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Let me open this review with saying that Grand Transitions is one of the most important books released in recent time. Many claim that this is a masterpiece written by Professor Vaclav Smil.

Description from book:

”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.”

I heavily agree with these claims. However, it fails with what I consider to be the most important area. I will get to that.

Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil is a professor that I know people like Bill Gates is a big fan of. This is how I got introduced to the book. I first read Bill Gates book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster (which is fantastic). Soon after I discovered Grand Transitions.

Vaclav has been around for a long time and has released many books. To quote from his website:

”Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production, history of technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy. He has published more than 40 books and about 500 papers on these topics. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy), and a Member of the Order of Canada.”

So he certainly has the experience to carry a book of this weight. If you want to get to know him more, visit his website for details.

What makes this book great and important

What makes Grand transitions great is that it gives you all the historical data. This gives you insights in how everything is connected. He then goes deep and really exposes all the numbers in detail. With this, Vaclav writes how we went from one era and entered the next. Not only does the book give you the data, it also tells you that sometimes, it’s not that simple.

What I also like is that Professor Smil is not shy when it comes to sharing his strong opinions. He’s even gone so far as to call people out in the field. People, he believes, are not sharing a correct view, or not giving the full picture.

These things makes this book one of the most important book for anyone to read today. I wish more people were interested in the subject.

Where it fails

Even if I find the book extremely important, I doubt this book, even with its brilliance, will capture a big audience. The reason for this is that it fails to capture the interest of the reader.

This book is so heavy on numbers and scientific terms, that it completely forgets to tell a story that’s captivating. This, I believe, is as important as the content itself. I believe that the best teachers aren’t the one’s that’s the smartest. It’s the one’s that has the ability to keep the students engage and inspired. What I really missed in this book was the human aspect of writing. Give some examples and context in to what all the numbers means. Use metaphors and tell more stories, so “normal”people can grasp the data that’s being thrown at you page after page.

If you are a scientist, then this book will hit right home. The problem is, scientists are already aligned with what’s mentioned in the book. The general population is not, and it’s for them that this book is extremely important. Unfortunately, this is where it fails.


This is a heavy read, no doubt. However, this is a book I still recommend for anyone to read. This reads almost like a 300 page long scientific white papers or study that’s heavy on data. But if you can find yourself getting through that, it’s absolutely worth it! It gives you a detailed, accurate and holistic view of how we got here. And probably even more important, the challenges we face going forward.

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