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Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature [Hardcover]

Vaclav Smil
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

15 Feb 2013
The biosphere -- the Earth's thin layer of life -- dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere's character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere's stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day. Smil examines all harvests -- from prehistoric man's hunting of megafauna to modern crop production -- and all uses of harvested biomass, including energy, food, and raw materials. Without harvesting of the biomass, Smil points out, there would be no story of human evolution and advancing civilization; but at the same time, the increasing extent and intensity of present-day biomass harvests are changing the very foundations of civilization's well-being. In his detailed and comprehensive account, Smil presents the best possible quantifications of past and current global losses in order to assess the evolution and extent of biomass harvests. Drawing on the latest work in disciplines ranging from anthropology to environmental science, Smil offers a valuable long-term, planet-wide perspective on human-caused environmental change.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 312 pages
  • Publisher: MIT Press (15 Feb 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 026201856X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262018562
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 18.3 x 2.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 481,282 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of more than thirty books, including most recently Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing (MIT Press). In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that "there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil."

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4.0 out of 5 stars uh oh 16 Mar 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Smil has written a number of books about human impact on the planet. This one is summed by by the calculation that about 99% of land vertebrate biomass on earth consists of humans and their domestic animals. The aim of the book is to examine how much of the earth's biological productivity humans use. This suggests how much further human economies and food supplies can increase. The limits to growth are clearly in sight--in fact, we already use enough to seriously destabilize the very systems that support us. The science is pretty solid, which makes it a slog in places, but I like the fact that this book makes a serious attempt to get the science right by looking at these questions carefully.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy read at all 7 Oct 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed one of his previous books (on the Oil industry) but this one is really dry with little commentary and too many stats from obscure studies
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Amazon.com: 3.9 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What we have taken from nature 11 Mar 2013
By Stephen C. Baer - Published on Amazon.com
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
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new look at biosphere milestones, with a high degree of research proving that Planetary Boundaries are being pushed 3 April 2014
By Chad M - Published on Amazon.com
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. Periodic surges and collapses of society's have occurred, and now Jared Diamond observes that a near global collapse may be a few decades away. The world needs a new vision of humanity living in symbiosis with the natural world, improving some areas and utilizing specific designated areas, instead of the other way around where protected areas are the exception rather than the rule. Understanding the need for a civilization-biosphere symbiosis is just the beginning of an effort by scientists to formulate and promote such a new civilizational strategy.
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating content, but poorly written 4 Oct 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
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. 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.
5.0 out of 5 stars Harvesting the biosphere 4 Feb 2014
By Marlene Burkhart - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Good book, thought provoking, I have not yet finished it, but like it very much, and will definitely re read
1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Account of Homo sapiens' Impact on Earth 11 Nov 2013
By W. A. Carpenter - Published on Amazon.com
Vaclav Smil's Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature is not an easy book to read. It is full of statistics such as this excerpt: (... 15MJ/kg for grains and more than 16MJ/kg for fatty meat). Despite this, the book is fascinating!

Smil analyzes the mass of the biosphere, i.e. all of the Earth's life including plants, animals, and other living matter. He calculates how much of this living matter there is and how much of that total is used by humans. He also, incidentally, imparts really interesting tidbits about the extinction of mammoths and other megafauna, the importance of forests, the impacts of whaling, and lots of other interesting topics. It seems that we still haven't learned how to handle fire - one of the largest human impacts on the world historically has been the burning of forests - much of which was and is accidental.

In this period of uncontrolled global warming, one might expect the author's conclusions to be uniformly pessimistic. Smil surprises with a somewhat optimistic final chapter on long-term trends. He ends with a set of recommendations, well supported by the evidence in this book, that we need to stabilize our global population, eat less meet, waste less food, share the world's resources more equitably, and manage the demand for wood. I hope we listen to him!
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