What makes the modern world work? The answer to this deceptively simple question lies in four "grand transitions" of civilization – in populations, agriculture, energy, and economics – which have transformed the way we live.
Societies that have undergone all four transitions emerge into an era of radically different population dynamics, food surpluses (and waste), abundant energy use, and expanding economic opportunities. Simultaneously, in other parts of the world, hundreds of millions remain largely untouched by these developments.
Through erudite storytelling, Vaclav Smil investigates the fascinating and complex interactions of these transitions. He argues that the moral imperative to share modernity's benefits has become more acute with increasing economic inequality, but addressing this imbalance would make it exceedingly difficult to implement the changes necessary for the long-term preservation of the environment. Thus, managing the fifth transition – environmental changes from natural-resource depletion, biodiversity loss, and global warming – will determine the success or eventual failure of the grand transitions that have made the world we live in today.
1. Epochal transitions
3. Agricultures and diets
7. Outcomes and outlooks
Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. The author of more than 40 books, he conducts interdisciplinary research in energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He has worked globally as a consultant and frequently delivers invited talks at conferences and workshops throughout the world.
"Grand Transitions shows Vaclav Smil truly to be Bringing It All Back Home"
– John Roy Porter, Natures Sciences Sociétés
"Vaclav Smil is my favorite author."
– Bill Gates, GatesNotes
"His book roams impressively around the globe and across five centuries as it asks big questions and searches for big answers [...] His five-pack of grand transitions encompasses population, agriculture and diets, energy, economy, and environment [...] anyone who hasn't read about these subjects since graduation will be awestruck by the amount of research that has gone into these vaguely familiar stories. Smil pulls recent studies together, throws in a few of his own, offers interpretive twists, and fills his account with delicious nuggets of information. (This book actually got me in trouble at home, as I kept asking my family, "Did you know [...] " about some gem of an anecdote.)"
– Andre Schmid, Literary Review of Canada
"No one writes about the great issues of our time with more rigor or erudition than Vaclav Smil. Grand Transitions is at once sweeping, sobering, and profoundly informative."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
"An expert portrait of spectacular technical and economic advances that many in the 21st century enjoy but which exclude large segments of the population and are creating problems that may or may not be solvable. Ingenious, insightful, and disturbing."
"Underpinned by mesmerizing data and deep analysis, Grand Transitions provides a clear and compelling framework for thinking about the future of energy, the environment, and the economy. A feast for anyone interested in the future of energy. A must read."
– Atul Arya, Chief Energy Strategist, IHS Markit
"Grand Transitions is the epitome of excellence in integrative systemic scientific analysis, anchored in a magisterial exploration of the main five transitions of mankind since civilizations emerged. And it provides a healthy antidote to the wishful thinking so prevalent today. Decision makers and the public should educate themselves with this authoritative evaluation, which will shape their decisions on how to ensure a harmonious, sustainable future for all."
– Didier Sornette, Professor of Entrepreneurial Risks and Finance, ETH Zurich
"For a generation, polymath Vaclav Smil has expounded on the big patterns in energy, food, and other means through which humans have transformed their environment. In Grand Transitions he has zoomed out even further to paint a picture of how the pieces fit together and to explain how the modern world works. In elegant prose with relentless attention to fact and reality – rare these days – he has written a masterpiece that forces you to think, disagree, wonder, and grapple with the accomplishments and challenges of today's industrial society."
– David G. Victor, Professor of International Relations, University of California, San Diego
"In Grand Transitions, Vaclav Smil reminds us of the fundamental point that the economy cannot be untethered from nature. Technological ingenuity has loosened the links, but the outlook for economic gains – or losses – is inextricably tied to the dynamics of population change, and of food and energy production."
– Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge
"Investing requires quantification of impact. But Vaclav Smil convincingly challenges the increased reliance on applying mathematical modelling to single-frame narratives. He steadily illustrates why such approaches seldom provide useful enough insights, as they tend to ignore technical constraints and biospheric limits."
– Philippe Rohner, Pictet Asset Management
"Smil offers a sweeping account of the deep material forces that have shaped the modern world [...] He tells a remarkable story of the human capacity to innovate, build, and integrate societies across vast distances."
– Foreign Affairs
"Smil is a conjurer with numbers. In Grand Transitions, he works to show just how thoroughly this is now a planet of our making – and how rapidly the transformation is still happening."
– Washington Post