Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made: Vaclav Smil

What makes the modern world work? The answer to this deceptively simple question lies in four “grand transitions” of civilization–in populations, agriculture, energy, and economics–which have transformed the way we live.

Societies that have undergone all four transitions emerge into an era of radically different population dynamics, food surpluses (and waste), abundant energy use, and expanding economic opportunities. Simultaneously, in other parts of the world, hundreds of millions remain largely untouched by these developments.

Through erudite storytelling, Vaclav Smil investigates the fascinating and complex interactions of these transitions. He argues that the moral imperative to share modernity’s benefits has become more acute with increasing economic inequality, but addressing this imbalance would make it exceedingly difficult to implement the changes necessary for the long-term preservation of the environment. Thus, managing the fifth transition–environmental changes from natural-resource depletion, biodiversity loss, and global warming–will determine the success or eventual failure of the grand transitions that have made the world we live in today.


“No one writes about the great issues of our time with more rigor or erudition than Vaclav Smil. Grand Transitions is at once sweeping, sobering, and profoundly informative.”
–Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

“An expert portrait of spectacular technical and economic advances that many in the 21st century enjoy but which exclude large segments of the population and are creating problems that may or may not be solvable. Ingenious, insightful, and disturbing.”–Kirkus
“Underpinned by mesmerizing data and deep analysis, Grand Transitions provides a clear and compelling framework for thinking about the future of energy, the environment, and the economy. A feast for anyone interested in the future of energy. A must read.”–Atul Arya, Chief Energy Strategist, IHS

Grand Transitions is the epitome of excellence in integrative systemic scientific analysis, anchored in a magisterial exploration of the main five transitions of mankind since civilizations emerged. And it provides a healthy antidote to the wishful thinking so prevalent today. Decision makers and
the public should educate themselves with this authoritative evaluation, which will shape their decisions on how to ensure a harmonious, sustainable future for all.”–Didier Sornette, Professor of Entrepreneurial Risks and Finance, ETH Zurich

“For a generation, polymath Vaclav Smil has expounded on the big patterns in energy, food, and other means through which humans have transformed their environment. In Grand Transitions he has zoomed out even further to paint a picture of how the pieces fit together and to explain how the modern
world works. In elegant prose with relentless attention to fact and reality-rare these days-he has written a masterpiece that forces you to think, disagree, wonder, and grapple with the accomplishments and challenges of today’s industrial society.”–David G. Victor, Professor of International
Relations, University of California, San Diego
“In Grand Transitions, Vaclav Smil reminds us of the fundamental point that the economy cannot be untethered from nature. Technological ingenuity has loosened the links, but the outlook for economic gains–or losses–is inextricably tied to the dynamics of population change, and of food and energy
production.”–Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy, University of Cambridge
“Investing requires quantification of impact. But Vaclav Smil convincingly challenges the increased reliance on applying mathematical modelling to single-frame narratives. He steadily illustrates why such approaches seldom provide useful enough insights, as they tend to ignore technical constraints
and biospheric limits.”
–Philippe Rohner, Pictet Asset Management

“Smil offers a sweeping account of the deep material forces that have shaped the modern world… He tells a remarkable story of the human capacity to innovate, build, and integrate societies across vast distances.”–Foreign Affairs
“Smil is a conjurer with numbers. In Grand Transitions, he works to show just how thoroughly this is now a planet of our making–and how rapidly the transformation is still happening.”–Washington Post

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. The author of more than 40 books, he conducts interdisciplinary research in energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He has worked globally as a consultant and frequently delivers invited talks at conferences and workshops throughout the world.

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:

  • Publisher : Oxford University Press (March 1, 2021)
  • Language : English
  • Hardcover : 384 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 0190060662
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0190060664
  • Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
  • Dimensions : 9.3 x 1.4 x 6.2 inches

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