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From Microorganisms to Megacities

MIT Press,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

Human civilization’s survival requires setting strict limits on growth.

Editorial Rating



  • Analytical
  • Scientific
  • Applicable


Just about everything on Earth grows in one way or another – within limits. Natural creatures grow at various paces, and follow various trajectories, steep or slow, from birth to maturity to their ultimate demise. Collections of animals and plants, which concentrate in specific regions or spread across the globe, grow at circumscribed rates. People have long embraced the idea that human civilization, including technology and the economy, can grow steadily forever. But, professor Vaclav Smil insists, continuous material growth is not possible. Offering data and graphs on a sometimes stupefying scale, Smil illuminates the concept of growth in rigorous detail, and makes an overwhelming case for the reality that human beings must give up their fixation on the value of growth.


Three fundamental modes of growth exist: “linear,” “exponential” and other finite patterns.

Growth is ubiquitous and omnipresent. Living things grow, as do collections of living things, like human populations and forests. So do the human societies and economies that sustain them. Analysis can reveal much about these patterns of ubiquitous growth and its various trajectories.

Terms such as “anemic” and “healthy,” or “sustainable” and “unsustainable,” characterize growth. Many of these terms mislead and can have substantial political consequences, especially when analysts apply them to the economy. The three rudimentary growth trajectories are linear, exponential, and other more circumscribed, finite patterns. Linear and exponential growth prove relatively straightforward to calculate, though some demand more complex mathematics. Analysts measure and track growth relative to time. Some of these time spans can be remarkably short. A single generation of bacteria, for example, can live less than an hour.

Genetic and metabolic factors drive organic growth. The environment constrains it.

About the Author

Czech-Canadian scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil is distinguished professor emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. His interdisciplinary research encompasses studies in energy, the environment, food, population, and in economic, historical and public policy.

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