In This Review

Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made
Grand Transitions: How the Modern World Was Made
By Vaclav Smil
Oxford University Press, 2021, 384 pp

Smil offers a sweeping account of the deep material forces that have shaped the modern world. He argues that the centuries-long move of humanity from traditional agricultural societies into a more complex, globe-spanning industrial civilization has been driven by five “grand transitions”—in population, agriculture, energy, economics, and the environment. Smil has an eye for interesting details, but he is better at showing the interconnections, turning points, and pathways of societal change than in pinpointing cause and effect. Nevertheless, he tells a remarkable story of the human capacity to innovate, build, and integrate societies across vast distances. He worries, however, that economic inequality and the rapid degradation of the environment will overwhelm the human talent for adaptation.