It's such a big question that many people wouldn't even know where to
But if you care about understanding the impact that humans are
having on the Earth, and what that means for our future, it's a crucial question.
Vaclav Smil sets out to answer it in his book Harvesting the Biosphere:
What We Have Taken From Nature.
There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.
He jokes that no one reads his books (he's written more than 30 of them).
It's true that each book only sells a few thousand copies. But I'm trying to
read everything he writes.
Why? He understands a phenomenal range of subjects, from energy to
agriculture. On any page he might talk about meat-eating among bonobos or the
average human life span during the Roman Empire. Plus he is
rigorously numeric, using data to illuminate every topic he writes about.
The word "polymath" was invented to describe people like him.
In Harvesting the Biosphere, Smil gives as clear and as numeric a picture
as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a
bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me,
but it tells a critical story.
Smil starts with a big question: How much life is there in the biosphere? By
"biosphere," he means everywhere on earth where there are living things: in
the air, on the ground, and in the oceans. I've been thinking and writing a
lot about measurement this year, and I was very impressed with how rigorously
he thinks about this problem. Ultimately he concludes that the dry
mass of all living things on Earth is about 1.6 trillion metric tons. (Because
living things contain different amounts of water, Smil makes these calculations
using dry mass, which leaves out the water.)
MEET VACLAV SMIL
VIDEO: "Without these things, there is no civilization."
Publisher: MIT Press
Date Published: December 21, 2012
Hardcover, 320 pages.
Number of times the word
"mammoth" appears: 19