Harvesting the Biosphere

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I’m a fan of Vaclav Smil. The term polymath fits perfectly. He’s exposed Farnam Street readers to gems such as …

The (In)Accuracy of Long-Range Forecasting:

no truly long-range forecast can be correct in all of its key aspects; most of these forecasts will be wrong in both quantitative and qualitative terms; some forecasts may get a few quantities approximately right, but they will miss the real qualities arising from subtly to profoundly altered wholes.

Several Uncomfortable Realities:

The first is that even the most assiduous deployment of the best available preventive measures (smart policing, clever informants, globe-spanning, electronic intelligence, willingness to undertake necessary military action) will not be able to thwart all planned attacks.

Americans Use More Energy Per Capita Than Others:

Even after throwing away some 40 percent of its abundant food supply, the United States still has the industrialized world’s most overweight population.

Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences:

What is most worrisome about these practices is that several antimicrobials that are important as human medicines, including tetracycline, penicillin, and erythromycin, are used extensively for these prophylactic treatments. These massive dispensations promote bacterial resistance to essential antibiotics.

And Anticipating the World’s Most Expensive Natural Disaster:

we have learned two great lessons from many modern disasters: 1) our response to them is always initially more chaotic and less effective than envisaged in model scenarios; but 2) a higher degree of preparedness can make a substantial difference, both in avoided death and injury and in property damage.

When Smil comes out with a new book, I’m usually one of the first in line. Although he has so many books that I often find myself lagging a year or more behind.

His next book, Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, out next month, showed up on Bill Gates’ summer reading list. (I pre-ordered a copy.)

Heck, if he’s smart enough to tutor Bill Gates, a polymath himself, he’s a good place to start on any subject.

Late last year, Smil put out a book that I haven’t gotten around to reading yet: Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature.

Bill Gates posted a review of the book on The Gates Notes, which is worth checking out, if only for the NYT ‘snowfall’ experience.

Here’s a video of Smil on Harvesting the Biosphere and Thinking Large.

Gates writes:

There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. He jokes that no one reads his books (he’s written more than 30 of them). It’s true that each book only sells a few thousand copies. But I’m trying to read everything he writes.

Why? He understands a phenomenal range of subjects, from energy to agriculture. On any page he might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the average human life span during the Roman Empire. Plus he is rigorously numeric, using data to illuminate every topic he writes about. The word “polymath” was invented to describe people like him.

In Harvesting the Biosphere, Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story.

Smil starts with a big question: How much life is there in the biosphere? By “biosphere,” he means everywhere on earth where there are living things: in the air, on the ground, and in the oceans. I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about measurement this year, and I was very impressed with how rigorously he thinks about this problem. Ultimately he concludes that the dry mass of all living things on Earth is about 1.6 trillion metric tons. (Because living things contain different amounts of water, Smil makes these calculations using dry mass, which leaves out the water.)

Here’s a brief excerpt from a videotaped conversation between Gates and Smil, focused on the enormous amount of wasted food production in this country:

Here’s Gates’s conclusion:

Smil looks at the future with some concern. As more people join the middle class, they will demand more to eat, and more meat in particular, which will put an even bigger strain on the biosphere. He lists a number of steps we could take, which boil down to various ways to manage resources more carefully, stabilize the global population, and pursue research that will raise crop yields.

I was a bit surprised that he didn’t talk more about innovations that will help avoid some of the problems he’s concerned about. For example, he writes a lot about the impact of meat-eating on the biosphere. Producing meat is very inefficient: To get 1 kg of edible meat from a cow, you have to feed it about 10 kg of grain. But he doesn’t mention the possibility of making alternatives to meat, which could reduce the inefficiency and the need for additional crops. (A few months ago I posted a neat feature about research on alternatives to meat. I’ve tasted a few and they’re very convincing.)

I had a chance to ask Smil about this when we met this year. He pointed out that humans eat about 300 million tons of meat a year, and producing even a small percentage of that amount in meat alternatives would be a real challenge. I agree that it’ll take more research, but I remain optimistic that it could help reduce the impact of meat-eating on the earth.

Anyway these criticisms are relatively minor. If you want to learn about agriculture or the environment and you have the patience to stick with it, this is a great text.

In “Harvesting the Biosphere,” Vaclav Smil carefully adds up how much life exists on Earth. Without moralizing, he makes a convincing case that humans could soon consume an unsustainable share of life on Earth.

After putting this post together, you know I ordered a copy. You should too.

(Sources: The Gates Notes, and Andrew Revkin)