Growth by Vaclav Smil: Summary & Notes

Front cover of Growth by Vaclav Smil.

In short

Growth by Vaclav Smil is essentially a synthesis of all things that grow: from tiny organisms, plants, humans, to artifacts, energy, societies and economies. It’s not always an easy book to read (with lots of references and statistics) but the breadth of the investigation, and Smil’s erudition, is amazing.

The main takeaway of Growth is that things cannot grow indeterminately. There are always limits – be it genetics, biospherical, environmental, or something else – and sooner or later growth will peak and plateau afterwards. This is not necessarily bad because once something reaches a certain amount of efficiency and effectiveness it can be used for a long time (open hearth furnaces for steel making were used for more than a century, and over the last decades the speed of planes hasn’t increased for example).

Smil ends the book with a warning that the current quest for constant economic growth, which requires more materials and energy, are not sustainable on a finite planet, and that we need to ensure the habitability of the biosphere for the future.

Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

“Growth is an omnipresent protean reality of our lives: a market of evolution, of an increase in size and capabilities of our bodies as we reach adulthood, of gains in our collective capacities to exploit the Earth’s resources and to organize our societies in order to secure a higher quality of life. Growth has been both an unspoken and an explicit aim of individual and collective striving throughout the evolution of our species and its still short recorded history. Its progress governs the lives of microorganisms as well as of galaxies.”

The issue with diffusion / supposed increased adoption rates: “indefensible categorical error made by comparing a complex system based on a new and extensive infrastructure with an entertaining software.” As is the case when comparing, for example, telephone adoption with the diffusion of Angry Birds. The latter is only possible because we spent a century putting in place the infrastructure needed to diffuse it.

Smil makes no grand claims in the book concerning the growth of things. He states that any generalizations or predictions have repeatedly turned out to be wrong (e.g. population growth & famines, global supply of nuclear power) due to the complex nature of reality.

Trajectories: or common patterns of growth

A recent new ‘adjective’ to growth is sustainable, but Smil states that this is in fact a contradictio in adjecto – nothing can grow forever.

But most adjectives about growth relate to its qualifiers: how fast or how slow. This is especially true when it comes to the economy – but percentages of growth are misleading. “For example, during the first half of the 1950s the US GDP growth averaged nearly 5% a year and that performance translated roughly to additional $3,500 per capita (for about 160 million people) during those five years. In contrast, the “slow” GDP growth between 2011 and 2015 (averaging just 2%/year) added about $4,800/capita (for about 317 million people) during those five years, or nearly 40% more than 60 years ago.”

It can be misleading in long-term forecasting to use exponential growth. First, the absolute gains of exponential growth keep increasing the larger the base gets – but in reality it tends to fluctuate and it’s never constant. Second, “exponential growth […] is always only a temporary phenomenon, to be terminated due to a variety of physical, environmental, economic, technical, or social constraints.” “Taking temporary high rates of annual exponential growth as indicators of future long-term developments is a fundamental mistake – but also an enduring habit that is especially favored by uncritical promoters of new devices, designs, or practices: they take early-stage growth rates, often impressively exponential, and use them to forecast an imminent dominance of emerging phenomena.”

Not all technological advances grow very quickly. Open-hearth furnaces for steel-making were used for a century after their perfection, and the rotary-dial telephone did not change in design between the 1920s and 1963 (with the introduction of the push-button).

“All diffusion and adoption processes must conform to that general patterns: no matter if their early trajectory shows rapid or slow progress, it is eventually followed by a substantial slowdown in growth rate as the process asymptotically approaches saturation and often reaches it (sometimes after many decades of diffusion) only a few percent, even only a fraction of a percent, short of the maximum.”

The two basic trajectories of growth are: S-shaped (Sigmoid) and confined exponential growth.

S-shaped growth: “Initial slow growth accelerates at the J-bend and it is followed by a rapid ascent whose rate of increase eventually slows down, forming the second bend that is followed by a slowing ascent as the growth becomes minimal and the total approaches the highest achievable limit of a specific parameter or a complete saturation of use or ownership.”

Confined exponential growth: “Unlike exponential growth, with its doubling time, these curves trace exponential decay, with its declining growth rates.” This type of growth illustrates the diminishing returns over time.

The mechanistic application of growth rates can cause a lot of errors. An example of this is population growth: often assumptions made in the past proved to be completely wrong. This is because they are not ruled by a specific growth function, but depend on economic, technical, and scientific development.

Not all things that grow (organisms, artifacts, achievements, et cetera) fit into the same mathematical function. But many of them will fit in either: 1) a normal distribution, 2) to one of the many specific power laws.

Nature: or growth of living matter

While antibiotics (and preventative measures) have minimized the risk of epidemics, there is a growing risk of resistance to them. Two best known epidemics (not pandemics since they didn’t spread through the world) in the past: Justinian plague (541-542) and the medieval Black Death.

The 1918-1919 pandemic came in multiple waves: the first one between May-September 1918, the second was more virulent and was between September and December 1918. The final wave, more moderate, was between February and April 1919.

Crop yields have increased on a linear basis over time, and while sometimes it can have relatively short periods of exponential growth, this is not possible on the long term because biophysical limits are reached. So projections for rapidly increasing crop yields have no basis in past experiences.

But there are risks: some crops are affected by global warming which will lower yields – for every degree increase, wheat crops yields will drop by 6% for example. Another risk is the increase in variability and unpredictability of yields due to global warming.

In animals there are two growth trajectories: 1) determinate growth, which stops as soon as the animal is mature, and 2) indeterminate growth, which continues as long as the animal lives. The first is most common for endotherms.

Modern breeding and feeding practices has significantly increased the size of, for example, chickens from 1.1kg in 1925 to 2.8kg in 2017, while at the same time reducing number of days needed to reach to maturity from 112 to 48 days. Chickens are now the most efficient meat growers of all domesticated animals, which explains why they went from a minority production after WWII to market dominance currently.

The growth of humans differs from other mammals – there are five main distinctions:

  • “First, human growth velocity, both in mass and length, peaks during gestation and postnatal growth decelerates during infancy, while other placental mammals, be they mice or cattle, have the highest growth velocities during their infancy.”
  • “Second, sexual maturation of mammals occurs soon after their weaning, but in humans there is, on average, a delay of more than a decade between gestation and puberty.”
  • “Third, puberty in mammals occurs while their growth rates are in decline but still close to maxima, while in humans it takes place while growth in both height and mass are at their lowest postnatal points.
  • “Fourth, human puberty is marked by an adolescent growth spurt, while mammalian growth rates continue to decline: this growth spurt in stature and skeletal maturation is uniquely human, absent even in the closest primate species.”
  • “Lastly, other mammals begin to reproduce soon after puberty but humans delay their reproduction.”

Interestingly there have been multiple quantitative confirmations that tall people have better cognitive function, mental health, higher life expectancy, lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, have a higher chance of getting married, higher education, and higher earnings.

“Recent trends in human growth are marked by a great contradiction. On one hand, there is excessive growth that actually worsens the quality of life and reduces longevity, on the other hand there is insufficient growth that weakens proper development during childhood and reduces the likelihood of realizing life’s full physical and mental potential. The first failure is entirely preventable by a combination of moderate eating and active lifestyle. A few most impoverished African countries aside, the problem of childhood stunting and malnutrition can be effectively addressed by national resources: it is not the food supply that falls short but adequate access to food that could be much improved by limited redistribution and supplementary feeding, steps that get repaid manifold by avoiding, or minimizing, physical and mental disabilities stemming from inadequate nutrition in the early years of life.”

Energies: or growth of primary and secondary converters

The […] history of civilization can be seen as a quest for ever higher reliance on extrasomatic energies. The process began with the combustion of phytomass (chemical energy in wood, later also converted to charcoal, and in crop residues) to produce heat (thermal energy) and with small-scale conversions of water and wind flows into kinetic energy of mills and sails. After centuries of slow advances, these conversions became more common, more efficient, and available in more concentrated forms (larger unit capacities), but only the combustion of fossils fuels opened the way to modern high-energy societies. These fuels (coals, crude oils, and natural gases) amount to enormous store of transformed biomass produced by photosynthesis over the span of hundreds of millions of years and their extraction and conversion has energized the conjoined progression of urbanization and industrialization. These advances brought unprecedented levels food supply, housing comfort, material affluence, and personal mobility and extended expected longevity for an increasing share of the global population.”

Artifacts: or growth of man-made objects and their performances

Growth, when it comes to infrastructure, is sometimes represented as waves of substitution. But this is not really true in all cases. Canal construction mostly stopped due to the fact that railways were cheaper for long-range transport, so this is a substitution. But development of highways did not stop railways: both still have a large percentage of goods transport. And airfreight only takes a very small share of the market due to the expense, and will most likely not reach mass-scale competition with railways or canals in terms of shipping.

Populations, Societies, Economies: or growth of the most complex assemblies

In modern society we are frequently concerned about economic growth. Counting the frequency of terms in books during the 19th and 20th century shows that the term population growth peaked in the 1970s, but the term economic growth is still rising.

Population growth: “During the first millennium of the common era they remained below 0.05% a year, during some centuries amounting to less than half of that rate. The next 500 years, between 1000 and 1500, saw the average more than doubling to about 0.1% a year and then doubling again during the 16th century. A growth dip during the 17th century was followed by a recovery to around 0.2% during the 18th century; global population increments averaged 0.8% during the 19th and about 1.35% a year during the 20th century.”

Absolute population numbers: “The first billion was reached in 1804, some 200,000 years following the emergence of Homo sapiens; 123 years were needed to reach 2 billion (in 1927), 33 years to get to 3 billion (in 1960), 14 years to 4 billion (in 1974), 13 years to 5 billion (1987), 12 years to 6 billion (in 1999), and another 12 years to 7 billion (in 2011), and it will have taken 13 years to reach 8 billion (in 2024).”

The concept of a second demographic transition (with birth rates below the replacement rates) has been criticized, but the direction of the fertility change is clear. This reduction can be linked to growing individualism, secularization, equality in gender roles, welfare state, higher education, service economy and electronic communication.

Low fertility trap: three self-reinforcing mechanisms that might prevent fertility from rising again. 1) Demographically, low fertility and late childbirths means that every cohort will be smaller and smaller. 2) Normatively, low fertility rates changes the perception of the ideal family size. 3) Economically, an aging population means lower social benefits, higher taxes, and lower disposable income – these conditions are not conducive to having more more children.

“Growing cities enjoy disproportionate increases in productivity, average income, and accumulated wealth that can be attributed to the phenomenon of agglomeration”. Some examples: transport cost savings, customer-supplier interactions, labor pooling, exchange of knowledge, economies of scale and scope, incubation of ideas.

There have been many attempts to find general principles on the growth and decline of empires. For growth some of the factors could include deliberate aggression, preemptive expansion, economic exploitation, and cultural, religious or civilizational motives. For decline, factors could include the inability to resist external pressures (not just armies, but also migrants for example), internal decay (economic/moral), and environmental degradation. Some authors have identified more than 200 reason’s for Rome’s decline for example – so highly complex.

The growth of China: “But China’s ascent will be, inevitably, self-limiting: as its economic growth moderates and as its population continues to age faster in the coming two generations than the EU has done since 1970, the dynamics of the world’s longest surviving empire will soon enter a new phase of gradual retreat.”

Food is of course the most important form of energy although it’s not always treated as such. The growth of food production meant that it went from a solar-driven system (crop photosynthesis) to now a hybrid that also includes other energy inputs (like fuel, electricity) that are absolutely necessary for the proper crop yields that sustain modern civilization.

“Whenever a new product relies on improving microprocessors, the growth of its performance, or decline of its cost, will proceed at rates closely resembling Moore’s law.” This is true for microprocessors, speed of computers, but the cost of computing power has declined even faster (50%/year since late 1970s), the cost of camera chips has almost followed this as well, and capacity of magnetic storage has also grown by more than 50% a year since 1990s.

But these advances have raised general expectation of technological progress as well as dematerialization. But for many areas this expectation is completely unrealistic. Smil calls this Moore’s Curse.

“GDP is not a reliable measure of the total economic product, and it is an outright inferior measure as far as the quality of life and real prosperity are concerned. From a long-term perspective, the most fundamental failure of GDP accounts is to ignore diverse forms of environmental degradation caused by economic activities and treat the depletion of finite resources as current income that adds to wealth. These are, of course, utterly unsustainable premises as no society can exist without adequate support provided by natural capital stored in biodiversity and in photosynthesizing species and maintained by many indispensable environmental services ranging from soil renewal to water retention by forests and wetlands.”

While GDP growth is difficult to map historically, it is clear that preindustrial GDP growth was very slow. Some reconstructions show 0.18% annual GDP growth for England between 1090 and 1850, 0.2% for The Netherlands between 1348 and 1850, and 0.03% for Spain between 1270 and 1850.

Smil notes that the “New Economy” (computing, information & telecommunication) does not live up to the impact of innovations in the past. The second industrial revolution with the introduction of electricity, internal combustion engines, indoor toilets, oil extraction, chemical industries, et cetera had a bigger impact than the first (steam & railroads) and the third (computers, internet, mobile phones).

Smil quotes a study from Gordon in which 6 headwinds for growth are listed (assuming innovation keeps pace as in the past): “a changing population structure, changing education, rising inequality, impacts of globalization, challenges of energy and the environment, and the burdens of consumer and government debt.”

A summary of growth in a single paragraph:
“Our ability to provide a reliable, adequate food supply thanks to yields an order of magnitude higher than in early agriculture has been made possible by large energy subsidies and it has been accompanied by excessive waste. A near-tripling of average life expectancies has been achieved primarily by drastic reductions of infant mortality and by effective control of bacterial infections. Our fastest mass-travel speeds are now 50-150 times higher than walking. Per capita economic product in affluent countries is roughly 100 times larger than in antiquity, and useful energy deployed per capita is up to 200-250 times higher. Gains in destructive power have seen multiples of many (5-11) orders of magnitude. And, for an average human, there has been essentially an infinitely large multiple in access to stored information, while the store of information civilization-wide will soon be a trillion times larger than it was two millennia ago.”

But at the same time this has come with an enormous assault on the biosphere. Deforestation, rapid increase of cropland, soil erosion, the number of untouched wildernesses, loss of biodiversity, and of course global warming are all consequences of this growth. Clearly our growing capabilities have not focused on protecting the biosphere.

What Comes After Growth: or demise and continuity

The biggest question of what comes after growth is on society itself: high population growth, material requirements, and high environmental impacts are not sustainable on the long-term. There’s not a way to actually predict this course, but it is clear that the future is contingent on the decisions that are made today. “Wrong decisions can accelerate decline and demise, while proceeding cautiously could greatly limit most (if not all) undesirable biospheric and social outcomes. Acting in radical ways could open new prospects for global civilization.”


“What is remarkable about increasing human life expectancies is that once the vigorous organismic growth is over, the period of maturity in healthy individuals can now span decades with little apparent deterioration of basic mental and physical functions.”

“Even without any specific diseases, lifelong stress on vital organs is particularly high. Normalized entropy stress (with the rest of the body equal to 1) is 37 for the heart, 34 for the kidneys, 17 for the brain and 15 for the liver. The heart is thus under the most severe stress and, no surprisingly, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women […].”


Most artifacts don’t go through a lot of fundamental changes, they often stay the same once they reach their optimized form. This is true for industrial or manufacturing operations (sawing, polishing, casting, welding, et cetera) but also, for example, electrical currents and mass-produced screws.

Population and societies

Japan is one of the most rapidly aging countries, and by 2050 it is predicted that there will be more people aged 80 and over than children up to 14 years of age. This will be the first time in human history that there will be a truly geriatric society.

Societies, States, and Empires

“[…]Arbesman’s analysis is an expected quantitative confirmation of the fact that imperial survival is remarkably idiosyncratic and distinct, and that the aggregate distribution of imperial lifetimes […] follows an exponential distribution, with the rate of collapse of an empire independent of its age. […] this reality is known as the Red Queen effect: longevity confers no advantage, survival demands constant adaptation, evolution, and proliferation merely to maintain one’s place against the onslaught of competing species.”

The exact economic consequences of low-growth or no-growth societies are unclear; multiple scenario’s exist but it is difficult to forecast until declining populations have existed for a period of time. Japan shows a few of the first economic challenges.


While some predict endless economic growth that is driven by human ingenuity (for example when it comes to genetically modified crops, to revolutions in material science, or AI and robotization), they are often decoupled from energy and material inputs. But those inputs severely restrict what is possible in the future: already having an increasing population will consume much more energy and material than we use today. So endless GDP growth cannot be decoupled from realities in material science and energy.

Circular economy: “Modern economies are based on massive linear flows of energy, fertilizers, other agrochemicals, and water required to produce food, and on even more massive energy and material flows to sustain industrial activities, transportation, and services. Circularization of the two key flows is impossible (reusing spent energy would require nothing less than abolishing entropy; reusing water used in cropping would require the capture of all evapotranspiration and field runoff), and (with the exception of a few metals in some countries) high-intensity (>80% of total flows), mass-scale recycling of materials (above all construction waste, plastics, and electronic waste) remains elusive.”

Relatively speaking the economy has become more sustainable (per unit of economic activity), but in absolute terms no country or company has shifted towards slower growth, or degrowth. So there’s no such thing yet as an end to material growth of slowing down of consumption.

Modern civilization

Techno-optimists believe that technological progress will fix many of these sustainability issues, but they often come with very unrealistic expectations. There’s early hype (e.g. rapid decarbonization of energy), the so-called fourth-industrial revolution, as well as impact errors (underestimating or overestimating the impact of new technology on the environment, economy and society).

“But historical perspectives demand skepticism. I stand by my conclusion that the two generations preceding WWI were the most exceptional innovative period in history and that its contributions have been far more consequential than the advances of the last two generations.” Ferguson also states: “simple lessons from history: More and faster information is not good in itself. Knowledge is not always the cure. And network effects are not always positive.”

“There is no possibility of reconciling the preservation of a well-functioning biosphere with the standard economic mantra that is akin to positing a perpetuum mobile machine as it does not conceive any problems of sustainability in relation to resources or excessive stress on the environment. Most economists are either unaware or dismissive of the advances that took place in our understanding of the synergistic functioning of civilization and the biosphere – and yet they maintain a monopoly on supplying their physically impossible narratives of continuing growth that guide decisions made by national governments and companies.”


How many people are taking seriously an even more unthinkable goal, one that aims not only at setting limits but having deliberately declining levels and performance (or, in inelegant and inaccurate newspeak, “negative growth” or “degrowth”) as its widely accepted and broadly pursued way of regress. This noun alone illuminates our predicament: using regress as a qualifier of civilizational achievement, after a long-lasting addiction to progress, seems unreal. This creates an irreconcilable conflict or, more accurately, a challenge for which we have yet to find an effective solution (assuming that one exists).”

“We may not know every detail of doing the right thing, but the direction of the required actions is clear: to ensure the habitability of the biosphere while maintaining human dignity. And sin can be easily left out and doing the right thing could be motivated by the quest (moral imperative?) to preserve our species while inflicting the least possible danger on other organisms with whom we share the biosphere.”

Liked this? Browse all book notes here.