• A Book Review of Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made, by Vaclav Smil.1
Over the last two decades, Vaclav Smil has produced a series of outstanding scholarly works across a range of interconnected topics. The core interest in all cases is energy—its sources and uses—but this is embedded in a wider concern with natural resources of all kinds and the natural world and the impact of human activity on those. These, in turn, have led him to develop an interest in the nature of growth, technology, and innovation, natural and material limits, and the short- and medium-term prospects for humanity and modern civilization. He is often associated with the idea that he is particularly associated with is that of dematerialization—a change in patterns of production and consumption—and in the way these are organized—that reduces the physical impact of human beings upon the planet. His works are notable for their empiricism and foundation in factual evidence, rather than theory or fancy, and for a cautious and reserved approach to their subject—particularly when it comes to forecasts. He is very much a scientist, but his work can also be found located in the disciplines of sociology, politics and, above all, history. He has apparently remarked that he does not think he will ever own a mobile telephone—a point that is relevant to this review.

Smil’s most recent book, Grand Transitions, brings together his main concerns and interests. The subject of the book is the popular one of the nature of modernity and the modern world, the ways in which they differ from the greater part of the historic human past, and the process by which the old world of traditional society gave way to the one we now inhabit:, the modern. The work deftly combines two ways of addressing these:, by identifying and quantifying the novel or contrasting features of modernity as compared to the traditional, and by setting out and quantifying the processes that brought these into being. This also makes possible the subject matter of the final part of the book, which is an argument about what the future may hold. Revealingly, this last part is done more in terms of negatives—arguments about what will almost certainly NOT happen rather than extrapolations or forecasts of what WILL happen. The reason for this is the (correct) argument that we can be much more certain about what is impossible or highly unlikely than about what is possible. It would be easy for such an expansive survey to become ill-defined and sprawling but Smil avoids this with because of his clear conceptual framework and the argument that flows from it, something that draws upon his previous work.

“[Smil] takes the view that attempts to identify causes for observable major changes are almost always bound to fail because of methodological challenges but, above all, because of the central role of contingency and randomness in the historical human story.”

The key concept is that of a transition. This is not original to Smil, of course, but is widely employed in discussions of modernity. The way it works is to identify in a major area of human life—such as demography, politics, or economics—the dominant features of the traditional world that we can see persisting across the centuries and variations of geography and culture and compare and contrast them to the persistent and dominant features of the contemporary world. The next step is to identify and describe the way one changed into the other over the last two to three centuries (never more than that), and so to define the nature of the transition from the one to the other. What this makes possible is a quantitative approach that also examines qualitative questions. The issue that is not easily addressed—either in Smil’s work or others like it—is that of causation, of what it was that caused the transitions. Smil’s own approach is resolutely empirical, and he explicitly argues against the use of theoretical models (especially those involving advanced and complex mathematics) and elaborate abstract theory. He takes the view that attempts to identify causes for observable major changes are almost always bound to fail because of methodological challenges but, above all, because of the central role of contingency and randomness in the historical human story. The reason for this is the nature of complex systems (examples being with both human societies and natural ecosystems being examples of that) and the difficulty of directly linking outcomes to preceding states in such a system, along with the notorious problem of high dependence upon random initial conditions and strong path dependency. What one can do—and he does expertly—is to present a careful account of the shifts and processes, as accurately as possible given the limitations of evidence. This modest approach is refreshing and welcome when we contrast it to the elevated claims to insight and knowledge that we find elsewhere.

Smil identifies four key transitions—the ‘”grand transitions”’ of his title. These are: demographic, agriculture and diet, energy, and economic. For many, the most familiar for many is the demographic, the transition from a world of high birth rates and high mortality levels—particularly among children—to one of low birth rates (often below replacement level) and low death rates. The transition involves a time period when for some time the birth rate remains high while the death rate falls with a dramatic rise in population as a result until the birth rate declines. This transition has been completed in many parts of the world but is still in process in others. All the indications are that it will have happened everywhere by the middle part of this century. One aspect of this transition that is now becoming apparent is an ageing of the population, with an unprecedentedly high proportion of the population being elderly. The second—agriculture and diet—is marked by the movement from a world of subsistence where food production was often precarious, to one where a combination of economic integration and technological innovations (such as artificial fertilizers and pesticides) plus innovation in both varieties of crops and farming methods has produced a level of food supply that our ancestors would have seen as abundant. Smil emphasizes how this is not simply a matter of more food of the traditional kind being produced and consumed as there has also been a dramatic transition in diets with a move towards much greater variety and, generally, much higher intakes of fats and refined carbohydrates and meat (as opposed to grain products). This has pled to the novel situation of health problems caused by overeating rather than starvation and malnutrition.

The last two are separate in Smil’s account but reading the relevant chapters reveals that for him economic and energy transitions are so interconnected that it could make sense to see them as a single phenomenon. The economic one is the well-known path in which we have gone from a world where living standards were low for the overwhelming majority and very stable over the long term despite periodic fluctuations to one where they rise steadily. The energy transition is the movement from a world where the primary source of energy is human and animal muscle power—augmented where possible by wind and water—to one where these are enormously added to by energy derived from fossil fuels and, more recently, nuclear and renewable sources. The two transitions are connected because of the way that the great increase in productivity (and, hence, living standards) since the early nineteenth century is clearly in large part connected to the increasing employment of these new sources of energy—notably but not only in the form of electricity.

All this raises several questions. There are four transitions for Smil, but could we also argue that there are others? The obvious candidate is innovation with a transition from a world where innovation was rare, slow to be adopted and diffused, and systematically restrained and discouraged by both overt power and social institutions, to one where it is omnipresent, rapid, and generally lauded (at least officially). This clearly plays a part in all the other transitions. I suspect that the reason why Smil does not add this is because it is much more difficult to measure (given that, for various reasons, patents are for various reasons not a reliable measure and, in any case, only exist for the period since the other transitions were under way). Another question is this: the four transitions are clearly interconnected but might we argue that one is foundational and driving all the rest? The best candidate for that is the energy transition, but even there it is not clear how that can be seen to have caused the demographic one. Smil shows that the evidence does not support the common belief that it is the economic transition that drives the demographic one if anything the opposite is true. Alternatively, and more in line with Smil’s own approach, might we argue that the four transitions are so interdependent that none of them could take place singularly and that all four had to happen together or not at all?. This would emphasizse the degree to which we are dealing with a complex phenomenon that can be measured and described but which resists analysis, much less prediction.

That in turn brings us to the final part of Smil’s work, which summarizes much of his previous writings, and looks at where we are now and what is the likely future of these transitions is. One central point, —which is why he uses the term ‘”transitions”—is that, in his view, it is overwhelmingly unlikely that the processes that have produced these transitions will continue indefinitely or even for much longer. Instead of an open-ended process, what we will have is a movement from one stable state to another, a step change and hence a transition (as opposed to e.g. a ‘”take-off”’). The way this can be put mathematically is that we are not looking at exponential curves in the various indicators but logarithmic ones (S curves). The argument Smil makes—here and elsewhere—is that the transition is almost complete and that therefore we are therefore approaching the top of the logarithmic curve where it rapidly flattens out. For example, this implies for example that we are coming to the end of an era of economic growth and arriving at the steady state predicted by inter alia Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill. Another implication is that population growth will fall dramatically and be succeeded by decline until there is a new steady state, while yet another is that both the impact and rate of innovation will decline. If true, aAll of this has far-reaching implications if true. So much of our political thinking, for example—in all parts of the spectrum—is built around the presumption of continued growth that it will be a radical disruption if this does stop. It will make sense, in that case, to return to the thinking—and maybe even the practice—of thinkers from earlier periods who did not have that foundational presumption, or at least to update them.

One thing Smil argues very forcibly is that we will not see either a continued growth in energy usage or a major switch to renewable energy. He reiterates the argument he has made elsewhere that this is extremely unlikely because of the fundamental problem of energy density. The great advantage of fossil fuels is that they contain large quantities of energy in lightweight and compact form, so they have a high density, which in turn means they can do a lot of work. By contrast, renewable energy sources—particularly solar power and wind power—are diffuse, which means they have much less usable energy. They are fine for producing electricity (allowing for intermittency) but it is difficult to impossible to employ them for things such as transport, or industrial heating (including processes such as steel making and cement production). The problems with all the alternatives suggested are both technical and economic—there is the common problem of technologies that are technically feasible but hopelessly uneconomic. The consequence is that we can look forward to not only a stagnation of energy usage but a significant decline, due to the declining EROEI ratio of existing sources (EROEI = Energy Return Over Energy Invested, the ratio between the amount of energy gained and the energy that has to be expended used to get it). This has very obvious and extensive implications, which most people have not started to consider.

One point that Smil spends a lot of time exploring is the question of whether the final stage of the transitions will be a move to greater “‘dematerialization”’ brought about by the combination of greater wealth and increased difficulties with energy supply. The argument is that the pattern of the economic transition is for increasing productivity in which resources are used ever more intensively to produce ever larger amounts of physical output. As with all processes, this faces diminishing marginal returns and, eventually, what is increasingly produced are not physical products that require inputs of raw material and energy but immaterial ones where the only major input is time. These are not subject to the limits that restrict the continued growth in the production of physical products and services. All of this is very similar to the speculations of J. S. Mill in his consideration of the steady state towards the end of his Political Economy and again raises all kinds of fascinating questions as to the implications for our current economic, social, and political arrangements. Smil himself is too cautious and respectful of the limits of his evidence to come to a firm answer although he clearly thinks that this route of dematerialization of economic life is probable.

For more on these topics, see the EconTalk podcast episodes Andrew McAfee on More from Less and Matt Ridley on How Innovation Works. See also Economic Growth, by Paul Romer in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

This book is a great starting point for anyone interested in exploring finding out about Smil’s work and thought for the first time—even though it is his latest work—because it is in some ways a summation of the main themes and arguments he has explored over the years. It is also a wonderful read for anyone interested in the question of what exactly the difference is between the traditional world and the modern world and how we got from one to the other, with a wealth of solidly grounded information—Smil’s work of synthesis saves much time in going to the original or, alternatively, points to where to go to look further. It is also a work of great interest for people interested in political thought, or philosophy, or cultural analysis inasmuch as it presents us with a clear challenge: if we are indeed coming to the close of a three- hundred- year period of transition from one steady state to another, how will that affect the way we live and order our affairs, and how must our thinking change?


[1] Vaclav Smil, Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made. Oxford University Press, 2021.

*Dr. Stephen Davies is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio. A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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