Energy and civilization a history

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energy and civilization a history

Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

Energy and Civilization is a revised and expanded edition of Energy and World History, published in 1993. In those past twenty years, Smil has written some forty books and several hundred articles on the topic. I havent read the original, but it is likely that this book benefits from the years of additional experience, and has more up to date information -- the increased adaptation of surface-mining coal, the rise of China as an energy producer and consumer, the food vs. fuel problem with the use of biofuels, and so on.

From my perspective, the book is dense, but an educated and persistent non-expert can read through it and gain valuable insights. Smil is sure to include diagrams, pictures, and charts explaining energy use, efficiency, and unfamiliar terms and technology. Expect charts with titles such as energy use, (gJ/capita), or a chart with candles on one end and nuclear plans on the other, but also sail types, different configurations of animal yokes, and a heartrending engraving of child coal miners in the 19th century.

But to the books main arguments. Smil lives up to the title and follows the use of energy and accompanying technological innovations throughout human history. Chapters 2-4 discuss pre-industrial society, and so agriculture, basic fuels, and the concerns of foraging versus farming.

One of the main ideas that Smil grapples with is energetic determinism. That is, human society is limited by the amount of energy it can extract from its natural environment. However, this proposal has a major exception in the very early stages of foraging versus farming, where he suggests that foraging provided a greater average caloric intake than farming. Therefore, agriculture was adopted for different reasons - the ability to support a higher population, or easier to organize in times of warfare.

Eventually, Smil traces the growing intensification of agriculture and the need to make it more efficient to support a higher population. This starts with the domestication of animals and cultivation of grains, but then later onto the use of animals for plowing, grain threshing, and crop rotation - greater energy input leads to greater energy output. Yet these gains were slowly acquired, labor-intensive, and adapted over the course of centuries. Failure in crop yields, of course, led to starvation. As such, one of the most consequential discoveries in human history is the Haber-Bosch process -- that is, the industrial production of ammonia for fertilizers, which led to massive increases in crop yields, and one of the single greatest drivers of the global population increase since the 19th century.

Chapters 5 discusses the replacement of biomass and animal-power with fossil fuels and eventually renewable energy. Smil starts with the use of charcoal in iron smelting and the eventual generation of electricity as the greatest innovations of the past few centuries, as these, in turn, laid the way for more productive industrialization.

Chapters 6 and 7 draw out the most dramatic conclusions, noting that increased energy use has in large part contributed to the dramatic increase in standards of living seen since the 19th century, leading to adequate nutrition and the growing connection of global society. That said, he notes the many externalities of this increased energy use, and Smil, while somewhat dismissive of the extreme positive and negative outcomes of fossil fuel use, is still pessimistic about the ability to change over to a better system and to eschew the more frivolous examples. Smil avoids giving too detailed a prediction about the future of energy use, but I find the broad outlines he gives are plausible.

I learned a good deal from this book, and I will mine it and its sources for further reference.
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Energy hunger, blackouts and energy providers (1/2) - DW Documentary

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Vaclav Smil

Energy and Civilization: A History

That is my depressing conclusion after spending 31 hours and 57 minutes immersed in the audiobook versions of arguably the 2 best histories of energy ever written. Not only is this book the perfect companion to Energy and Civilization , reading Richard Rhodes is an absolute pleasure. Usually, the more I learn about the world the more optimistic about our future I become. It will. Our grandkids, and more importantly the grandkids of those living today's emerging economies, will lead better energy lives than today.

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4 thoughts on “Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

  1. A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel—driven civilization.

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