Energy and Civilization: A History (The MIT Press) Hardcover – May 12, 2017
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A wise, compassionate, and valuable book.―Foreign Affairs
This is a book to excite not just admiration, but also passion. It is a literate and precise analysis of the evolution of human societies viewed through the lens of energy.―Literary Review of Canada
Smil's masterful overview explains energy's centrality in creating and sustaining civilization. Grounded in science, sensitive to cultural differences, and richly detailed, it is the definitive work on this vital subject.―David E. Nye, author of Electrifying America and When the Lights Went Out
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From there, we start with the calculations regarding the number of calories any human needs to get through the day; pretty basic and clearly explained values.
This is followed by the overall history of energy in human society, beginning with foraging and scavenging societies, using human muscle energy in more effective forms as a result of human reasoning; tools. Accompanied by (largely effective) sidebar notes, the narrative then progresses through the use of draft and ridden animal muscle, direct water and wind power, and then on to the use of ‘stored’ solar energy in the form of carbon and radioactive fuels, to the present. The fragility of society prior to modern use of those ‘stored’ sources is eye-opening and should serve as a corrective to anyone hoping to return to some romantic, pristine, autarky.
I’m sure this was not intended for the general audience; the terminology and notation suggests and requires a certain level of education. But at times Smil seems to change units of measure in what looks a bit of braggadocio. Joules, calories, watts, any will do, but switching back and forth requires mental gymnastics and introduces the chance of errors; there is no reason to make a book less understandable than the transfer of information requires.
Similarly, there is no reason for the pedantry regarding the phrase “Industrial Revolution”; I recall no one using the phrase to mean a ‘revolution’ in X years. As it was intended to mean a rapid change in many social arrangements, it was just that and is a useful shorthand for that phenomenon.
Disregarding such caviling, we are, at well-researched and well-argued length, presented with the uncontroversial fact that we are consuming carbon energy resources far beyond replacement rates and that use is resulting in environmental problems which could be very serious. Fortunately, the author is not given to hyperbole; those environmental problems are neither certain in time or severity.
But as Smil makes clear, there are really few alternatives. Our recent fantasies regarding wind or solar are never going to provide the energy surplus we currently enjoy, even if we had 100% battery storage technology. There is simply not enough ‘instant’ solar energy available to support the style to which we have become accustomed and others hope to achieve.
Citing some studies regarding ‘happiness’ vs wealth which I find far from convincing, the author seems to come down on the side of drastically reduced energy consumption. He never suggests coercion to achieve that end, but it’s doubtful that those who are used to luxury and those who quest for it are likely to voluntarily reduce that standard of living or the desire for it, regardless of Smil’s personal (righteous!) choice of a 1Kw automobile.
Begging to differ, I come down on the ‘let’s develop non-carbon energy’ side; nuclear. And if we are to prevent those possible environmental problems, we’d better get going on developing safe nuclear energy right now, rather than whingeing about the morality of Exon’s profit margin.
Be aware that it is very technically dense with a lot of specifics and almost reads like a textbook so it's not what I would call a "light read" but if you like that sort of thing than this book is recommended.
So thumbs up, 5 stars, is given to the author for puting the whole energy history in context, and how vital it is to appreciate our fossil fuel workhorses for now and it also led to my appreciation that we can use the energy surplus as today to prepare for a sustainable future of tomorrow. Even with less energy, it is possible to sustain a civilisation based on "energy helpers" so that living standards are still acceptable. The calculations back and forth when it comes to Joules/tons/kwh (or even barrels) is very useful for engaging the mind outside speed reading. An eye opener for me was the 90% energy conversion for electricity for kinetic energy as opposed to 40% for diesel and 25% for gasoline. Going electric for personal transportation based on renewables really makes sense overall!
Top international reviews
Amazing book with a lot of details on everything about the relationship between man and energy, be it by the use of muscles or steam turbines. It is a tough book to read given the deepness with each topic is presented, but the knowledge derivas from this book is worth it.