After astronaut Rusty Schweickart looked down on Earth from space for the first time, he described a sense of ...“”
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. , 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. 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. 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.