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.
A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today''s fossil fuel-driven civilization. "I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next ''Star Wars'' movie. In his latest book, Energy and Civilization: A History , he goes deep and broad to explain how innovations in humans'' ability to turn energy into heat, light, and motion have been a driving force behind our cultural and economic progress over the past 10,000 years. --Bill Gates, Gates Notes , Best Books of the Year Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done. The conversion of energy on Earth ranges from terra-forming forces of plate tectonics to cumulative erosive effects of raindrops. Life on Earth depends on the photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into plant biomass. Humans have come to rely on many more energy flows--ranging from fossil fuels to photovoltaic generation of electricity--for their civilized existence. In this monumental history, Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today''s fossil fuel-driven civilization. Humans are the only species that can systematically harness energies outside their bodies, using the power of their intellect and an enormous variety of artifacts--from the simplest tools to internal combustion engines and nuclear reactors. The epochal transition to fossil fuels affected everything: agriculture, industry, transportation, weapons, communication, economics, urbanization, quality of life, politics, and the environment. Smil describes humanity''s energy eras in panoramic and interdisciplinary fashion, offering readers a magisterial overview. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil''s Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.
The first systematic, quantitative appraisal of power density, offering detailed reviews of power densities of renewable energy flows, fossil fuels, and all common energy uses. "There''s no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil." --Bill Gates In this book, Vaclav Smil argues that power density is a key determinant of the nature and dynamics of energy systems. Any understanding of complex energy systems must rely on quantitative measures of many fundamental variables. Power density--the rate of energy flux per unit of area--is an important but largely overlooked measure. Smil provides the first systematic, quantitative appraisal of power density, offering detailed reviews of the power densities of renewable energy flows, fossil fuels, thermal electricity generation, and all common energy uses. Smil shows that careful quantification, critical appraisals, and revealing comparisons of power densities make possible a deeper understanding of the ways we harness, convert, and use energies. Conscientious assessment of power densities, he argues, proves particularly revealing when contrasting the fossil fuel-based energy system with renewable energy conversions. Smil explains that modern civilization has evolved as a direct expression of the high power densities of fossil fuel extraction. He argues that our inevitable (and desirable) move to new energy arrangements involving conversions of lower-density renewable energy sources will require our society--currently dominated by megacities and concentrated industrial production--to undergo a profound spatial restructuring of its energy system.
From the New York Times-bestselling author, a new volume on the history of human ingenuity-and its attendant breakthroughs and busts.
The world is never finished catching up with Vaclav Smil. In his latest and perhaps most readable book, Invention and Innovation, the prolific author-a favorite of Bill Gates-pens an insightful and fact-filled jaunt through the history of human invention. Impatient with the hype that so often accompanies innovation, Smil offers in this book a clear-eyed corrective to the overpromises that accompany everything from new cures for diseases to AI. He reminds us that even after we go quite far along the invention-development-application trajectory, we may never get anything real to deploy. Or worse, even after we have succeeded by introducing an invention, its future may be marked by underperformance, disappointment, demise, or outright harm.
Drawing on his vast breadth of scientific and historical knowledge, Smil explains the difference between invention and innovation. He then looks at three different types of inventions.
Inventions that failed to dominate as promised:
Inventions that turned disastrous:
Inventions we have long been promised (and that would be highly beneficial):
Travel in vacuum (hyperloop).
Finally, he offers a «wish list» of inventions that we most urgently need to confront the staggering challenges of the twenty-first century.
Filled with engaging examples and pragmatic approaches, this book is a sobering account of the folly that so often attends human ingenuity-and how we can, and must, better align our expectations with reality.