “treating the biosphere as a mere assembly… of goods and services to be exploited (and used as a dumping ground) with impunity—must change in radical ways.”

I don’t agree with all of his analysis. In particular, I’m more optimistic than he is about the degree to which today’s renewable energy technologies can be deployed, and the pace at which scientists and engineers will develop new clean sources. In my view, Smil underestimates our accelerating ability to model the physical world using digital technologies equipped with artificial intelligence. For example, future generations of clean energy will be designed and tested in computers, not on paper, before we try them in the world—a process that will speed up innovation in a dramatic way.

But I’ve always felt that Smil’s great strength isn’t predicting the future, it’s documenting the past. There’s great value in that—you can’t see what’s coming next if you don’t understand what’s come before. Nobody sees the big picture with as wide an aperture as Vaclav Smil.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,362 followers
January 23, 2021
Um livro gigante sobre crescimento que passa por todo tipo de assunto. Como já tinha lido o Energy and Civilization – A History do mesmo autor, muitas ideias se sobrepõe. Mas é uma ótima discussão sobre como energia é processada e como isso permite o crescimento desde microrganismos até cidades e tecnologias que criamos. Meu único ponto contra é que o Vaclav Smil dedica bastante tempo e atenção à revisar números e princípios, o que faz desse livro algo mais próximo de um review da área do que um conteúdo para todo tipo de público. Ainda acho que a melhor discussão sobre os processos por trás disso fica no Scale do Geoffrey West.

Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews504 followers
May 8, 2020
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 growth of things in the universe or even on our planet. But, those types of questions are for another book. Holding your hand as you interpret all of the facts Smil provides you with is not his deal. No one is better than Smil at bringing together massive numbers of figures about energy or growth and placing them in a compact 600+ page book. It seems too much to ask that he also be good at synthesizing the underlying laws or that he write in a way that can be digested by a person with no prerequisite knowledge. Smil's book deserve 5 stars because no other author has managed to provide such a detailed encyclopedic description of energy and growth. 

Was I frustrated that Smil didn't hold my hand and walk me through? Hell yes! I hope lots and lots of readers are frustrated when reading Smil because they cannot help but ask, "But what are the laws that govern all of this growth? Can the patterns of growth or energy ingestion, consumption, and expulsion be understood on a universal level? When people are bothered enough by having all the facts but not having the more general picture, they will be compelled to do the research that will generate answers. It's not Smil's job to answer those questions. He will point you to some people who are trying to tackle those questions. To my absolute delight, he focused quite a bit on Geoffrey West's research and his book Scale. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it.

The second general complaint reviewers seemed to express echoed one of Bill Gates criticisms, that Smil was perhaps too pessimistic about the rate at which humans will create innovative ways to develop and use clean sources of energy. I think Smil's predictions about the future of energy and growth are probably less important than the facts he provided about the past and present facts about energy and growth. However, I think it is probably very important to add Smil's voice to the current debates about innovation. Smil is not afraid to get into the ring and spar with the likes of Ray Kurzweil who has an extremely optimistic view of how long it will take until we reach the singularity or how long it will take until humans can live forever. I love reading Kurzweil but always feel that he needs to be a bit more realistic. Smil strongly challenged many of Kurzweil's claims throughout the book. 

Kurzweil was not the only researcher challenged by Smil. He was entirely unhappy with Jared Diamond's explanation of collapse of Easter Island, which suggested the inhabitants wiped out their own forests and drove their animals and plants to extinction. Smil called those who buy into Diamond's explanation "uncritical readers," and instead argued that rats had been largely responsible for the vast deforestation of the island. 

In fact, Smill didn't take anyone at their word. He poured over many studies and dissected their methods. He replicated findings on his own. Such painstaking, careful, and rigorous methods definitely deserves 5 stars, no matter how encyclopedic the book is. In fact, it is supposed to be encyclopedic. That is the whole point of the book. It's an unprecedented resource that can be used by many different types of researchers and laypeople. If you then want to know what patterns underlie the growth discussed in the book, read books by people like Geoffrey West, Sarah Imari Walker, or even Stuart Kauffman. Go do your own research to try to find the answers. 

My favorite part of this book was when Smil discussed the growth of technologies, starting with water mills. It made me think that his extensive discussion of the conversion of energy from human power, to animal power, to machine power in his book Energy And Civilizations was the catalyst to write this book on growth. That section also made me want to go back and reread Energy and Civilization. If I had to compare both books, I would say Energy and Civilization is much better than Growth, but both are five star books for the sheer amount of knowledge they compile and bring to the world. 
Profile Image for Alja.
95 reviews33 followers
November 8, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Anshu Anand.
17 reviews2 followers
April 28, 2022
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 enough to store the information contained in all the medieval libraries combined. It reminds me of the Kierkegaardian anxiety of choices, but the amount of information floating around us today might have grown a trillion times however our knowledge base has grown nowhere close to the same rate. Books like “Growth” are needed to acquire a politically agnostic view of the world. Such a view is doomed to be complex.

Chapter 1 kicks off with a bunch of graphs, trajectories, laws that we need to familiarize ourselves with as this will help us understand the growth patterns in the next chapters. For example, Individual growth trajectories are usually S-shaped but their envelope charts an exponential increase.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to all living beings : trees, forests, animals, pathogens and humans. Did you know there are bacteria species that can survive a pH 0.7 environment(highly acidic) or those than can be found in extreme pressure surroundings like Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the Pacific(10km deep !) A major consideration in this chapter was a variable that has not been included in the analyses of climate change, VPD(Vapor Pressure Deficit) which is expected to increase from 2.2 kPa in 2014 to 2.65 in 2050. As the VPD increases, plants need to draw more water from roots. Although all living beings in this chapter exhibit cellular growth, infinite cellular growth is not possible because number of cells to be supplied with energy grows faster than the capacity of branching networks.

Chapter 3 talks about Energy which I believe is Vaclav Smil’s forte. It chronicles the growth of power to mass ratios and engine efficiencies of cars. It also discusses how conversion efficiencies were achieved in photovoltaic cells and how LEDs will save 40% electricity by 2030.

Chapter 4 is about skyscrapers, man made objects and semiconductors. It traces how changes in oil prices affected structural growth, why speed is not a priority for airlines as they fly at the most fuel-efficient speed(for planes to fly faster they’d have to fly a lot faster(1.5x) as transonic speeds are dangerous to fly at). Another interesting topic in this chapter is about the fastest runners. Usain Bolt could achieve a 9.45 second world record(currently 9.58) if the wind speed was 2 m/s and the sprint was done at an altitude of 1000m.

Most of my notes were in Chapter 5 which is about us as a society.
- Total Fertility Rates and the ideal replacement ratio of 2.1(2 parents, 2 kids ; the .1 is considering premature deaths)
- If the entire global population were to consume at the American level, we’d need 4-5 more earths
- Maximum entropy comes from Cities.
- Explanations of heavy tail distributions in power law sets( Zipf’s Law logarithmic graphs with coefficients of -1)
- Food Wastage : Total food Harvest increase from 1900-2000 : 6x

While world population increase : 3.7x

- Silcon production is energy intensive(also seen later in cars vs cellphones comparison)
- Business Cycles in the U.S. : Average peak to trough - 17 months

 Trough to new peak - 39 months
- Can China(or India) become truly rich before it becomes old ?
- Productivity Growth is declining (Product Differentiation happening rather than Product innovation)
- For the same GDP(both total and per capita) some affluent nations use much higher energy than the others. Grounds for Competitive Taxation ?

In chapter 6, Smil essentially concludes that Degrowth is our only salvation.

In the coda, we come full circle where Smil mocks economists worrying about vigorous GDP forecasts, “such people are either mad or an economist”. Perpetual quarter to quarter growth is outright unsustainable as per Smil.
Profile Image for Laurent Franckx.
187 reviews76 followers
February 27, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Terry.
57 reviews1 follower
December 8, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Sima Fallah.
18 reviews
December 24, 2020
امتیاز 4 را برای ایده و قدرت تحلیل و دغدغه‌های اسمیل که در این کتاب مطرح شده‌اند به او دادم، نه به خاطر خود کتاب. خواندن این کتاب مانند خواندن دائره‌المعارفی از آمار و نمودار و عدد است. بخش اول به الگوهای رشد و دسته‌بندی آنها می‌پردازد. اسمیل در ادامه‌ی کتاب دائما به این الگوها اشاره می‌کند، بنابراین دانستن توابع رشد و آشنایی با نمودارها مفید است. اما از آن به بعد، می‌توان صرفا بخشی از کتاب را خواند که به آن علاقه‌مندیم، مثلا بخش دوم به تمام موجودات زنده روی زمین و مسیرهای رشد آنها می‌پردازد: باکتری‌ها، حیوانات، گیاهان و انسان‌ها. بخش سوم درباره منابع انرژی مختلف و نحوه تکامل و پیشرفت آنها در طی تاریخ است. از آنجا که یکی از رشته‌های اصلی مورد پژوهش اسمیل - که به طور کلی پژوهشگری چندزمینه‎ای است - بحث انرژی است، او در این فصل مطالب بسیار جالبی برای ارائه دارد، که می‌تواند علاقه‌مندان را به خوبی جلب کند. فصل بعد، به صفر تا صد آنچه بشر اختراع کرده می‌پردازد؛ از صنایع دستی کوچک گرفته تا راه‌آهن، خودرو، جاده‌ها و ابزارهای الکترونیک. برای خود من فصل 5 و 6 مرتبط‌ترین و جالب‌ترین فصل‌ها بودند. رشد جمعیت، شهرنشینی، شهرها، تمدن‌ها و اقتصادها در فصل 5 بررسی می‌شود. مطلب متفاوت مطرح شده در این فصل نقد معیارهای موجود برای بررسی رشد اقتصادی است. اسمیل با در نظر گرفتن فاکتورهای دیگری مثل پایداری رشد، پیشنهاد می‌کند از معیارهای دیگری جز GDP مثل شاخص توسعه انسانی برای بررسی شکوفایی اقتصادی کشورها استفاده شود.
اما بهترین و جالب‌ترین فصل و شاید تنها فصل غیر خسته‌کننده این کتاب فصل 6 باشد. اسمیل از اینجا به بعد نگاهی رو به آینده دارد، و تلاش می‌کند به این سوال جواب دهد که: حالا بعد از رشد چه اتفاقی می‌افتد. نقطه‌ی عطف کتاب همینجاست. جایی که بالاخره ��ز عدد و رقم و نمودار فاصله می‌گیریم و نقطه نظرات اصلی اسمیل، این متفکر و دانشمند عجیب و غریب را می‌خوانیم. اسمیل ابتدا مسیر پسارشدِ تمام پدیده‌هایی که پیشتر بررسیشان کرد را شرح می‌دهد، مثلا موجودات زنده با مرگ منقرض می‌شوند، ساخته‌های دست انسان از بین می‌روند یا در موزه‌ها قرار می‌گیرند یا به زباله‌هایی بدل می‌شوند که زمین را به تدریج نابود می‌کنند. سپس اسمیل برای چندمین بار هشدار می‌دهد که انسان‌ها و به ویژه سیاست‌گذاران نباید بیش از اندازه به پیش‌بینی‌های خود از مسیرهای آتی رشد متکی باشند. او با آوردن مثال‌های متعددی از مواردی که پیش‌بینی انسان‌ها غلط از آب درآمده، گوشزد می‌کند که همیشه باید چندین سناریو را در پیش‌بینی‌ها لحاظ کرد و برای همه آنها آمادگی داشت.
در پایان، استدلال اصلی اسمیل مطرح می‌شود. به طور خلاصه: آیا اصلا نیازی به این همه رشد هست؟ آیا حواسمون به این نکته است که بخش بزرگی از این رشد پایان‌ناپذیر به قیمت بزرگ‌تر شدن شکاف بین افراد فقیر و ثروتمند در این دنیاست؟ یا این نکته که سیاره زمین اصلا ظرفیت این همه رشد را دارد؟ انسان تا به کجا برای ارضای تمایل خود مبنی بر رشد و داشتن بهترها و بزرگ‌ها و بیشترها تلاش می‌کند؟ شاید وقت آن باشد که این روند را کند یا حتی موقف کنیم. شاید بهتر باشد روی مناطقی از جهان تمرکز کنیم که در حال دست و پنجه نرم کردن با گرسنگی‌اند، به جای آنکه تلاش کنیم باز هم میکروچیپ‌های بیشتر و ریزتری را روی صفحه‌های الکترونیکی جا بدهیم.

پ.ن: من تمام صفحات این کتاب را نخوانده‌ام. از بعضی صفحات با علم به اینکه نه به آنها نیاز دارم و نه جالب‌اند، پریدم. به شما هم توصیه می‌کنم بدون عذاب دادن به خود همین کار را بکنید. چون بطور کلی کتاب متن خسته‌کننده و خشکی دارد.
Profile Image for Juan Farfán.
52 reviews7 followers
October 24, 2019
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 infinite economic growth, our economies are less resource intensive but population and consumption keep growing. A must read I really recommend this book
Profile Image for Andrew.
656 reviews187 followers
October 11, 2021
Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities, by Vaclav Smil, is a complex read on the concept of growth, examining the connections between macro and micro, the mathematical formula behind the concept of growth, and in sum, a refutation of the idea that growth can be infinite (in a practical sense, bound by the temporal patterns of the Earth). Many of our problems today, from our misunderstandings of flora and fauna, to the excesses of capitalism, can be attributed to our poor conception of various statistical models, including S-shaped curves (Sigmoid Curves). This book had some fascinating details on growth at all scales, looking at everything from tree growth, to bacterial/viral growth (with some fascinating tidbits in a pre-pandemic book that would sound familiar to the average news watcher today), all the way up to economics and societal concepts of growth. This book also goes a long way to try and diffuse our over-reliance on statistics as predictive measurement. Instead, Smil argues that growth (and presumably, statistical modeling in general) is beset by variance, depending on the subject in question, so much so that sometimes it is better to use on statistical method to measure, say, a tree, and another to measure a different species of tree. This is true of any statistical subject, and doubly so in our conceptions of economics, where many quack theorists would prescribe one method that will work in all cases, and claim to be able to predict or solve future problems. Smil notes that this is complete bunk, and also offers the nuanced opinion that it is still important to use statistics to measure and model; but look at confidence levels, and take theory with a grain of salt.

All in all, an excellent book that suffers what some other readers on Goodreads have noted; it is complex and dry. I love good analysis, and the drier the better for this reader, most times. Even I, however, found this book difficult to read. As another reader here points out, it is almost anxiety inducing at the things I have already forgotten when reading this book. In sum, this would make an excellent reference resource, and a book to digest slowly, over multiple reads, and over a long period of time. Smil is brilliant in his analysis of energy, history, economics and so forth, and I always enjoy his perspective on how we, as humans, connect so closely to the microbial world, or just the world in general. All in all, a really good book that I found to be quite dense and hard to engage with. Even so, it is also I book I will be buying for my personal reference collection. Worthy of a read, and would certainly be engaging for those readers with a good background in statistical modelling and with a strong understanding of mathematical concepts.
Profile Image for Nilesh Jasani.
988 reviews135 followers
April 13, 2020
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 of growth that you never knew existed. And, it debunks the one that extends to infinity, the one most commonly assumed by us all in our projections.
If you have decided to read about the book, you are of that kind, and it is undoubtedly a book for you to read. And as you read it, you will realize how loooooong this long book is.
The book will worry you a lot, for everything that you are bound to forget, fail to understand, or even unable to imbibe in your way of thinking.
This is an almanack. Or, maybe an encyclopedia. Or, perhaps something that verbalizes all data tables existence in the universe.
The question is not whether the book is good enough to read. Are you good enough to really read this tomb?
4 reviews2 followers
September 16, 2022
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 everything.

Maybe I am biased. But I would highly recommend anyone to read "The Limits to Growth" (the updated 2004 version if not both) instead of this book.
Profile Image for Weronika.
176 reviews
December 30, 2019
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 contained new relevant information worth learning. The rest is just a hodge-podge of data on growth from a variety of fields, from bacteria to (subjectively) selected developments to economies to societies. The book seems to have an over-ambitions span, making it simply pointless. If you wish to read about the growth (and demise) of certain civilizations, you have a plethora of well-written books by specialists on the topic to choose from. Ditto for the remaining areas.
On top of this, this is a very boomer book. The author simply seems to reject the notion that the world has changed. He does not understand that what matters now is progress, not growth. More progress can mean less -- less cars, less energy consumption, less stuff. His view of the economy is also totally outdated, as is his take on measuring economic development (energy rather than money). Dear author, I bought a digital edition of your book online, from across the globe. Paid with my phone app. And you owe this income to Youtube algorithm that suggested to me Bill Gates and his book recommendations while I was watching an interview with Warren Buffet. If there is any growth ahead, this is what it will be like.
7 reviews
March 23, 2020
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 cant go through the whole book (because of its density), i'd still recommend reading the last chapter 'What Comes After Growth'.
Profile Image for Jonathan Mckay.
586 reviews52 followers
March 9, 2021
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 believes in indefinite growth in anything physical on a physically limited planet is either mad, or an economist.

Growth is a book about the path of complex, self-replicating phenomena through time. Smil spends the first chapter describing growth: simple mathematical functions such as linear, exponential, or logarithmic growth, and more importantly the ∫-shaped (s-shaped) functions such as the Gompertz curve or symmetric logarithmic curve that model both starting conditions where progress is difficult and final conditions where progress is constrained. What each of these functions shares is a long rampup, a period of intense growth, followed by a long decay in growth rate towards some maximum asymptote.

If this math feels dry, then stock up on water because the next chapters are a trek through a Sahara desert of trivia and turbines. (Similar content is much better captured in Smil’s own Energy and Civilization). Luckily, by the time Smil returns to sociological phenomena such as cities, empires, and economies, there is a reward to justify the trek.

By painstakingly charting s-curves through natural and biological phenomena, Smil can make the argument about the inevitability of decaying growth. In economics, Smil goes right for the jugular:

Their search for the cause of economic growth can be divided into proximate causes and ultimate reasons, but neither approach has all the answers, Their traditional explanations have been indefensibly narrow as they have focused on just a few proximate causes. The neoclassical version of growth theory is a perfect example of this reductionism.

Like bacteria, or any living organism in a finite system, humanity, and thus human economy goes a slow start, into a phase of growth, and to an inevitable plateau as unavoidable constraints overwhelm otherwise available resources. When it comes to the energy consumption of modern high-energy civilization, there is a limit to the capacity of our system.

All of these long lasting trends will have to end, deliberately on involuntarily. There is no possibility that we will be saved by a singularity or an early terraforming of mars. Such fictions make great news headlines but are worthless for dealing with civilizational challenges.

In the last century, wild animal biomass has halved, and the 6th extinction is already well under way. Smil doesn’t predict the limit precisely, but in the next century, humanity will start to face the carrying capacity of the planet, and to Smil degrowth is likely the only long term solution. Overall 'Growth' is the least enjoyable 4-star book I've read, yet paints a simple, compelling narrative of modernity and the future of humanity as just another complex, self-replicating, and eventually capped phenomena.


If you don't want to read the book, just read this paragraph instead:
"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."
Profile Image for Richard Thompson.
1,830 reviews95 followers
August 26, 2022
I can understand why some people really like this book. It feels very smart. It overwhelms you with an avalanche of facts about different kinds of growth, and continually drives home the idea that growth of almost every kind is limited because inputs are finite so in the end outputs must be too. But geez, Vaclav, you had me at "Hello". I didn't need 500 pages of statistics to convince me that almost everything that grows hits some sort of maximum. The same point could have been made more elegantly, and for me more convincingly in 200 pages. It's just too much. Overwhelming your audience with so many facts and numbers that they cannot possibly be remembered or evaluated is actually a form of dishonest argument that is intended to seem objective and massively researched when of course Mr. Smil is as selective as the rest of us in picking the facts he likes and using them in ways that serve his purposes. Don't get me wrong, I agree with his conclusions, just not with his method.

Apart from the basic idea that growth is by its nature limited there is a secondary theme that all "laws" about growth and long term predictions about growth (except that it is ultimately limited) are nearly always wrong. That's an important and strong point. Agreed.

But there is one law of growth that Mr. Smil seems to like that I think he likes a bit too much - that nearly every growth curve is "S" shaped, starting slow, accelerating and then tapering off. As discussed above, I agree with the tapering off part, but it's only certain kinds of things that have accelerating exponential growth in the earlier stages. Some growing things can grow and shrink for long periods of time, or grow on a straight line or grow in bursts. Everything only looks like an "S" if you pick things that look like "S"s to study. Mr. Smil partly acknowledges this near the end of the book but it's a point that is buried under two hundred prior pages about "sigmoid" curves.
Profile Image for Barack Liu.
471 reviews16 followers
December 27, 2021
391-Growth-Vaclav Smil-Economics-2019


" Growth ", first edition in 2019. It conducts a systematic survey of the growth of nature and society, covering the trajectory from tiny organisms to empires and civilizations. It tells us that the trajectory of modern civilization, driven by material growth and the competitive demands of biosphere constraints, is still uncertain.

Vaclav Smil, born in Plze ň, Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1943, studied at Charles University in Prague. His interdisciplinary research interests include a wide range of areas of energy, environment, food, population, economics, history, and public policy research. He also applied these methods to China's energy, food, and environmental affairs.

Table of Contents
1 Trajectories: or common patterns of growth
2 Nature: or growth of living matter
3 Energies: or growth of primary and secondary converters
4 Artifacts: or growth of man-made objects and their performances
5 Populations, Societies, Economies: or growth of the most complex assemblies
6 What Comes After Growth: or demise and continuity

" Sustainable growth is, of course, a clear contradiction in adjecto as far as any truly long-run material growth is concerned (I am ignoring any possibilities of migrating to other planets after exhausting the Earth's resources) and it is highly doubtful that we can keep on improving such intangibles as happiness or satisfaction. Most of the adjectives used to describe growth are qualifiers of its rate: often it is not the growth per se that we worry about but rather its rate, either too fast or too slow. ”

"Sustainable development" is being talked about more and more. To maintain continuous development, I think we must continue to improve production efficiency. And if you want to continuously improve production efficiency, at present, it mainly depends on the innovation and iteration of technology.

"Each has a beginning and an end; and one and the same curve may illustrate the life of a man, the economic history of a kingdom… It depicts a mechanism at work, and helps us to see analogous mechanisms in different fields; for Nature rings her many changes on a few simple themes” (Thompson 1942, 139). ”

"Out of the image, get it in the ring". The appearance of things is endless, but their cores may be similar. When we deeply understand the inner meaning of "growth", we may use this concept to understand the appearance of different fields.

“ Microbes, fungi, and insects make up most of the biosphere's organisms, and common time spans of interest in microbiology and invertebrate biology are minutes, days, and weeks. Bacterial generations are often shorter than one hour. ”

Our perception of time actually depends on the length of our lives. For mankind, 100 years is a lifetime. For some plants, it may be 100 generations. But for some trees, it may be only 1/10 of life. We must understand the length of this life and many things we can do; we must also understand the shortness of life, where many people and things are fleeting.

" Some studies have tried to reconstruct national economic growth going back for centuries, even for millennia, but (as I will emphasize later) they belong more appropriately to the class of qualitative impressions rather than to the category of true quantitative appraisals. Reliable historical reconstructions for societies with adequate statistical services go back only 150–200 years. ”

The highly quantified form of civilization that we are accustomed to today is actually only a hundred years old. For a country like China that has only gradually caught up with the world's development in recent decades, the statistical data recognized by modern science may only exist for a few decades. We look back, to understand history, in the end, to look forward. Use the past to guide the future.

“ As for the fundamental quantities whose growth defines the material world, the International System of Units (Système international d'unités, SI) recognizes seven basic entries. They are length (meter, m), mass (kilogram, kg), time ( second, s), electric current (ampere, A) thermodynamic temperature (kelvin, K), amount of substance (mole, mol), and luminous intensity (candela, cd). ”

These units of measurement are the cornerstones and scales by which we can understand the objective world. You must be able to measure before you can analyze it, and in the end, it is possible to do more. For individuals, you must measure your own time before you can manage time. Only if you want to measure your own money, you can manage it.

“ In August 1969, the Apollo 11 computer used to land the manned capsule on the Moon weighed 32 kg and had merely 2 kB of random access memory (RAM), or about 62 bytes per kg of mass (Hall 1996). Twelve years later, IBM's first personal computer weighed 11.3 kg and 16 kB RAM, that is 1.416 kB/kg. In 2018 the Dell laptop used to write this book weighed 2.83 kg and had 4 GB RAM or 1.41 GB/kg. Leaving the Apollo machine aside (one-of-a-kind, noncommercial design), personal computers have seen a millionfold growth of memory/mass ratio since 1981! ”

The growth rate of things is an important indicator for us to predict how it will develop in the future. If an area has had a higher growth rate in the past few years, it is more likely to continue to maintain high growth in the future, which means that there are more possibilities in this area.

“ And while the worldwide car sales were less than 100,000 vehicles in 1908, they were more than 73 million in 2017, roughly a 700-fold increase. This means that the total mass of new automobiles sold globally every year is now about 2,500 larger than it was a century ago. ”

The rapid growth rate of the market means more business opportunities. For example, countries around the world are strengthening the advocacy of new energy vehicles, and the growth in the production and sales of new energy vehicles is increasing year by year, so it is a very obvious signal.

" Exponential growth, with its gradual takeoff followed by a steep rise, attracts attention. Properties of this growth, formerly known as a geometric ratio, or geometric progression, have been illustrated for hundreds of years—perhaps for millennia, although the first written instance comes only from the year 1256—by referring to the request of a man who invented chess and asked his ruler-patron to reward him by doubling the number of grains of rice (or wheat?) laid on every square. ”

Exponential growth is actually our biggest concern because it represents more possibilities. Exponential growth satisfies people's yearning for rapid growth. Luck aside, to carefully construct a form that produces exponential growth, linear continuous accumulation is still required.
Profile Image for Vlad.
773 reviews33 followers
January 9, 2022
At 655 pages (26 hours) long, this book is a giant and exhausting wind-up that doesn’t deliver its payload until the last chapter. It’s really worth reading, but there were many, many times where I found myself frustrated with the author’s decision to put in the main body of text reams of data better suited to an appendix. There were numerous, “what’s your point?” moments. The author’s point is finally made in the final 5% of material, and made well. But very strange editorial and authorial choices overshadow and diminish the work.
Profile Image for Mohamed Katergi.
5 reviews1 follower
January 29, 2020
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 population only. This composite measurement would allow to represent the sustainability/volatility of the Empire and not only its instantaneous achivement. I would love to see how the curves would look like.

3. Reading several growth charts for inter-related elements together would also be a significant add-on to the book; for instance, measuring growth of an economy in a certain country alongside energy consumption...

4. The author skipped the impact of the Islamic golden age on the growth of almost anything he described.

There is no doubt that this book is rich in information, but sometimes they're not necessary. Had I known more about it before reading it, I wouldn't have read it in full.
32 reviews
May 13, 2023
For a book touted as a seminal work in the theories of growth, Smil misses the mark for me. In my view, the book ends up being a descriptor of varied examples in which growth occurs, and doesn't spend enough time on growth itself. When it does, most of the time is spent describing the growth across these varied examples, rather than analysing or even explaining it. That weakness stands stark - the book doesn't end up being an exploration of growth through the use of examples, but an exploration of examples through the use of growth.

One fundamental idea stands out however, and that is that of how growth follows a sigmoid curve in most instances, or at least ends up there in the end. Of course, this is not always true, there are other forms of growth that are also limiting. However, the sigmoid theory was iterated enough, but would have preferred more analytical exploration of "why" as opposed to descriptions of "this is another place where sigmoid curves occur". That would have also allowed further explorations into other modes of growth that are also limiting, but are not sigmoid.
Profile Image for Alex.
10 reviews
December 8, 2021
A wonderful synthesis of a truly high volume of information, this book does an excellent job of describing the growth of almost anything you can think of - from trees to steam engines to cities to civilization itself. Admittedly, it’s not the easiest to get through, and parts of the book read like a lab report. I ended up listening to this ruthlessly information-dense audiobook at 0.9x speed to give myself some extra time to understand each sentence, and even then found myself replaying some sections over and over to grasp the quantitative relationships described.

With all that being said, I am ultimately glad to have devoted the time to its contemplation. Again and again I found myself marveling over a new or interesting tidbit, or contextualizing a technological advancement within its broader historical view. Did you know trees are mostly “dead” tissue? Or that water wheels are surprisingly powerful energy converters? Vaclav’s analysis (truly a meta-analysis) leads the reader to places they may not have visited recently, and I for one greatly enjoyed the journey.
Profile Image for Tom Laumola.
3 reviews
November 23, 2022
Without a doubt a painful book to read due to it’s data-heavy approach, but with hours of pure data read with soar eyes the ending chapter came with plenty of insightful conclusions and thoughts which made it all worth it (to me). Insanely good overview provided, all backed with ridiculous amounts of studies, which then leads up to all too familiar conclusions which yet function as eye openers. Mr Smil being a polymath becomes as clear as glass, and even though I am no more than a normal guy, I feel enlightened by his knowledge shared in this book. For what it is and the purpose it has, it is perfectly written. Bravo!
Profile Image for Eelco.
17 reviews1 follower
July 26, 2021
The author probably worked really hard on this book, and certainly did an extensive study. But I just couldn't finish it because it was so uninteresting. It is more a kind of enumeration of facts, rather than a story. The pages are filled with numbers of growth rates and there are scientific papers cited everywhere.
Profile Image for Todd Cheng.
416 reviews12 followers
August 27, 2022
An encyclopedic narration and synthesis on the concepts of Growth and the human understanding. The human impacts in graphs. The graphing are in sigmoidal, linear, exponential, and hyperbolic increases with correlations and similarities. Many of our impacts, despite their technical complexity, overlayed are natural and consistent. The topics are well researched and cited which I appreciate. It helps me detect the other topics I may seek to tug upon. The book is an important history and exploration of the the topic.
Profile Image for Adam.
214 reviews9 followers
February 28, 2022
What a chore to read this book.

Some interesting stats and facts on growth in what is basically a series of numbers with almost no coherent narrative. Without anything to anchor these facts to they mostly just pass through me unretained. Only when I myself have some other interest in the stats do I really commit them to memory at all.

At one point when he was going on about GDP I would have done almost anything but read this. "Oh let's listen to this 3 hour podcast I'm not super interested in instead because I don't want to read this book anymore."

The author is a big curmudgeon who blames everything on the evil consumption of evil people.

Seems to discount the possibility of an AI revolution.
535 reviews8 followers
February 9, 2020
"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."
526 reviews132 followers
July 12, 2020
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 everything in the material world follows this pattern, and Smil’s ability to aggregate data from an insane range of literature is vastly impressive.

At the same time, however, the challenge with Smil’s approach is that, especially as the systems become more complex and the units of quantitative asessment become harder to isolate, the exceptions to the rules become more and more interesting and the patterns less so, and the cases cannot be treated in isolation. This becomes most obvious in his discussion of GDP growth patterns in different countries. Smil begins with a quite brilliant discussion of the severe limitations of GDP as a measure of actual material improvement, noting that it excludes informal and illicit markets, family and social reproduction, and the costs of (especially environmental) “externalities” and also counts the production of ultimately destructive goods, like armaments or cigarettes. But then... he proceeds to discuss the patterns of GDP growth in different countries. He also barely notes the way that growth rates in a partly integrated economy, the growth pattern in one country will affect (positively our negatively) growth rates in other countries that trade or otherwise interact with it. Thus Chinese and English growth rates after 1843, for example, can hardly be considered as independent patterns — and yet he still insists on trying to find consistent patterns across nations, again failing to note that modern nation-states’ economies are not a viable independent units of account.

This is related to the second major difficulty with the book: as Smil’s unfolds one pattern after another across different categories of growth, he plays fast and loose between presenting actual data as opposed to stylized facts or “well fit” versions of the data. He thus suggests strengths of patterns which may not always be entirely warranted, but which is hard for the reader to assess.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
266 reviews6 followers
February 8, 2022
This book is to admire, but, for me, it was too much information. As a reviewer put it - Smil does not do hand-holding. That is not a criticism of Smil, rather a meek admission of intellectual limitations, my own and others'.
In the book, Smil addresses basic existential questions and concerns about the nature of GROWTH, and he provides LOTS of evidence for his explanations and explorations.

"The trajectory of the modern civilization, coping with contradictory imperatives of material growth and biospheric limits, remains uncertain....existential (and also truly revolutionary) task facing modern civilization, that of making any future growth compatible with the long-term preservation of the only biosphere we have."

Published in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic drove us (not quite) all into masking and sheltering, he wrote of pandemic concerns. I would like to know his thoughts on the current state of affairs. Here are a few quotes from the text:

"And there are also such infrequent but scary concerns as the diffusion of potentially pandemic infections made worse by mass-scale air travel."

"The Justinian plague of 541–542 and the medieval Black Death are the two best known historic epidemics (not pandemics, as they did not reach the Americas and Australia) due to their exceptionally high mortality. The Justinian plague swept the Byzantine..."

"...2009. Between May and September 2009, Hong Kong had a total of 24,415 cases and the epidemic growth curve, reconstructed by Lee and Wong (2010), had a small initial peak between the 55th and 60th day after its onset, then a brief nadir followed by rapid ascent to the ultimate short-lived plateau on day 135 and a relatively rapid decline: the event was over six months after it began (figure 2.4). The progress of seasonal influenza can be significantly modified by vaccination, notably in such crowded settings as universities, and by timely isolation of susceptible groups (closing schools)."

"...of the H5N1 virus (bird flu) in 1997 and with a brief but worrisome episode of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In addition, judging by the historical recurrence of influenza pandemics, we might be overdue for another major episode."

If mathematical terms such as terms asymptotic cause some head scratching,
This is not a book for you either.
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