When Vaclav Smil speaks, the educated mind would do well to listen. Or at least read, since he stays out of the chattering limelight – and assuming that you could keep up with one of our time’s most prolific and brilliant researchers. The range of areas on which Smil, professor emeritus at University of Manitoba (and member of the Order of Canada!) can competently comment is staggering; and the absolutely astonishing speed with which he produces well-researched 400-page books is both demoralizing and inspiring – since the year 2000, I count 22 books, all published with top university press publishers. Next year he’s scheduled to release the humbly titled How the World Really Works.
But bragging isn’t arrogant if you can back your words with impressive competence. Smil is one of the select few who can. In Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made that came out earlier this year, he takes us on a journey through humanity’s all-encompassing change in five domains:
Demographics: The greatest demographic shift has been the sheer number of humans – there are now many, many more of us than until recently. We hit 1 billion total around the year 1800; another hundred years or so for the next billion, and then less than a generation to reach the third. Contrary to fears of “overpopulation,” population growth peaked in the late 1960s, and is currently in a stagnating phase – with much longer lives, and many more elderly.
The dynamics was one of moving from a population of agricultural subsistence where many children were born and many people died – mostly as toddlers – to, first, one of high fertility and falling mortality (thus booming population), and thereafter, one of low fertility and exceedingly low mortality (thus stagnating population numbers). While national characteristics make populations differ in their details, the broad story is the same everywhere. In Western Europe, the sustained decline in birth rates happened between 1870 and 1900, and over the twentieth century many developing countries have followed suit. In most of these transitions, “late starters proceed faster than do the early adopters.” For the demographic transition, East Asian countries like Taiwan, China and South Korea completed the century-long transitions in little over a generation, and many countries in the region now have fertility rates way below replacement.
Agriculture and Food: the human food transition is nothing short of remarkable – from subsistence and undernourishment, with famine an ever-present threat, to mostly well-fed populations where obscene obesity and wasted foods is the routine for billions in the rich world. For centuries, farmers’ lot was fighting the constraining nutrients (primarily nitrogen) and toiling the soil using almost exclusively animate energy: “[C]ollecting, moving, and spreading these wastes was the most demanding task in traditional intensive farming.” Smil correctly identifies as the most “impressive illustration of an existential shift” the worldwide share of undernourished people: 65% in 1950 to 25% in 1970, 15% in 2000 and 10.4% in 2015. Humanity is well on its way to exterminate undernourishment; and famines now only occur in warzones or under incompetent and malicious leadership.
Energy: from relying almost exclusively on what we ourselves could physically move or what domesticated animals under our control could exert, our energy needs today come overwhelmingly from inanimate sources, of which fossil fuels dominate. We went from a world of low-density, scarce, and expensive energy to one of high-density, abundant and comparatively cheap energy. That, to paraphrase the anti-humanist/climate-change activist Naomi Klein, changes everything. Money doesn’t make the modern world go ‘round;’ energy does.
Economies: this transition is more familiar to the student of history and economics, yet Smil still uncovers the intricacies in the scholarly debates over the Industrial Revolution. The great enrichment, from lives unimaginably poorer, shorter, and brutish than ours, to the widespread abundance and well-being of the twenty-first century. But the Industrial Revolution was only revolutionary in a scholarly lens surveying hundreds of years. The experience of living through it was much more gradual and subtle: Even by 1851, when all current scholars today admit that even the poorest workers had seen real-wage increases: “Britain still had many more traditional craftsmen than machine-operating factory workers, more shoemakers than coal miners, and more blacksmiths than ironworkers.” Britain’s 19th century was indeed revolutionary, but much less so than most people think. Economists have sterilized this most remarkable transition (“structural economic change”) where the majority of a country’s population was engaged in agriculture, to be employed in manufacturing, and then in services.
Environment: Smil recounts humans’ long-standing impact on their surroundings, the terra-forming activities of prehistoric and pre-industrial societies as well as those that have emerged in the 19th and the 20th centuries. Life means movement, as Duke University’s Adrian Bejan so vividly describes, often moving the environment out of your way. In ancient times that meant fire and, probably, the extinction of megafauna in North America; in Neolithic times and then again during Medieval times it meant large-scale deforestation; In our times it means resurfacing long-lost and long-dead organic matter that we burn for energy, and cause environmental degradation as side effects. We’re walked through the many environmental damages that are associated with our modern world: overfishing, microplastics in the oceans, antibiotic resistance, algae growth from fertilizer runoff, and the vast energy requirements of growing emerging countries.
“These five grand transitions,” Smil summarizes, “have created the modern world with all of its admirable advances and improvements as well as with its worrisome socioeconomic divides and environmental concerns.”
A Calmly Assembled Roller-Coaster
The book is smack-packed with figures, numbers, and estimates – for which a lesser man might have apologized or felt embarrassed. Smil openly admits that there are too many numbers but that they are necessary:
“[T]he processes and transformations I examine cannot be properly understood without relentless quantification. […] In the absence of data, it would be impossible to understand how far we have advanced and how much has yet to be done before the rest of humanity can enjoy the quality of life prevailing in affluent countries.”
Thus, a page-turner it is not. Well down the rabbit hole on various topics, we receive sentences like: “[I]solated areas might have been subtly modified by atmospheric deposition of sulfates and nitrates from faraway sources.” It often reads like a textbook or a monologue by a particularly uncharismatic lecturer, though in pursuit of calm balance, Smil repeatedly rolls his eyes at hyperboles uttered by environmental catastrophists; he finds them “both wearisome and unconvincing.”
What I suspect makes Smil admired by everyone – left or right, climate catastrophist or lukewarm skeptic – is his unwavering devotion to truth. He’ll sniff out falsehoods faster than a detection dog, and he’ll put adequate numbers on any issue intricately enough and comprehensively enough that the nuance of the story unfolds. He won’t play a political line, and he’ll frequently exterminate arguments made by proponents on either side. In Grand Transitions he makes clear that the devastation of the biosphere concerns him greatly (relevant passages are riddled with phrases like “human assaults on the environment” or “cumulative anthropogenic assault on the biosphere”) but that the transitional processes our world is involved in are much bigger and much lengthier than any odd politician or climate activist recognizes. He ridicules plans for rapidly decarbonizing economies, showing that energy transitions take decades and generations whether you will them or not, and that there is no physically feasible way in which humanity can power its civilization on wind turbines and batteries.
While he’s clearly concerned with humanity’s impact on the biosphere, I read him as being mildly approving of the transitions that made our world modern. He writes that “the global environment has paid an enormous price for all those admirable quality-of-life-gains,” yet he stresses that whatever may have happened to the biosphere, “hundreds of millions of people moved from uncertain subsistence to a comfortable food supply.”
He’s at his most persuasive when he points out the absolutely stunning rate of change we’ve seen over humanity’s last millennia, and accelerating speeds in the last two centuries. Contrary to most so-called New Optimists who see the fruits of progress grow forever skyward, Smil finds limits. Not just the biological limits that our environmental friends have failed to predict for fifty-odd years, but the rate of change itself. The modern world isn’t exponential, it’s S-shaped: slow gradual change is followed by a rapid and exponential segment until it finally evens out and stagnates.
That implies that our world’s stunning progress is about to peter out. Not stop, not end, just slow down.
“We do not know what lies ahead,” he ends this tumultuous and comprehensive read, “even the best probabilistic assessments of specific outcomes are […] just matters of educated guesses.”
We don’t know what the future brings, but to have a clue about the past and the present, Vaclav Smil is an invaluable guide.