Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Grand Transitions by Vaclav Smil: Why We Are Where We Are...

When we study human history, we see several points in time when a certain event caused a sudden transformation and enhanced the collective experience of being human. Agriculture, taming of fire, invention of the wheel, development of a script, etc. may be considered a few of the early ones. But very recently, we made a huge leap in every aspect of living, and we ended up being modern humans. This transition from pre-modernity to modernity has changed us and our planet fundamentally, for good and for bad.

Vaclav Smil, in his impressive book Grand Transitions, tries to make sense of our transformation to modernity. Smil is a Canadian scientist who is an expert on the environment and energy. His interdisciplinary studies are considered path-breaking. Bill Gates has claimed that he waits for the new book by Vaclav Smil like a fan waiting for the next Star Wars movie. When I checked his bibliography, I found out that he has written more than 40 books, still ten ahead of MCU.

In Grand Transitions, the writer proposes five transitions that were big enough to allow pre-modern humans to reap the benefits and perils of modernity. The first is the demographic transition, which caused the rate of mortality to skydive, followed by the rate of natality with a certain lag. This caused a sudden spike in the global population, followed by a reduction. The end result is an increase in the average age of humans. The second transition happened in the agricultural sector, where, though the number of farmers and the area of cultivated land declined, efficiency grew so much due to technical advances that there was enough food to feed the whole population and then some more to waste.

The third transition occurred in the energy sector. Human beings, who used to depend on inefficient phytomasses (wood, dung) for their energy needs, progressed to use coal and then fossil fuels and became energy rich. The use of fossil fuels and electricity caused a sudden technological advance that never occurred in human history. The fourth transition is in economies, where the majority of the population, who used to be agrarian, progressively shifted from the primary economy (agriculture) to secondary (manufacturing) and then to tertiary (services). The fifth transition in the environment caused severe, unprecedented global alterations to our planet.

All five of these transitions are interconnected and interdependent. For example, the advent of energy sources like fossil fuels resulted in a jump in mass production facilities, favouring the shift of the agrarian population to the manufacturing sector. Likewise, the reduction of the global population created a favourable situation for women to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers and favoured the development of the tertiary sector of services. These transitions are also largely irreversible on a global or national scale. Is it advisable to return to a time when every child out of five born will die before it turns one year old? But the author stresses that we should not fixate on the causes and effects of these transitions, which are the results of quite complex and interdependent variables that can only be studied and verified by using huge and precise data sets.

It is wrong to assume that these transitions happened simultaneously across the globe. Some affluent nations in Europe and America were forerunners of the phenomenon. It can be observed that the transitions that occurred in these nations, which took even centuries to play out fully, are now in an ending phase. Some other nations were late starters, like India, China, and Southeast Asian nations. Global transitions are being played out in these nations, and we can observe it in their average age of population and their energy requirements. There are a set of nations where the trends are just starting out, like some African nations, where traditional agrarian societies still prevail.

The writer is not ready to predict the future using economic models because he believes they may never yield the correct result. He cautions the readers about experts who predict extremes, either an apocalyptic future or a technologically advanced one that solves all the perils of transitions. He is of the opinion that:

Another epochal transition is unfolding, and its outcome is not foreordained; it remains contingent on our choices.

The book is driven by numbers and data, which the author uses lavishly to illustrate his points. It also has a high number of citations and quotations; a couple of them appear in every paragraph on the page. At least thirty percent of them are quoted by the author to prove how wrong they are. Smil is a very convincing writer who uses copious amounts of data and studies to back his claims. But one of my major grievances about the book is the omission of any mention of the factor of colonialism in the transitions. The energy transitions and the industrial revolution that spearheaded England to be the forerunner needed mass amounts of capital and cheap raw materials. Where did it manage to obtain that? The pages of history will answer it.

1 comment:

  1. Numbers and data are not my stuff. Moreover, neat theoretical frameworks don't sound convincing usually. So i shall stay away from this book.