The biosphere – the Earth's thin layer of life – dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere's character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere's stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day.
Smil examines all harvests – from prehistoric man's hunting of megafauna to modern crop production – and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials. Without harvesting of the biomass, Smil points out, there would be no story of human evolution and advancing civilization; but at the same time, the increasing extent and intensity of present-day biomass harvests are changing the very foundations of civilization's well-being. In his detailed and comprehensive account, Smil presents the best possible quantifications of past and current global losses in order to assess the evolution and extent of biomass harvests.
Drawing on the latest work in disciplines ranging from anthropology to environmental science, Smil offers a valuable long-term, planet-wide perspective on human-caused environmental change.
Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, environment, food, and history of technical advances, including Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, both published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.
"There's no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil [...] In Harvesting the Biosphere, Smil gives us as clear and numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere."
– Bill Gates, The Gates Notes
"Vaclav Smil, the extraordinary polymath, critically evaluates what we know about the enormous impact of humans on the productive capacity of Earth through our history. He concludes that our future will bring major challenges to society and threats to our biotic storehouse if we are to meet the demands of the projected nine billion people to feed by 2050."
– Harold Mooney, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, Stanford University
"A great book that will be a revered source of information about how we use our biosphere for a long time to come."
– Marc Imhoff, former Terra Project Scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center, NAS
"Vaclav Smil is an experienced author who always brings a wide and balanced perspective to his work. This new book is no exception and provides an authoritative and critical analysis of Earth's biomass and deals with such important issues as extinction, domestication, biomass burning and deforestation, population growth, urbanization, industrialization, carbon budgets, and the future effects of climate change. It is more than just a synthesis of past research for it is enlivened by his own appraisal of the quality of what has been achieved and of our research needs for the future."
– Andrew Goudie, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Oxford