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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.