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Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature Hardcover – December 21, 2012

3.9 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Vaclav Smil, the extraordinary polymath, critically evaluates what we know about the enormous impact of humans on the productive capacity of Earth through our history. He concludes that our future will bring major challenges to society and threats to our biotic storehouse if we are to meet the demands of the projected nine billion people to feed by 2050.

(Harold Mooney, Professor of Biology, Emeritus, Stanford University)

A great book that will be a revered source of information about how we use our biosphere for a long time to come.

(Marc Imhoff, former Terra Project Scientist, Goddard Space Flight Center, NAS)

Vaclav Smil is an experienced author who always brings a wide and balanced perspective to his work. This new book is no exception and provides an authoritative and critical analysis of Earth's biomass and deals with such important issues as extinction, domestication, biomass burning and deforestation, population growth, urbanization, industrialization, carbon budgets, and the future effects of climate change. It is more than just a synthesis of past research for it is enlivened by his own appraisal of the quality of what has been achieved and of our research needs for the future.

(Andrew Goudie, Emeritus Professor of Geography, University of Oxford)

There's no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.... In Harvesting the Biosphere, Smil gives us as clear and numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere.

(Bill Gates The Gates Notes)

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, the environment, food, and the history of technical advances, including Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (December 21, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 026201856X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262018562
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #747,255 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Vaclav Smil is currently a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He completed his graduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Carolinum University in Prague and at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of the Pennsylvania State University. His interdisciplinary research interests encompass a broad area of energy, environmental, food, population, economic, historical and public policy studies, and he had also applied these approaches to energy, food and environmental affairs of China.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy) and the first non-American to receive the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. He has been an invited speaker in more than 250 conferences and workshops in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa, has lectured at many universities in North America, Europe and East Asia and has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions. His wife Eva is a physician and his son David is an organic synthetic chemist.

Official Website: www.vaslavsmil.com

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
If you are interested in who we are and what we have been doing for millennia, read this book. The subtitle, "what we have taken from nature" sets a tone of these remarkable 300 pages. Smil has his doubts about us. Who wouldn't?
In some pages I find the tone of Scientism, the substitution of scientific jargons for what could be said more simply. Why be restricted to his prefixes when quantities could be spelled out even stated several ways for instance T remains mysterious to me until I look up that it stands for 1012, a million million or terra. Has Smil done this on purpose to jar us into a fresh look? Like a hard hat on a construction site is his language stilted for good reason?
What keeps me reading Smil after finishing most of his 30 books is the freshness of his observations, how surprising he is. An author with an identifiable agenda becomes tiresome, not Smil. Every topic, as "did early man kill off big game", draws an original stream of references, quantities and questions. How can he refer to so many books and journals without ever seeming bookish? Facts and statistics reported by this omniscient guide blend into an unfinished song or poem not a library shelf.
The wonder is in Smil's original look at things. Can't he ever learn "to play ball" he must infuriate colleagues. Imagine him comparing how the satellites see his home town, Winnipeg to what he knows better. And can he really suggest that now and then man gives to Nature? Wasn't his theme just the opposite?
This extensive study of man becoming the dominate, horrifying force throughout the planet, plowing up North America, Brazil, China and everywhere else, straining the vast oceans through our fishing nets, is alarming. We can stop and consider, before we sink into despair, that along with many degradations we have also produced a Smil.

Steve Baer
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Format: Hardcover
This book is laden with facts and milestones about the biosphere. Here are some of the highlights of Prof. Smil's book:

a. about 40% of all of terrestrial phytomass - trees, brush, grass - has been removed. To me, this paints of picture of a world heading toward unprecedented desertification. Even at this figure, the world is rapidly clearing and burning the tropical rainforests;

b. the ocean's zoomass or animal matter is perhaps that most vulnerable area in next few decades, according to the author. This is well described in the final chapter;

c. biomass harvests for biofuel, using so-called crop waste, imperils the health and water-absorbing capability of soils. Biomass fuel is not a good answer at large scales.

d. land and ocean mammals are at 10% of historic levels, for many species. More ocean and land disruptions will imperil the final 10% of remarkable fellow mammals.

Harvesting the biosphere, crowding out the diversity of life, and the road to global desertification. Can it be turned around? Prof. Smil offers impartial and practical advice in the last chapter. This book complements the author's other excellent books. Hopefully the summary and concluding chapter of this book will be shared among many educated people in the world.

The Gates Foundation is listening to Prof. Smil. Also, Bill Gates is personally a fan of Smil's books. How many other major foundations and think tanks are paying attention?

On a final note, this book makes it clear that human civilization's strategy of natural resource exploitation combined with indefinite population growth is a culture that is thousands of years old and unfortunately one that is archaic, worn-out, and now obsolete.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The subject of what danger the human race has created for itself, simply by feeding itself, could not be more timely or important. Instead of preaching to us, this fantastic book gives us the bare facts and lets us make our own conclusions. And for those with the patience to dig out the big picture from the tedious writing style, the payoff couldn't be bigger. If only this guy had a good editor or a writing partner to make it readable to the casual reader. Anyway, if you are at all interested in the topic of what has happened to the plant life on earth since recorded history and what is left to sustain us today, dig in. Here are a few "gotcha" facts from the book.
1. It takes five times as much land to grow the veggies we feed to the cattle and pigs we eat, as the land used to grow veggies for humans to eat. By weight, the veggies fed to slaughtered animal weighs three times the veggies fed to humans. Let that sink in a minute. We would have 5 times as much farmland available to feed a larger population if we were vegetarian.
2. Speaking of population, by 2050, there will be 2 billion more people, almost all of them in Africa. Food wars, anyone? Don't forget about China's per person income which has recently quadrupled, creating massive demand for more meat. See #1. Also, the Chinese taste for exotic foods and "medicine" made from endangered animals are the two most likely causes of mass extinctions. ]
3. We have about 40% fewer plants than at biblical times. We have 20% fewer forests.
4. The collective weight of all domestic animals destined to be our meat is 25 times the weight of all wild animal on earth.

The book is really not about meat, that was just the most jarring conclusion for me personally.
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