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.
CELEBRITY SUPPORT: Naming Smil one of his favorite authors, Bill Gates included Growth on his end-of-the-year list of five books to read in 2020, just as he did for Energy and Civilization in December of 2017.
THE TAKEAWAY TREND: Follows the trend of big idea books from Neil deGrasse Tyson, Thomas Piketty, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Yuval Noah Harari; Smil documents the prioritization of growth.
AUTHORITATIVE BUT NOT ABSOLUTE: Smil exposes society’s past through a lens of growth, touching on various controversial topics such as environmental activism, but allowing the reader to come to individual conclusions concerning the future.
EXPLORES INCREDIBLE ENERGY INNOVATIONS: Recounts the impact of technological developments including power grids, water systems, air transportation, and computing, and those that were made possible by the conversion of resources like water, wind, carbon, and solar radiation into energy.
178 BLACK AND WHITE ILLUSTRATIONS to help demonstrate and drive home Smil’s concern of unlimited growth on a limited planet.
UNIFYING THEME: Brings together prior 39 individual books on economics, industry, engineering, agriculture, energy sources, society, and re-evaluates the subjects through the lens of growth.
NO GROWTH LIMITS FOR GROWTH: hardcover format shipped 19k units in five months, while paperback 2018 edition of Smil’s Energy and Civilization has sold 17,674 LTD.
“Vaclav Smil does for the history of energy what Thomas Piketty did for the history of inequality. And his findings are just as uncomfortable.” – Rutger Bregman, historian and author of Utopia for Realists (2017) and Humankind (2020)
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