If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the world is not only changing quickly, it’s changing at a faster rate than ever. Or does it just seem that way?
Surely we can all agree that the Industrial Revolution has changed everything. Or has it? One noted economist says there in fact were three industrial revolutions, and only one of them—the second one, from about 1870 to 1914, was important. In fact he largely discounts what we call the information revolution as insubstantial.
If you wanted to study the great trends and transitions of civilization—not just Western Civilization, but all of it—and break it down into epochs, and choose from the various transitions the five or seven most significant ones, and study the interplays of these transitions—which are causes of the others, and to what degree, and why some occur quickly and others—like the electric car—are postponed for a hundred years; if you wanted to do all that, it would take a lifetime of study.
In fact, you’d have to write ten or thirty books each one of which looks at some aspect of our world from a height of 30,000 feet, and then write an eleventh or thirty-first book that was the encapsulation of all that wisdom.
That certainly seems impossible. The last true Renaissance person, someone who knew pretty much all that was known at the time, might have been Aristotle, with asterisks for Franklin and Diderot, and maybe Bertrand Russell.
And yet, my guest today—who doesn’t know all that is currently known, but knows quite a bit about almost everything about technology, and the social and cultural changes that technologies have wrought, and what causes technological change itself, has done just that.
Václav Smil is a Czech-born Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba, a part of the world we don’t always associate with the Renaissance. He’s the author of more than 40 books in an enormously wide range of fields that includes energy and food production, environmental and population change, risk and public policy, and the history of technology and innovation. He’s also a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum.
His new book, which in some sense encapsulates all his prior scholarship, is Grand Transitions: