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Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature (The MIT Press) Hardcover – December 21, 2012
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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
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
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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.
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. The information on farming, forestry, land use is the main focus and what an eye-opener it is. Just be prepared to skip over the ever-repeating disclaimers about inaccuracy in measurements and the constant conversions of units of measurement.
Great book for anyone seriously interested in the science behind our modern society.By serious I mean you're a masters student or professor. This is NOT a bedtime read.