Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities

by Vaclav Smil


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780262539685
Publisher: MIT Press
Publication date: 12/08/2020
Series: Mit Press
Pages: 664
Sales rank: 94,542
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Energy and Civilization, published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that “there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil."

Table of Contents

Preface vii

1 Trajectories: or common patterns of growth 1

Time Spans 3

Figures of Merit 6

Linear and Exponential Growth 12

Confined Growth Patterns 31

Collective Outcomes of Growth 54

2 Nature: or growth of living matter 71

Microorganisms and Viruses 76

Trees and Forests 95

Crops 111

Animals 129

Humans 151

3 Energies: or growth of primary and secondary converters 173

Harnessing Water and Wind 176

Steam: Boilers, Engines, and Turbines 184

Internal Combustion Engines 197

Nuclear Reactors and PV Cells 213

Electric Lights and Motors 217

4 Artifacts: or growth of man-made objects and their performances 225

Tools and Simple Machines 228

Structures 239

Infrastructures 252

Transportation 266

Electronics 284

5 Populations, Societies, Economies: or growth of the most complex assemblies 303

Populations 307

Cities 332

Empires 357

Economies 375

Civilizations 436

6 What Comes After Growth: or demise and continuity 449

Life Cycles of Organisms 454

Retreat of Artifacts and Processes 460

Populations and Societies 470

Economies 490

Modern Civilization 498

Coda 509

Abbreviations 515

Scientific Units and Their Multiples and Submultiples 519

References 521

Index 621

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

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)

Customer Reviews