Top positive review
Wonderful history, a unicorn hope for the future.
Reviewed in the United States on September 3, 2017
This is one of those books which should be widely read; a concise explanation of “energy” as relates to society beginning with terms and definitions which most people do not consider. Smil starts with the obvious (but often overlooked) statement that we on earth have no source of energy which is not provided by the sun in some form or another.
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.