Growth | Vaclav Smil

Summary of: Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities (The MIT Press)
By: Vaclav Smil


Embark on a thought-provoking journey through the patterns of growth that encompass everything from microorganisms to megacities in Vaclav Smil’s book, ‘Growth: From Microorganisms to Megacities’. The book explores the various trajectories of growth such as linear, exponential, and finite patterns related to living organisms, societies, and economies. Discover intriguing aspects of living matter’s growth, including the roles of genes, metabolism, and the environment. Understand how the energy transformation is pivotal to growth, from mastering fire to the emergence of renewable energy flows. Learn about human-created artifacts, the growing human population, and the challenges presented by infinite growth in our modern world.

Understanding the various growth trajectories

Growth is an essential aspect of living organisms, human populations, and economies. However, it is not the growth itself that creates worry, but the rate at which it occurs. Terms like “anemic” and “sustainable” categorize growth, but these can mislead and have significant political consequences, particularly concerning the economy. The three basic trajectories of growth are linear, exponential, and finite patterns. Linear and exponential growth are relatively simple to calculate, though some require more complex mathematics. Analysts measure and track growth relative to time, which can sometimes be remarkably short, like a single generation of bacteria that lasts less than an hour.

The Diversity of Living Matter

Living matter is diverse and varied, yet it shares common factors in its growth including genes, metabolism, and the environment. The growth of living organisms is finite, and their rates of growth vary depending on their niches in the environment. Microbes can endure extreme conditions, and some are dangerous pathogens that can infect humans and crops. Epidemics of viral influenza have different growth trajectories with varying death rates. The growth of animals is shaped by physical necessities like temperature ranges. Warm-blooded creatures have a lower limit on their weights, while humans measure growth in terms of milestones like walking and speech. Despite all these differences, natural growth contains an inevitable commonality, and the world of living organisms is full of diversity and remarkable attributes.

The Quest for Extra-Somatic Energies

Energy transformation is a vital aspect of the growth and development of living things. The quest for ever higher reliance on extrasomatic energies propelled the growth of civilization. Early humans expanded their lives by mastering how to derive energy from fire. As civilization evolved, the quest for more compressed forms of usable energy led to the combustion of fossil fuels that made modern civilization possible. Renewable energy sources such as wind and water had been used to generate movement, heat, light, and electricity since ancient times, but steam engines, internal combustion engines, and nuclear reactors have transformed the energy industry. The breakthrough provided by these technologies has enabled industrialization, made cities central to human life and culture, and brought an ample supply of food, comfortable housing, the capacity to move and travel with ease, and the expectation of long lives.

The Richness of Man-made Structures

The diversity and growth of man-made objects and structures over time, from basic tools to modern technology and infrastructure, rival that of the natural world.

Despite extensive research, the exact number of species on Earth remains unknown. Science has identified over 1.2 million species, including almost 200,000 in oceans alone. However, the variety and scale of human-made objects and structures are just as rich, if not richer, than those found in the biosphere. From basic tools and machines to modern electronic devices such as computers and smartphones, humans have demonstrated impressive innovation and growth over time. Buildings and infrastructure also saw steady and incremental growth, from the first Egyptian pyramids to grand Christian cathedrals, and finally modern infrastructure like bridges and roads. In the 21st century, electronic devices have become essential to daily life, with the percentage of the population owning smartphones growing from 10% to 90% in less than a decade. The diversity and growth of man-made structures rival that of the natural world, with both demonstrating the remarkable human ability to innovate and create.

Understanding Human Population Growth

Human population growth is determined by factors such as nutrition, health, economy, and cultural attitudes. The rise in numbers has significant impacts on national and global capacities for nutrition and economic growth. Improved healthcare and nutrition in modern societies have led to a decline in birth and death rates. The worldwide population grew from one billion in 1804 to seven billion in 2011, with eight billion expected in 2024. While the prediction of population growth is challenging, understanding the factors that shape it is crucial for sustaining desirable levels of economic development and nutrition.

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