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What a World!

It is refreshing to read a book full of facts about our planet and the life that has transformed it, written by an author who does not allow facts to be obscured or overshadowed by politics. Vaclav Smil is well aware of the political disputes that are now raging about the effects of human activities on climate and biodiversity, but he does not give them more attention than they deserve. He emphasizes the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the superficiality of our theories. He calls attention to the many aspects of planetary evolution which are poorly understood, and which must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured.

The book has two themes, a major and a minor one. The major theme is the description of the biosphere. The biosphere is the interacting web of plants and rocks, fungi and soils, animals and oceans, microbes and air, that constitute the habitat of life on our planet. To understand the biosphere, it is essential to see it from both sides, from below as a multitude of details and from above as a single integrated system. This book gives a comprehensive account of biological details and a summary of the global cycles of matter and energy that tie the system together. Every detail and every cycle is documented with references to the technical literature. There are forty pages of bibliography, containing more than a thousand references, ranging from John Ray’s 1686 History of Plants to the 2001 report of the Intergovernmental Programme on Climatic Change. The bibliography will make this book a useful work of reference for students and teachers. The text is also intended to be read by ordinary citizens who are not students or teachers but have a serious interest in environmental problems.

The minor theme of the book is the life and work of Vladimir Vernadsky. Vernadsky did not invent the word “biosphere,” but he was the first to make it a central concept unifying the study of the earth with the study of life. In Russia he is honored as one of the leading figures of twentieth-century science, while in the West his name is hardly known. Vaclav Smil, who is himself a bridge between East and West, a Russian living in Canada, uses this book as an opportunity to bring Vernadsky to life and to make the West aware of his ideas. Every chapter begins with a quotation from Vernadsky’s book The Biosphere, which summarized his thinking and was written for a wide audience. The first chapter, with the title “Evolution of the Idea,” begins with Vernadsky saying, “A new character is imparted to the planet by this powerful cosmic force. The radiations that pour upon the Earth cause the biosphere to take on properties unknown to lifeless planetary surfaces, and thus transform the face of the Earth.” The last chapter, with the title “Civilization and the Biosphere,” begins with the quotation “Man, alone, violates the established order.”

The meaning of this last quotation becomes clearer when we place it in its context. Man violates the established order not only by burning coal and oil but by farming and weeding. This is what Vernadsky wrote:

In cultivated areas it is only at the expense of great effort that civilized man can secure crops unmixed with weeds which spring up everywhere. Before man appeared on the Earth, the vegetation everywhere must have reached its maximum possible development, a state of equilibrium, attained through centuries of growth. Such a state can be seen in the virgin steppes which still exist in parts of Russia…. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the waist-high growth of feather-grass, a continuous clothing to the Earth, protecting it against the heat of the sun. Moss and lichen, profiting by the conservation of the moisture in the soil, remained green throughout the heat of summer under the shadow of the leaves.

Man, alone, violates the established order and, by cultivation, upsets the equilibrium…. He sees this when he is obliged to oppose the pressure of life in defending against this invader fields which he wants to cultivate. He sees it, too, if he watches the surrounding world of nature with attentive eyes; the secret, silent, inexorable fight for existence waged all around him by green vegetation. Sensing this movement, he may experience the reality of the assault of the forest on the steppe-land, or the gradual suffocation of the forest by the rising tide of lichens from the tundra.

In these words we hear the authentic voice of Vernadsky, talking like the doctor Mikhail Astrov in Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. His statement of the facts is scientifically accurate, but is expressed in the language of drama and poetry. Vernadsky and Chekhov were contemporaries. Both belonged to the circle of philosophizing intellectuals that Chekhov portrays so poignantly in his plays. Vernadsky was a Chekhov character who also happened to be a world-class scientist.

Vernadsky was a geochemist, born in 1863 in Kiev, the son of a professor of political economy. In 1889 he worked as a student with Pierre Curie in Paris, and in 1902 he became a full professor at Moscow University. After the first Russian revolution of 1905, which forced the Tsar to give some share in the affairs of government to a representative assembly called the Duma, Vernadsky was an important political figure. He was one of the founders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, generally known by its acronym Kadet. The Kadet party tried to provide the loyal opposition that Russia desperately needed in order to achieve far-reaching political reform without bloodshed. Unfortunately, the majority of intellectuals supported social revolutionary parties and did not believe in gradual reform.

Through the years from 1908 to 1918, Vernadsky remained a member of the central committee of the Kadet party, struggling to establish democratic government in Russia against bitter opposition from the Tsar’s bureaucrats on the right and the social revolutionaries on the left. After the Bolshevik revolution, most of the Kadet leaders were executed. Vernadsky was spared because he was a famous scientist and had some friends in Lenin’s inner circle, but his political life was over. He spent some years as an exile in Paris, giving lectures at the Sorbonne on geochemistry and writing his book The Biosphere. In 1926, at the age of sixty-two, he returned peacefully to Russia and published the book in Leningrad. He refused to join the Communist Party, but continued to live until his death in 1945 as one of the respected elder statesmen of Soviet science.

In Russia the disciplines of geochemistry and biology remained unified, with Vernadsky’s vision of the biosphere as a central theme. After Vernadsky’s death, his books and papers continued to be read and studied. Russian biologists aimed to understand life by integrating it into ecological communities and planetary processes. Meanwhile, in the West, biology developed in a strongly reductionist direction, the aim being to understand life by reducing it to genes and molecules. Reductionist biology was enormously successful and came to dominate the thinking of Western biologists.

There is in fact no incompatibility between reductionist and integrative biology. Genes and molecules and ecologies and biospheres are all essential parts of the world we live in. To understand our world fully, both kinds of biology are needed. If science had been uncontaminated by politics, the reductionist and integrative approaches to biology in the West and the East would have blended together during Vernadsky’s lifetime and merged into a balanced view of the biosphere. But in the 1930s, biology in the Soviet Union was almost destroyed by Lysenko’s murderous campaign against Mendelian genetics. In Russia reductionist biology was forbidden, and in the West the Russian tradition of integrative biology was discredited because Lysenko appeared to approve of it. In the West Vernadsky’s ideas were ignored and his books were unread. A complete translation of The Biosphere into English was only published in 1998.1 After seventy years of dominance of reductionist biology, Vernadsky’s language now seems quaint and old-fashioned.

One of the great might-have-beens of history is the world that would have emerged if the statesmen of Europe had had the wisdom to deal peacefully with the Serbian crisis of 1914. If World War I had never happened, the rapid economic growth that Russia experienced from 1905 to 1914 would probably have continued. The Bolsheviks would probably have remained a small group of outlaws without any wide following, and would not have had an opportunity to seize power. The Tsar’s government might have evolved into a constitutional monarchy, and the Kadet party might have emerged as the leader of a liberal parliamentary regime. In that imaginary world, Vernadsky might have been prime minister of Russia, guiding his country along the path of economic and scientific development, ending with full integration into the world community. After reading some of his writings, I have little doubt that he would have chosen to stay in politics if he had had the chance. He would not then have had time to resume his work as a scientist and write The Biosphere. Instead of being the founder of a new discipline of science, he might have been the savior of his country.

From Vernadsky and his dreams, I turn now to the major theme of Smil’s book, which is the difficulty of understanding the behavior of the biosphere on a global scale. Even the nonliving processes governing weather and climate are difficult to understand. The living processes governing the fertility of forests and oceans are even more difficult. As an example to illustrate the difficulties, I look at the effects on the biosphere of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is one of the subjects in Smil’s book, but it is the reviewer, not the author, who is responsible for giving it emphasis here. As a result of the burning of coal and oil, the driving of cars, and other human activities, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing at a rate of about half a percent per year.

Everyone agrees that the increasing abundance of carbon dioxide has two important consequences. First, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, transparent to sunlight but partially opaque to the heat radiation that transports energy from the earth’s surface into space. Second, carbon dioxide is an essential nutrient for plants on land and in the ocean. The increase in carbon dioxide causes changes, both in the transport of energy through the atmosphere and in the growth and reproduction of plants. Opinions differ on two crucial questions. Are the physical or the biological effects of carbon dioxide more important? Are the effects, either separately or together, beneficial or harmful? In his last two chapters, Smil summarizes the evidence bearing on these questions, but does not presume to answer them.

  1. 1

    V.I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere, translated by D.B. Langmuir (Copernicus, 1998).

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