Grand Transitions.

Grand Transitions, by Vaclav Smil (Oxford University Press, 2021) 363 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0190060664.

Vaclav Smil's latest book starts by asking "What makes the modern world work?" He proposes that five grand transitions and their interactions created our modern world. In his own style of (non-event) history of long-term processes, he outlines a rich flow of facts to reveal the ways in which everyday lives have been transformed.

These transitions relate to demography, agriculture, energy, the economy and the environment. The structure of the book follows this argument with five chapters relating to these grand transitions. As a result, fans of Smil's work, who may have read some of his nearly fifty books, will be familiar with the chapters on agriculture, energy and the environment. However, these chapters are also very powerful summaries of his ideas, which have been refined over decades. These are the distillations imparting great wisdom on these issues and we should consider them carefully.

Despite familiarity, there are new facts to relish. We discover that the labour productivity of agriculture increased 18-fold in the last 200 years, offering an important explanation for economic transformation and improvements in living conditions. Smil reminds us that without the energy-intensive process of producing nitrogen fertilizer, almost half of today's population would starve. Also, the ratio of domesticated mammals to wild species increased from under 1 in 1800 to 2 in 1900 to more than 40 in 2000, reflecting the dramatic expansion of the global meat and dairy industry. Animal rearing has increased and intensified through better nutrition and disease prevention--certainly, before the expansion of modern pharmaceuticals, animals could not have been kept in the confined spaces they are today. Shifting to the demand side, Smil notes that, despite the agricultural transition, the Japanese population did not greatly increase its per capita sugar consumption and the Turks did not increase their per capita meat consumption. Both of these cultural examples might offer clues to addressing two food-related problems--obesity and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

The main conclusion of his chapter on the grand energy transition is that a shift away from fossil fuels is unlikely anytime soon. Despite reductions in the costs of renewable energy, global fossil fuel consumption has increased 2% per annum over the last two decades and they supply 85% of all energy requirements. Smil stresses that this is in part due to the inertia of the...

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