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Energy and Civilization: A History

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

Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done. The conversion of energy on Earth ranges from terra-forming forces of plate tectonics to cumulative erosive effects of raindrops. Life on Earth depends on the photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into plant biomass. Humans have come to rely on many more energy flows—ranging from fossil fuels to photovoltaic generation of electricity—for their civilized existence. In this monumental history, Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel–driven civilization.

Humans are the only species that can systematically harness energies outside their bodies, using the power of their intellect and an enormous variety of artifacts—from the simplest tools to internal combustion engines and nuclear reactors. The epochal transition to fossil fuels affected everything: agriculture, industry, transportation, weapons, communication, economics, urbanization, quality of life, politics, and the environment. Smil describes humanity's energy eras in panoramic and interdisciplinary fashion, offering readers a magisterial overview. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil's Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.

568 pages, Hardcover

First published May 12, 2017

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About the author

Vaclav Smil

96 books3,620 followers
Vaclav Smil Ph.D. (Geography, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of Pennsylvania State University, 1971; RNDr., Charles University, Prague, 1965), is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and in 2010 was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 389 reviews
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
795 reviews3,620 followers
February 7, 2020
The book covers each aspect from ancient times, fire, energy in form of stored food, forging until the more modern approaches and shows how the combination of different technologies enabled us to go from the primitive beginning of fuelling ourselves with nourishment to enable us to tinkle with fusion and includes aspects of other natural sciences to form a super read.

As an interdisciplinary scientist, Vaclav draws an astonishing, metascience picture of Big History that opens up so many questions, both on possible developments, alternative developments and uchronias that depended on coincidences and how technology and resources, and not the humans, formed human history.

With renewable energy and better technology, there might come the point when an abundance could change the balance of power and it´s dynamics so that many industries won´t work anymore with business as usual, but let the revolution wait for some time. Because this amazing author tells the awful truth one more time, we can´t get out of fossil energies fast enough, it´s impossible.

But it´s not just the technological singularity, the acceleration and higher efficiency of harvesting energy, but the sweet exponential growth too. Not the machines, that can be built by any state as soon as the economic and technological circumstances allow it, but the extreme advantage of any state that has invested energy in building its infrastructure and industry hundreds of years earlier than others. That race is impossible to win if one enters it too late.

Of course, there could be brute-force attempts with primitive technology in vast scales to produce as much or even more energy than someone with advanced tech, but the uselessness and short-time thinking of wasting huge amounts of government funding in any technology with an expiration date, or even an outdated or dangerous technology, instead of investing in alternatives, improvements, innovations, and research is obvious. I mean, who would, lol, you certainly rofl know what I facepalm mean.

Because each region of the world has it´s geographical, seasonal and political advantages and disadvantages, a global power grit is one of the most attractive options in the future to be able to change to renewable energy.

We don´t really know much about alternative physics, alternate energy forms such as dark energy and dark matter, black holes, gravity, space anomalies, mirror and alternative universes with different physics, chemistry and elements, supernovas, gamma-ray bursts, unknown forms of matter, energy and elements, etc., and understanding and using those energy sources with highly advanced future tech, including self-manufacturing, grey goo, 3D printing, AI, etc. may be able to switch the balance of power in a way never possible.

Even a tiny population of just a few million that has the luck to be the home of the genius that understands or engineers may be unbeatable overnight, because all that energy can be simply used for warfare too. Or, in a closer and more realistic future, to enable everyone from a family home to a community and a state to be independent because of abundant available, alternative physical and biological energy forms. A big difference to a history in which the good or bad luck of natural resources and technological development defined the wealth and power of a nation.

That´s interesting regarding the Kardashew Scale because it shows how ridiculously less energy we are able to harvest and use and what potential lies both in the manipulation of physics and old-school collecting of power. There are fascinating concepts about how anything from suns to black holes over all kinds of stars and space anomalies could be used, farmed and created to get endless energy in scales so huge to build anything, megastructures, habitats, whole planets, the creativity, and imagination are the only limits.

It is highly specific and detailed, the book covers any aspect possible and so some skimming and scanning may be appropriate.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:
Profile Image for Charlene.
875 reviews505 followers
July 27, 2018
Now that I am done reading this book, I plan to start at chapter one again. My head was filled with so much information, I am positive my brain has not yet ingested nearly the number of treasures packed in this book. Smil does not gloss over facts or tell a story in the way many historians do. In this book, you will not find the kind of sweeping histories told in the captivating way Yuval Noah Harari brings to life in his book sapiens. Smil is not that kind of story teller. Telling the story Smil has told in his book, many historians might say something like:

How did humans build civilization? By using every ounce of energy they could get their hands on. Throughout history humans have used the energy stored in horses, in slaves, and in the machines they built. They stole energy from the sun (a lot of it), gaining them a share higher than seen in any other species. Humans harvested energy from the wind and water. They mined it from holes in the ground and sent it along railroads. From the dawn of civilization, humans coupled the energy from the sun, wind, and water with the energy (ATP) from the cells that reside in all living organisms (like slave and animal muscle) to build each aspect of civilization. Using this energy, in its various and wonderful forms, humans built villages, cities, and huge warring empires. They built food systems that fed and sustained incredible amounts of humans. Using energy, they built transportation systems to create a trade system that took on a life of its own and has transformed early humans into the modern humans of today. With that energy, they brought about the industrial revolution that gave humans more resources than they had ever imagined possible.

In order to set the stage for such a revolution, humans needed to stockpile a lot of energy along the way. Before the use of slaves and before the use of animals and machines to do work, humans spent all of their time harvesting just enough energy from nature to survive. That is to say, they were foraging for food, spending their energy roaming around, eating food to gain more energy to keep roaming around for food, and so on, using all the energy gained to keep the cycle in perpetual motion. No energy was left over for innovation. No energy was left over to build the great empires and cities that would be long in the future. Everything changed once humans switched from hunter gatherer strategies to trapping all that food in a smaller space, crops on farms, they produced more energy than they needed for mere survival. It was with the advent of agriculture that our civilization, for good or for bad, really emerged.

With this rapid advancement came about moral quandaries. There simply was no way to build early civilizations without slavery. From the earliest writings, we know that the very first laws ever constructed had to do with keeping the poor doing the work of the rich (who made the laws). It was just the way of life. When humans figured out that they could harvest the energy of non-human muscle, like the muscle power in horses, they used horses, meaning fewer humans had to donate their muscle energy. Slavery decreased (this was a fascinating aspect of this book and is something I want to spend more time thinking about-- how morality arose not from consciousness but from our energy needs!!!). When machines were finally build, horse muscles (horsepower) was replaced by machine power (still called horsepower). This reduced our need to use humans and animal muscle. Interestingly, humans began to focus more on human and animal rights only once they no longer needed their muscle power to bring about the advancement of their societies.

That is how a storytelling author might have written Smil's book.

Where Smil diverges from the story telling Harari's of the world is that he will not construct a story that flows, is easy to follow, where the facts are kept to a minimum. No, you will be overloaded with facts. Smil will not merely convey that there was a transfer of horsepower from horse muscle to machine energy output. He will tell you exactly how many Watts were harvested from horses, from slaves, from machines. Smil will do this on every page, and it will undoubtedly make this book much harder to read than other books. You will not be able to just sail along sinking into the type of daydream induced when reading deeply satisfying histories as told by authors like Harari. Your brain will have to constantly work to keep track of what these figures really mean for how energy transformed human existence from the prehistoric practices of hunting down one's food and roaming the earth to feed the human body to the advances we have witnessed so far, such as agriculture, the industrial revolution, the computer revolution, and conquering space, to the projected advances for the future of our species. You will have to ingest the extremely detailed facts and then remind yourself, constantly, where you are in the sweeping narrative. However, if you can do that, you experience reward beyond anything a more superficial book could produce. Smil's facts are relentless, but my god do they really drive home his points! I knew I would be interested in how much energy humans harvested from the power of water and the water-wheel driven mills that built our early modern cities or how much power it really took to build the pyramids (a much different answer than you will find from past experts), but never thought I would be interested in exactly how much energy humans could harvest from dung or whale oil. Turns out, I am very interested.

Smil examined the costs of the energy we harvest. For example, what happens when humans harvest so much energy from fossil fuels for so many years? We drive climate change/global warming on a very large scale. These are things we need to take into consideration as we decide exactly how we humans will go about harvesting energy in the future.

While reading this, I could not help but think of one scientist from the past who would have loved, so much, to have been alive to read this book. In 1944, Schrödinger asked, "What Is Life?". He answered that question by suggesting that life occurred when something went on resisting entropy longer than expected. That is, an organism is exceptional at creating a pocket of space in which energy is ingested and cycled. Schrödinger would have loved to have had access to Smil's data. Smil could have informed Schrödinger exactly how living organisms went about ingesting the energy from the sun or from the hot core of earth and how exactly those organisms went about cycling that energy. The entire reason I want to reread this book is to think deeply about how every single organism, from the first cells without mitochondria to the more advanced cells that captured it, from the first plants to boney fish, from tiktaalik to tree shrews to us and to Earth itself -- how each organism ingested, harvested, and repacked energy so that it could keep going on longer than expected. I don't just want to know that it did. I want to know exactly *how* it did.

Thank you Smil for this challenging, insightful, and exquisite book.
Profile Image for Aaron.
196 reviews36 followers
August 14, 2017
Energy transitions take time. That's the big takeaway. That's the terrifying takeaway. This should be obvious if you sit down and think about it, but when we describe our economic history with phrases like "agricultural revolution" and "industrial revolution" we start getting ahead of ourselves. These revolutions took millennia and centuries.

And we only have decades before our planet burns. What revolution can we expect?

Smil shies away from those that would try to paint every with the brush of energy- art? war? politics? These are largely independent a civilization's energy usage. Yet, its energy usage and its economy might as well be one and the same. As energy is fed into a civilization, like a rainforest basking in the tropics, the kind of life inside diversifies, extends, and mutates to reach the limits that physics will allow.

The biggest invention in the history of humanity was the slow transition from using wood energy to using coal, oil, and gas. This transition increased the amount of energy available to any individual in the developed world by many magnitudes access to energy. This powered the economic growth following the world wars, and until the 1970s, the efficiencies of American produced cars were going down due to the cheapness of oil.

Of course, it is in the 1970s when economic growth in the developed world went from a joy ride to a car stuck in traffic. The reason: energy prices rose.

We now face an ecological problem brought on by our energy use, that threatens the economy that our energy use props up. There are two broad categories of solution: (1) limit our energy usage and (2) change our energy use.

Smil does not have much faith in the latter: over the course of the last fifty, or even fifteen, years the piece of the energy pie inhabited by renewables has hardly changed. To truly save much of civilization, we must get that number -15%- to near 100% within a few decades. We've never done that before is Smil's strongest argument.

But I would argue that this transition is different. For one, we know we have to make the change. The King of England wasn't telling Watt to invent a steam engine. No priest ever told the hunters and gathers to start domesticating animals. The Green Energy revolution, if we are to have one, is a planned revolution started from the bottom and the top.

Limiting our energy usage is obvious, but more contentious. We have to stop driving so many cars? Eat less meat? Stop building cheaply built McMansions with no insulation? These seem to be an affront to people's basic liberties, and yet every time they make these choices they help dig us a little bit deeper into carbon debt.

Smil's history is broad and deep. It reaches into the tiny fragments of Roman, Chinese and prehistory that you didn't know where out there. It discusses the differences between whether an ox or a horse are best on a farm, and what their energy efficiencies are relative to one another. He uses sharp illustrations makes clear that two 747 pilots control more energy than entire medieval communities would have had at their disposal.

Most of all, he provides the context for understanding today's economic and ecological problems that have resulted from our historical use of energy.
Profile Image for Hadrian.
438 reviews222 followers
May 8, 2021
Went back to this again for reference.

Energy and Civilization: A History is an updated version of the 1994 book of the same title. In order, the book covers the basic concepts of energy, the uses of energy in prehistory, then in traditional farming, in transportation and fuel. After that, three long chapters on "Fossil Fuels, Primary Electricity, and Renewables", "Fossil-Fueled Civilization", and "Energy in World History".

This is a book of length, and considerable depth of knowledge for the beginner, with considerable references to secondary scholarship, charts, timelines of inventions, and illustrations. The charts on human populations and energy use are striking, but about as much as the 19th century engraving of child coal miners.

The later chapters are where the book has the most new material, as well as Smil's strong opinions on energy policy. He notes the benefits of urbanization, rising energy consumption, and the wider availability of energy has benefited the lives of millions. And yet, he sounds the alarm on the global dependency on fossil fuels, that reducing global warming to +2 C is "highly unlikely", though not impossible. He fears an unequal outcome where a select few and consume energy frivolously, and the vast majority are stuck in a slower, hotter, more deprived world. There are no easy solutions for energy transitions, he notes, and those transitions that do happen take years. And for the near future, he has little time for the techno-optimists.

To sum up, this is a solid historical refernece. I appreicate how it starts with historical uses of energy, and integrates more technical concepts. My only complaint, and this is a minor one, was slightly more attention paid to how energy transitions happened over time, although Smil does take pains to note how long they take to happen.
Profile Image for Brahm.
468 reviews55 followers
November 14, 2018
I read this book because it was on Bill Gates' list, and his recommendations have not steered me wrong to date.

Smil's history of civilization, viewed through the lens of energy, was a challenging read; at times I was not fully engaged. The long chapter quantifying energy inputs and outputs in traditional, pre-industrial farming almost made me put the book down. For example, comparing the power output (in Watts) of two head-yoked oxen versus a bitted horse with a breastband harness... exciting for some, but not for me.

However, I am glad I stuck with it. Smil views all of human history through the lens of quantified energy, similar to how Fukuyama (The Origins of Political Order, Political Order and Political Decay) views all of human history through the lens of humanity's political institutions.

Smil's sticks to common units while accounting for different energy stores (Joules; food, steam, fossil fuels, etc) and methods of doing "work" or output (Watts; draft animal pulling power, watermill grinding capacity, work done by engines, electrical loads, etc), so one great takeaway is a reader can not only understand and compare apples to oranges in terms of energy, but apples to waterwheels, apples to horse-drawn plows, apples to Volkswagons, and apples to nuclear bombs.

When you get a sense of scale of the energy we're used to in Canadian life, it is all the more amazing (or shocking?). The poorest people in the world have access to a fraction of 1% of the per-capita energy consumption of North Americans. I have a better understanding of where global energy comes from (fossil fuels 84%, renewables just 1 or 2%) and where it is used (iron and steel production 7%). Smil is cautious about the future; he does not think our current path is sustainable. But, he sees fossil fuel use as a current necessity. While we could turn on our lights and bake our bread with renewables, they won't satisfy our need for metallurgical coke (a coal derivitive required for humanity's huge appetite for steel products) or natural gas (required for production of nitrogen that sustain our agricultural system at it's current levels; see the Haber process) or plastics.

What I liked the most about this book was the viewing all of history through a narrow lens (energy). Smil is passionate about energy and argues in his conclusion it would be foolish to think about human history without accounting for energy. But I found myself thinking back to Fukuyama who would argue the same about political institutions, which is not in Smil's primary wheelhouse. The answer is likely in the middle; complex energy distribution systems (be it canals in ancient farming civilizations or modern electrical grids) are not possible without much human organization.

In the end, it's a different way of viewing the world that's interesting for me. I learned a lot! I hate to rate this book. It's 5 stars of knowledge and detail, but in terms of engagement I just wasn't as into it - so on the Goodreads scale, "I liked it" and that means 3 stars.

UPDATE: I am changing my review to 4 stars because I think about this book a LOT - it has great staying power.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
138 reviews12 followers
December 15, 2019
I realized that by the time you're listening to an audiobook as an insomnia cure, even if it was a recommendation, you should be finding something else to read. This is an exhaustive summary of Vaclav Smil's life's research on the history of energy transitions, but for all the information the book contains it is so terribly written that the barrage of facts (imagine listening to math formulas being read at you in a monotone) almost always overwhelms any potential meaning that could be drawn from them. This is a classic case where extreme mastery of a subject coupled with the scientist's credo of constantly questioning assumptions and refusing to draw inferences creates a body of knowledge that is unfortunately completely inaccessible to those outside of the discipline. Which is a shame; the few salient points I gleaned from early chapters on how varying choices of crop cultivation across the world reflect the relative power of available draft animals were actually interesting. But the idea of slogging through an additional 14 hours of audio to capture a similarly thoughtful observation on 20th century use of fossil fuels seemed ridiculous. Perhaps I would have made more progress if I'd been reading a book or a Kindle that allowed for skimming.

If you are a science history PhD, by all means read this book (but get a physical copy; audiobook is indigestible even at 1.5x). For the rest of us plebeians, I'd recommend as a substitute:
- Jeff Rutherford's 1500-word book review: https://sej.stanford.edu/review-energ... , and
- Text of Vaclav Smil 2015 oped in Politico on overestimating the speed at which the world can transition to renewable energy: https://www.politico.com/agenda/story...

May some benevolent journalist see fit to condense this book into a 250-page abridged version so that the rest of us can appreciate the value of Smil's work.
Profile Image for Roel Debruyne.
21 reviews4 followers
July 14, 2020
Very detailed and comprehensive, but also rambling and all over the place, with more than just a whiff of cultural pessimism.
In particular the second half of the book gets tedious and lost in too many lengthy descriptions of technological progress, written in a monotonous style.
Most important gap is the sheer absence of nuclear energy, except for a few brief asides. The author is not anti-nuclear power per se, but simply does not seem to believe in it, due to a lack of popular buy-in, without discussing at any point its technological evolution during the last 70 years. Yet, horse carts, steam mills, steel furnaces, airplanes, etc. have all been discussed ad nauseam.
Profile Image for John Devlin.
Author 21 books71 followers
January 26, 2020
So Vaclav’s thorough.

Let’s take the energy inputs and outputs of plowing animals. Horses are better than other ungulates bc their body mass is uncentered allowing for a better push pull; he has graphs.
Also, the collars used to pull the plows varied greatly in their efficacy, and horses saved up to ten percent of their energy bc of suspensory ligaments in their legs that allow them to lock in place and use little energy when standing still...who knew.

I’m not casting aspersions. The amount of research jumps off on every page. If one wants to know the human ascendancy up the energy curve over the course of civilization’s rise here is the gold standard.

Actually, the steel standard since steel and Bessemer and coke played a much larger role than gold.
Profile Image for Daniel.
622 reviews83 followers
April 18, 2020
An epic and well researched book by Smil.

Living organisms need to process energy and those which are most efficient, thrive. They can divert more energy to other important things, such as growing bug brains. Human beings walk on 2 legs because that is more energy efficient. Then we develop big brains that enable us to harness the use of more energy, like using tools and using draft animals, and making wind and water mills.

Energy availability limited the size of human settlements. Improvements in harnessing energy, such as better farming methods, enabled a higher population and bigger armies.

Eventually better fuels were discovered, and steam engines first using coal and then internal combustion energy using petroleum products were developed. So we had tractors, harvesters, trains, ships, and aeroplanes.

The introduction of electricity is the real game-changer in energy, because it is versatile and can travel long distances, unlike traditional wind and water mill power.

Energy is not the only thing that matters for civilisation. Art, culture and happiness do not solely depends on energy. Different advanced countries use vastly different amounts of energy; Japan and Germany use little, and America uses lots.

Energy transition is slow; we are still using way too much coal for power generation.

We will not run out of the vast amount of hydrocarbons on earth. Energy use will be limited by pollution and green-house effects. Should all the polar ice melts, our sea level will rise by 58m, and many people in coastal cities will perish. The only possible way forward is to dramatically reduce our energy use, and keep developing renewable energies (which still account for only a small percentage of world energy use).

I learnt so much from this book. Next to read Growth by Smil!
Profile Image for Denar.
134 reviews18 followers
November 24, 2020
This book is information-dense and your enjoyment of the book will most likely depend on your information conversion efficiency.

The only subjective complaint I have for the book is that there needs to be even more illustrations.
Profile Image for Jake.
232 reviews50 followers
November 19, 2019
In this densely written text, Smil analyzes the history of energy utilization in civilization explaining in narrative form how human beings went from using the very limited energy produced from the skeletal- muscular system to modern day innovations such as cars, planes, rockets, and atomic bombs. In this narrative he presents a great variety of numbers breaking down textually how much more efficient modernity is from pre-steam/gasoline fueled civilization. Smil is no half assed scholar by any means and unlike many who may try to write a book such as this, he genuinely understands the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology, geology and engineering. He is by no means ashamed of his great near encyclopedic understanding of the fields as he explains them all within a clear cut understanding. Beyond that smil seems to grasp many of the humanities extremely well as he takes us through history showing his wide readings. Smil writes on a great deal more than simply energy and as such his title is misleading. In this book you will find a ton on geopolitics, economics, engineering and a load of other topics. At times the reader may even be overwhelmed by the facts thrown in quick succession, but alas, it is worthwhile to take it all in.

Smil presents a hypothesis that an increased understanding and ability in energy utilization has led to the massive changes which brought about modernity. He of course mentions that we have yet to understand *what precisely energy is* given that our present definition in physics 'the ability to do work' is hardly sufficient...despite that, humanity has garnered enough information on peripheral elementals of the topic that a book such as ghis is possible

In the end this if a fascinating book, and pretty much anyone invested in make the world a better place should read its contents.

Recommended for :
Profile Image for Bouke.
168 reviews30 followers
October 26, 2019
This book is very, very thorough. It goes through the whole history of how humans use energy, which is basically the whole history of human technological development. It is also very dense, no words are wasted on anecdotes or prose, but rather every sentence contains interesting information.

It is quite sobering, we need a lot of energy to maintain something close to our current standard of living and to improve the lives of the people currently living in squalor, but there's no easy way to achieve this. The only viable way seems to be a massive (and politically difficult) scale up of nuclear energy, with wind and solar where it makes sense. And we will still need techniques for synthesizing hydrocarbon fuels for things like aviation and shipping.

It is also sobering because the author doesn't care about politics, just the poor allocation and use of energy we have in the world. Why are we placing solar panels in northern europe instead of Africa? Why are we shipping wood chips across the Atlantic to burn them in European power plants? These things are local maxima but bad for the world as a whole.

Life is a brutal fight against entropy.
Profile Image for Alexander Curran.
Author 6 books465 followers
May 15, 2018
“Despite many differences in agronomic practices and in cultivated crops, all traditional agricultures shared the same energetic foundation. They were powered by the photosynthetic conversion of solar radiation, producing food for people, feed for animals, recycled wastes for the replenishment of soil fertility, and fuels for smelting the metals needed to make simple farm tools. Consequently, traditional farming was, in principle, fully renewable.”

Vaclav Smil's Energy and Civilization: A History book gives us a walkthrough history (Yes here we go again!) outlining how humans have managed and obtained energy beginning with pre-agricultural foraging societies working all the way to present day fossil fuel-driven civilization.
I will list the chapters to give any potential reader a precise feel and guide to what to expect as well in this rather informative book, giving Smil's pensive perspective with extensive research:
*1: Energy and Society
*2: Energy in Prehistory
*3: Traditional Farming
*4: Preindustrial Prime Movers and Fuels
*5: Fossil Fuels, Primary Electricity, and Renewables
*6: Fossil-Fueled Civilization
*7: Energy in World History

The first and second chapter detailed foraging societies, various processes and systems accompanying hunter-gatherer groups while heading towards the origins of agriculture.
While the third part deals with examples such as cropping cycles, irrigation, fertilization and crop Diversity. Smil certainly teaches the reader about the various dynamics behind cultivation farming and the amount of knowledge as well as practical work that comes with it. We have a look at Ancient Egypt, China, Mesoamerica Cultures, Europe, and North America. It gives the reader a taste of how these ancient civilisations regarding how agriculture garnered advanced techniques to feed and nourish their populaces.
The fourth chapter was again a flourish of information regarding wind power, hydropower, biomass fuels, wood and charcoal, transportation and construction, buildings and structures, metallurgy, warfare, explosives and guns, heat and light... And so on and so forth.
The fifth mainly gives us the industrial revolution with aspects such as coal extraction, steam engines, oil and electricity, renewable energies and various technical innovations.

Overall, Energy and Civilisation: A History is another book which gives us a very educational and detailed examination which correlates the progress of civilisations with energies obtained and the various stages we have seen in most civilisations, past and present, up to the current stage/level we find ourselves at. The later chapters also provide insight into economic growth, quality of life, weapons and war, environmental changes, patterns of energy use, imperatives of energy needs and uses and looking at aspects that haven't changed. Subsequently some changes have not been deemed necessary given the scale and cost effective nature which comes with industrious projects or indeed the farming industry.
I could see this book being a very useful addition for students and teachers whether they are economists, environmentalists or historians focused on the timeline of energy development, agricultural development and civilizational progress regarding technology and resources.

“Energy is not the only determinant of … life in general and human actions in particular…. [It is] among the most important factors shaping a society, but [it does] not determine the particulars of its successes or failures.”
Profile Image for Fin Moorhouse.
55 reviews92 followers
March 22, 2022
File under 'information dense'! Did you know that a normal human metabolic rate is about 80W, and the average person generates around 100W over a normal working day? That this is roughly the power required for an incandescent lightbulb? That per capita energy use in the US — the amount of energy each person relies on — is on the order of 10,000 kWh per year, which is equivalent to around 10 humans working 24/7? That per capita energy use lines up pretty well with the human development index, infant mortality, and indices of political freedom? And that the world is becoming steadily less energy intensive, measured by energy consumption per unit of GDP?
Profile Image for Lubinka Dimitrova.
254 reviews150 followers
October 20, 2021
A very densely written book, I would definitely need to read a few more times if I want to be truly capable of grasping all the information it contains. Hopefully, an updated version will be published soon, which would take into account the current climate change challenges.
Profile Image for Raul Pegan.
183 reviews6 followers
October 20, 2020
Absolutely incredible read. Highly recommend. This book chronicles the impacts and developments of energy use through all of humanity’s history. It is quite amazing to see how often subtle (and also not-so-subtle) discoveries in energy can have lasting impacts in history. From farming to war, everything ultimately is influenced by the ability to perform said actions, which is governed by efficient energy use. Of course, this book also covers the issue of CO2 emissions. The conclusion is bleak: we are too tied up and dependent on hydrocarbons. You’ve heard it everywhere, but our lifestyle is not sustainable and renewable energy is not coming fast enough. Godspeed
Profile Image for Kuba Jeziorski.
49 reviews
February 1, 2023

Kolejna świetna książka Vaclawa Smila, którą miałem okazję przeczytać. Jest zdecydowanie odpowiednią pozycja dla osób zainteresowanych ewolucją społeczeństwa pod kątem rewolucji energetycznych na różnych etapach rozwoju - od starożytności aż po czasy współczesne.

Książka jest napisana naukowym, precyzyjnym oraz technicznym językiem a autor często porównuje poszczególne metody wytwarzania energii, co ułatwia zachowanie ciągłości.

Moim zdaniem, jedynym mankamentem w.w. książki jest sporadycznie pojawiające się zaburzenie chronologii. Autor kilkukrotnie "skacze" w różne etapy rozwoju co nieco wybija z rytmu.
Profile Image for Clyde.
792 reviews54 followers
September 20, 2019
A very good history from a unique point of view. Well written, well researched, well produced.
This is not predigested pap. The reader must put in some mental energy. You needn't read it in one go. It was my breakfast reading for a while. (I found it good to read a few pages and then think on what I had read.)
I recommend a paper version because this book contains numerous tables, illustrations, graphs, etc..
78 reviews7 followers
January 9, 2022
Dense with information, much of it interesting or important, but (for me at least) an absolute slog to read. I wasn't looking for some kind of fuzzy personality-driven pop science treatment of the topic, but my capacity to absorb tedious kitchen-sink infodumping has its limits. Even the editor seems to have been unable to get through the whole thing without skimming, as there are plenty of ungrammatical sentences and other small errors to break the flow too.

This might sound contradictory, but in some sections I would have liked more detailed explanations, e.g. of the various technologies discussed; there's nothing more frustrating than being deluged with facts and figures with neither the context to appreciate their significance nor a nuts-and-bolts understanding of what they actually mean.

I definitely needed Smil to do more to provide that context, especially when it came to the quantitative estimates and measurements peppered throughout the text. My brain just doesn't have the ability to independently extract meaning from seemingly arbitrary assortments of numbers with no intuitive sense of scale or significance.

I think I would have learned significantly more from a book of the same length with narrower scope (or at least less 'sit down and write everything I know about energy, then send that to the publisher' and more 'synthesise the most important insights from my research, think about how to present them in a comprehensible and memorable way, then write and edit and rewrite until it's readable'), more complete technical explanations, and more of a coherent through-line in each chapter.
Profile Image for Taylor Pearson.
Author 4 books726 followers
May 5, 2020
I moved to Austin, Texas about a year ago. Since being in Texas, I've felt like it was time to actually learn how the energy business worked. Why is everyone so worried about this black sludge called oil? Vaclav Smil's Energy and Civilization: A History explains exactly why. The book walks through the historic role of energy in civilization beginning with manpower, followed by animals such as horse and oxen, and going on to water and wind then eventually coal, oil and nuclear as well as looking out into the future.

Extremely well researched and thorough, it gave me a new perspective on just how important energy sources are to civilizational development. While people commonly talk about the UK being the home to industrialization because of its culture and legal system, it also just so happened to have the most accessible and largest above-ground coal deposits, which is certainly helpful for building trains and factories. Similarly, nations with the best sailing ships dominated for centuries because it allowed them to harness wind power more effectively. If you are looking for a primer on energy, it seems hard to do much better than this.
Profile Image for Jakob Sønstebø.
16 reviews1 follower
October 15, 2021
Lenge siden jeg lærte så mye av en bok, men blir litt uoversiktlig mot slutten så får ikke helt fem stjerner.
Her fant jeg alt jeg ikke visste at jeg ikke visste om hestekosthold, irrigasjonssystemer, kumøkk, vannmøller og dampmaskiner. Alt regnet ut i SI enheter og sammenlignet på tvers av kontinenter og tidsaldre. Anbefales hvis man gleder seg til joule!
Profile Image for Robert Stevenson.
121 reviews3 followers
January 20, 2019
It is a book than can be quite monotonous due to its extensive energy statistics but it triggers many aha moments in contemplation.

Detailed Review:

For close to 30 years now we have seen history books that have moved away from comprehensive histories, reporting one dam thing after another to narrow single arc histories of novel narrative insight.

For me it was Daniel Boorstin who first popularized the effort by his trilogy history books focused on the great Creators, the great Seekers and the great Discoverers in the 1990’s.

Jade Diamond also influenced popular imagination with his focus on Guns, Steel and Germs. Then Felipe Fernandez-Armesto did it with his focus on geographies role on Civilization development. Francis Fukuyama did on his history of political institutions and Peter Frankopan’s historical arc focused on Trade with the Silk Road.

With Energy and Civilization Vaclav Smil focuses on a fully history of mankind from a perspective of energy use.

Smil believes it started with Ostwald and his second law of energetics, free energies by their conversions is how everything is done and his energetic imperative, “do not waste any energy”.
His followers have since been making the affairs of energy even more deterministic. Howard Odom alternatives on Ostwald theme: “the availability of energy sources determines the amount of work activity that can exist” and “control of these power flows determines man’s power in his affairs and his influences on nature”.

Furthermore, Ronald Fox book on energy and evoltuion in the 1980’s found that a refinement of culture occured with every refinement in energy effectiveness.

You don’t need to be a scientist to understand the link between energy efficiency and social advances. Ronald Fox’s statment is a rephrasing of Leslie White, a much earlier anthropologist of a century earlier who called it the first law of cultural development.

But what is energy, even Noble Prize scientists struggle to give concise answers. Richard Feynman said we have no complete understanding of energy, it does not come from little dabs of amount, we do know all matter is energy at rest. We only started to understand many of these transforms of energy with the atomic age and we did not fully understand photosynthesis until the 1950’s.

Extreme tolerances of carbon based on its metabolism and determined by the freezing point of water allows life. Earth’s habital zone is actually very narrow and recent calculations show we are even closer then previously thought to the edge of being uninhabitable, particularly with climate change which will push us out of the habitable zone if unaddressed in 200 years. About 2 Billion years ago enough carbon was secreted and transformed to prevent this over heating which would of prevented life.

Several first principles underly all energy conversations and every form of energy can be turned into thermal energy and conservation of energy always holds, the first law of thermodynamics is one of the most universal realities. As we move along useful chains of energy conversation, the usefulness of work steadily diminishes. This is the second law of thermodynamics and entropy is its measure. A basket of grain or barrel of crude oil is a source of low entropy energy, capable of much useful of work once burned, the energy results in a random motion of slight heated molecules which are a source of high entropy. It wasn’t until the 19th century that physics understood the conversions of energy. Today’s based measure of energy is the Joule. Power is the rate of energy flow - Watt named for James Watt. Another energy factor is energy density.

Why did agriculture develop? What were the principle causes? Why did it spread so rapidly? The most convincing argument is population growth consistent weather and the resending ice age.

All traditional agricultures, are powered by solar radiation, creating food for people, food for animals, reused waste for solid fertility and fuel for smelting the farm tools. The prime movers are animal and human labor which have remained constants for generations. More energy was required for digging wells, building food silos as agriculture became more intensive. Animals also helped with milling of grains. Multiple cropping was one of the last intensive farming innovations of higher phytomass efficiency. Digging of short canals for water dispersion and leveling of fields required higher socialization.
Without the sickle and the plow there would be no cathedrals. The author talks about how substantial the shift from ancient food foraging to farming also shows itself in the weakening of homoian leg strength.

Markus Cato has the earlier farming advice. “If you are late doing one thing you will be late in all things”. Plowing is the biggest development and can be found in Egyptian hieroglyphics. From plow moldboards, to harrowing, to ground leveling to seed sowing.

Monoculture crops are bad, they promote insect over population and degrade soils of essential nutrients thus requiring heavy fertilizer use and heavy pesticide use. Complex multi-crop solutions are better since they prevent both insect overpopulation, minimize pesticide use and replenish essential soil nutrients without fertilizers. But Intercrop and multi-cropping require more energy and different fertilizers to keep a balance so the effect is not all one sided.
Interestingly Egyptian farming due to nile overflow and residing allowed for the most solar efficient farming, ie not using fossil fuels for farming yield improvements.

Egyptian land cultivation was 1.5 times its population needs and was critical for why the Roman republic became successful in conquest.

The Chinese also innovated by a 1000 years iron moldboard plows and animal harnesses during Han Dynasties 400BC to 900AD. Even irrigation innovation was amazing even today the Dujiangyan irrigation of 1300 is still in use feeding tens of millions.

The author discusses how 14th-19th century famines occured, the populations were reluctant to invest in expanding agriculture land or hesitated to invest in technologies that allowed greater crop intensity and higher yield. In both cases it was cost benefit decision where captialism failed.

Two principles roads of energy use expansion- (1) multiplication of small forces, (2) technology innovation. Energy sources are called prime movers in his book.

The author believes our understanding of the industrial revolution, similar to the bronze age and iron age as demarcation lines are inaccurate for understanding improvements in civilizations. The time frames and adoption of technologies where far more dispersed.

Take the Iron age, two things were required the creation of forges designs that could reach the melting point of iron. One was water wheel mills / wind mills to create a sustainable power to stroke the forges. The Chinese were the first to forge iron but hundred or years before the iron age and they did not share the solutions so the technology was not dispersed.

The industrial age was likewise limited by a variety of technologies. Using coke for example in furnishes for metallurgy was required before the adoption of steam engines. Animal power and burning of wood for fuel/food consumption was not over taken by coal till 40 years after the industrial revolution.
Diesel engines which were far more efficent in energy conversion were created by Diesel to allow small decentralized enterpreners but was ultimately used in big centralized ships. The rail road was not possible without power via Coke fuel for steel forges. The combustion engine was not as influencial as electricity and electricity transformers.

The development of agriculture yields that exceeded population growth was about synthetic nitrogen production and water irrigation more then anything else. And this required the Bosch processes for extracting nitrogen from chemical ammonia and moving from labor/animal power to mechanical fossil fuel power.

Quality of life, satisfaction of basic needs and development of the intellect. Infant morality and length of life are decent indirect indicators of quality of life. Education and enrollment show more about access, who is rich enough to attend instead of quality of life.

Nowadays, more of the energy gones into bigger homes for smaller families, for example the US average home sized doubled since the 1950’s with smaller families. Ownerhsip of multiple vechicles and frequent flying are also contributors. More remarkable is America’s quality of life is lesser then other countries. America infant morality and life expectancy is slightly behind Cuba for example. Additionally, America’s teens from a education testing perspective ranks behind Russia.
There is not the slightest indication that Americas high per capital energy use has any benefit for the countries education or quality of life.

Our civilization dependency on fossil fuels has a multitude of political concerns. The concentration of decision making power in government, business or military. As Adam Smith noted when more energetic flows enter a society, control becomes dispersed among a few. The biggest peril is when these become super concentrated in one individual who wages, which is a reoccurring phenomenon of human history. (Nero, Landed Aristrocat not growing more potatoes, Napoleon, German Kaiser, Hilter, Stalin, Mao, etc)

Environment Consequences
Combustion of coal used to add other pollutants, but electro-static regulators and filters: stopping this from a global impact but China coal factories are still causing local pollution problems.

Indirectly energy flow also causes problems - agriculture chemicals, metallurgy chemicals and transportation impacts. Acid, emissions of SOX and NOX reached semi-continental scale problems for a while, lower sulfur burning coal and cleaner burning, and cleaner gas turbines such as by 1990 this was reversed.

But this problem is reoccurring in China, following China coal combustion increases. Then we saw Ozone depletion problems predicated in 1975 due chloro-floro-carbons caused by refrigerators mostly, the Montreal Protocol eased this worries.
But Anthropogenic emissions of fossil fuels, ocean acidification, rising ocean levels with CO2 being the leading contributor, which is end product of fossil fuel burning which is then followed by deforestation are the primary problems today which are causing climate change.

This is an exponential problem, in 2010 this is 9 Giga Tons of Carbon or 399.5 PPM. Methane and Nitride are even worse contributors.

Uncertain future levels of global emission and the complexity of hydro-spheric, atmospheric and biospheric interaction make it impossible to forecast 2100 models completely, we know it will be bad but how bad is the question.

Latest science consensus assessment is global temperatures will rise somewhere between 1-4 degrees higher than today if there are no current changes in carbon emission. This means heavy coastal flooding, agriculture yield reductions and massive migrations and increasing natural disasters. Additionally, there is are no current technology fixes. We would have burn more fossil fuel to recapture CO2, the consensus position is immediate reduction if not completely stopping of all carbon emission is necessary with transition to other forms of energies. This is highly unlikely as low income societies have no incentive as they starve instead of altering their energy use.

In every matures high energy society, TV and refrigerators are owned by over 90% of the population followed by cell phones and cars. Yearly offering of what were season vegetables is due to heavy refrigeration and transportation energy costs. But we keep see occurring over and over a big gap low income societies (biomass burning, animal prime movers and increasing fossil fuel use) and high income societies using very high energy where personal capital has approach energy saturation levels of diminishing return on energy spend. And this gap is less about international disparities and more about privileges. One auto club in China required one has ownership of car valued at $420,000 or more.

It took a 1000 years for increases in water wheel mills technology to get to peak energy output. And it took hundred of years to get animal harnesses and domestic horse size and feed optimized for animal prime movers. 207 to 220AD Hans Dynasty China was a notable ancient society, using coal for forges, drilling for natural gas, curved moldboard plows and efficient animal harnesses. But Western superiority did not take long to surpass China in the 17th-18th century, it was also a problem of China focusing inward. Western navigation, weapon design, trade merchant class valuing, crop yield increases, coal metallurgy and experimentalism all drove Western society development.

The primary reason for Western Society development in the 19th century was positive feedback loops between science development and the commercialization of new inventions.

In 20th century the western world was 30% of the world population and 95% of world energy use. In 2010 China became the largest energy user over a thousand years later after its first leadership. Since the 17th century we have enough data to understand global energy transitions are slow and deliberate - Wood to Coal, Coal to Oil, Oil to Natural Gas. It takes 50 to 70 years for each new energy transitions.
If we can swiftly quickly move to newer Nuclear power designs, expand wind and solar renewable technology that would be a great win but we would also have to figure way to replace the use of plastics, ammonia and other fossil fuel secondary uses.

Between 1750 - 2000 there was a 15 times increase in total energy consumption. A person consumption of light is 11,000 times more over that time frame as transport energy is 900 times more. Energy uses for the necessities of life is steadily becoming a smaller percentage of energy use as luxury and transportation spike.

Some of the most interesting long term trends from 1500 to 2000 include the dropping costs of energy - the cost of domestic heating fell 90%, cost of industrial production 90% and cost of transport 95%, and cost of lightening was 4x times lower. Electicity also dropped 90% but if you factor in efficiency it is 600% better. But all of these costs hide the real costs of the environment impacts.

What is changing? Better hunting took 100,000 years, better farming took a 1000 years, but fossil fuel replacement of previous energy sources took place in two generations, in China it took only one generation from the 1980’s.

We also have changed our social connection from status to contracts, this is fixed work hours, new social grouping with special interests. And we have new challenges, how to manage economic declines, trade barriers, international relations.

1787-1818 was the first business expansion cycle that happened with coal use and stationary steam engines, the second expansion 1844-1849 was based on mobile steam engine use and iron metallurgy, the third upswing 1898-1924 was commerical electicity and electrical motors. These are 50 year pulses, new energy adoption with technology innovations.

Economic depressions act as center points of innovation, in 1828 it was charcoal replaced by coke fuel, in 1880 electricity, electric light, steam turbine telephone and combustion inventions, in 1937 it was nuclear energy, gas turbine, jet engine and radar. In the 1970’s after OPEC gas disruption we saw microchips, computing, optical fibers, new materials.
If you look at the world top MNC’s five of the top non fiancial companies are energy companies (Exon,China Petro, etc.) followed by car manufacturers.

We see people using energy to save time - microwaves and transport for example. All allowing more pastime and luxury trips.

But there are many cases where this increased energy accessibility does not contribute to civilization progress consider urban car driving: first one has to work for buying or leasing the vehicle, then there are the costs to fuel it, to insure it, to park it, to maintain it which all make it more expensive while at the same time the average speed of transport is dropping (avg 8km/hr in 1970 to avg 5km/hr in 2010) as people sit in congestion and traffic or slow worker productivity by changing hours to avoid traffic limiting direct communication. And this does not include the externality impacts of CO emissions or the higher injury fatalities.

A rich dinner was not enough, Roman feast had to go on multiple days, this idea continues. Modern societies have carried these quests for variety and leisure past time to unbounded heights.

Family size keeps shrinking but house size continues to grow, ship builders have waiting list for yachts with helicopters pads, exotic cars are built with capabilities that can not be used on public roads.
On more generic level ten of millions take flights to generic beaches to acquire skin cancer faster. There there 500 breakfast cerals and 700 models of passengers cars. Such diverse options create greater wasted energy but there appears to be no limits to it.

What is the civilization value of keeping a variety of non-essential goods in nearby warehouses to be delivered in hours by drones?

We have economic inequality unprecedented in the history of the world, the richest 10% claim 30% of world’s energy. One week of an US person energy spend is equal to one year of an averge Nigerian.
There is no remedy to these gaps. If we rise the rest of the world to the level of energy use of the west today we would move our planet outside of the habitable zone.

Using energy use as way of explaining history can be luminary. But it can also be a poor way to let averages hide the specifics of bad choices.
The movement from Hunting/Gathering to Farming is best understood as a energy preservation decision.
One possibility is we create a new world civilization that learns to live within the limits and prospers for millennium to come.

Or the opposite is the biosphere is already subject to human actions, we will approach the boundary of humanity and the global civilization will collapse.
One is a chronic conservatism with a lack of imagination regarding the power of innovation set against repeated claims.

There are hopeful signs, we are starting to break the dictum that higher energy use is a good thing. It does not improve security, it doesn’t improve governence, it does not improve quality of living. If high energy civilization is protentially worsening and dangerous it should be exposed and disgarded.
Science is showing us that living at lower energy levels creates a better world.

But any suggestions of deliberating reducing energy use are rejected by those who believe technology will save the day or things are best to be left to the market.

All life is expansion and increased complexity, can we reverse these trends, can we create a energy civilization that works within the biosphere limits, can we have no economic growth with a smaller population. Would this limit social mobility and people’s idea of the American dream?

It will take several generations to remove fossil fuels plus all the secondary uses, feed stocks of ammonia, feed stocks for plastic, metallugic coke production, pavement materials.

Technologist see futures of man visiting other planets, futures expansions of energy use, but the author believes these are only fairy tales. What is needed is a commitment to change, “Men parish that may be but let us struggle even though we parish, if nothing be not our portion let it be a just award”.
Profile Image for Charleslangip.
83 reviews30 followers
August 15, 2020
I discovered this author whilst watching the documentary "Inside Bill's Brain" about Bill Gates. It revealed his massive intellectual man crush on this author's works so I thought I'd take a look.

It's a very impressive book about the impact of evolutions in energy usage & transmission, both in terms of the data & research that's gone into it, as well as the insights around how energy has been a massive factor in shaping civilizations. The scope of the book, across time and geographical regions, also adds to the comprehensive analysis.

What Karl Marx did for analyzing history through the lens of economics, Vaclav Smil does to a certain extent with energy. I say to a certain extent because he does clarify in the book that energy, whilst being a critical parameter in determining socio-economic evolutions, does not explain all of the course of history. In this sense, he is more pragmatic than Marx in the importance of his own work.

It's a challenging read, some sections do feel a bit long, but in the end it feels very rewarding. The only thing that I wish there had been more of, was an analysis of the upcoming nuclear fusion reactor currently being built in the south of France, which is likely to transform the energy landscape as radically as the Industrial Revolution did, but that's nitpicking in the greater scheme of this book.

Come and follow me on Instagram where I do weekly book reviews @charleslangip
Profile Image for Laura Walin.
1,481 reviews47 followers
February 7, 2021
On todella mielenkiintoinen näkökulma lähteä hahmottamaan ihmiskunnan historiaa energian valjastamisen näkökulmasta. Tämä teos sanoittaa sen, kuinka hyvin pitkään saimme energiamme lähes suoraan auringosta, kun ainoa käytettävissä oleva voima oli ihmisten ja eläinten työtä tai sitten hyötykäyttöön valjastettua vesi- tai tuulivoimaa. Fossiilisten polttoaineiden käyttöönotto ja niistä seuranneet innovaatiot viimeisen 150 vuoden aikana ovat muuttaneet koko asetelman täysin.

Smil esittää läpi kirjan paitsi ihmiskunnan historian tapahtumien kulkua ja niihin liittyviä energian syys-seuraus-suhteita, myös vakuuttavia laskelmia ja arvioita kulloinkin käytössä olleesta energian määrästä, erilaisten energiamuotojen tehosta ja siitä, mitä tämä on merkinnyt. Kiitettävästi Smil myös huomauttaa, kuinka erilaiset ulkoisvaikutukset - kuten ihmistyövoiman riisto tai ympäristön pilaantuminen - on sujuvasti unohdettu sivilisaation pyörteissä.

Kirjan mainioon ideaan ja sisältöönkin nähden on todella sääli, että suomennos on verrattain huonosti toteutettu. Kirja on ennemminkin sana sanalta kirjoitettu suomeksi kuin suoranaisesti käännetty, mikä johtaa omituisiin sanavalintoihin ja ylipitkiin, polveileviin, epäsuomalaisen sanajärjestyksen lauseisiin, joita on työlästä lukea. Lisäksi kirjassa on huomattava määrä lyöntivirheitä.
Profile Image for Jorge Zuluaga.
284 reviews293 followers
October 12, 2021
Este libro es el “Ideas” de la tecnología y Vaclav Smil ha hecho por la historia de la relación de la humanidad con la energía, lo que Watson hizo por las ideas.

Una lectura indispensable en tiempos en los que entender nuestra adicción energívora es indispensable para prepararnos para las transiciones inminentes (e inevitables si queremos que lo que hemos construído en 10.000 años tenga algún futuro).

Es mi primer libro de Smil, a quién conocí a través de las repetidas recomendaciones que en libros, documentales y columnas hace Bill Gates sobre su obra. No será, definitivamente el último. Y es que Gates definitivamente no se equivoca en su recomendación. Vaclav Smil es sencillamente un "monstruo" y eso queda reflejado en este impresionante libro.

La primera sorpresa que me lleve fue la de encontrarme con un libro de divulgación tecnológica que parece más bien un artículo científico de revisión de 600 páginas.

Antes que huyan despavoridos de la reseña y del libro, déjenme aclararlo mejor.

A diferencia de la mayoría de los libros de ensayo divulgativo, llenos de notas y referencias al final (que a veces llegan a ser hasta la mitad del libro) o de (incómodas) notas al pie, Smil usa el estilo académico de citar las fuentes al estilo Harvard (Smil, 2021).

A pesar de esto, y muy curiosamente el libro no tiene una sección de bibliografía (en la que tampoco cabrían "cómodamente" las centenares de citas bibliográficas); entiendo, sin embargo, a los editores por haber decidido suprimirla. Ello habría implicado un exceso de páginas para incluir información que puede encontrarse en cualquier parte.

Justamente viendo las citas de este libro llega uno a reconocer por qué Smil ha sido reconocido como el más influyente experto mundial en temas de energía. Calculo que entre un 30% y un 40% de las referencias incluidas en el libro son a sus propios trabajos, la mayoría de los últimos 10 a 15 años. Unos dirán que es obvio que se cite a si mismo. Para otros, como yo, este hecho me dio razones permanentes para seguir leyendo el texto, a pesar de que puede volverse un poco denso a ratos.

Otra cosa que me gusto del libro, y que es más propio de un texto académico, es el uso de recuadros explicativos (el equivalente a las notas del final de la mayoría de los libros de ensayo) en los que Smil profundiza en algunos temas interesantes, realiza una reflexión particular sobre algún asunto. o presenta un "cálculo" cuyo resultado cita en el texto.

"¿Cálculo? ¡no me jodás!"

Si, así como lo oyen. Si se van a animar a leerlo hay que prepararse para una buena dosis de física y un poco de aritmética. Y es que para entender la energía, que es un concepto físico, y la historia de nuestra relación con ella, no se puede ir simplemente por allí soltando anécdotas, conceptos y reflexiones. Como decimos por aquí "sin números, ni pio". Pero tampoco se imaginen un libro lleno de ecuaciones o diagramas técnicos. A lo sumo multiplicaciones, conversiones de unidades, múltiplos y submúltiplos de 10 y muchos prefijos griegos (kilo, mega, giga, tera, exa, etc.)

El libro es un tesoro de datos asombrosos y una ruina en notas pots-it para quien quiera resaltarlos todos (yo tuve que, con dificultad, contenerme un poco). Les suelto algunos al azar (en realidad voy a abrir el libro en páginas al azar y citar el primer dato que me encuentre):

los humanos en la era industrial no comemos patatas producidas con energía solar, sino patatas parcialmente producidas con petróleo; toda transición del uso de unas formas primarias de energía a otras (madera, carbón, petróleo, luz solar), requiere el uso intensivo de energía existentes y es por eso que la transición a las renovables no dejará de usar combustibles fósiles; los microchips se han convertido en el artefacto complejo más omnipresente de la civilización moderna, cada año se producen más de 200.000 millones de ellos; en 2000, un lumen de luz en Reino Unido costaba solo el 0.01% de lo que costaba en 1500 y el 1% de los que costaba en 1900.

Y así podría continuar por dos o tres reseñas más.

La estructura del libro es quizás su mejor atributo. Tampoco es muy impredecible: una presentación cronológica de la relación de la humanidad con la energía, desde nuestros remotos antepasados que extraían energía del sol capturada en los frutos que recogían o en los animales que se alimentaban de ella, hasta los reactores de fusión nuclear experimentales del presente. Literalmente 2 millones de años de manipulaciones energéticas comprimidas en 600 páginas.

Los primeros capítulos son pesados, especialmente el de la agricultura tradicional. Como es fácil que sean también estos primeros capítulos los que deberían enganchar, le recomiendo a cualquiera que se vaya a montar en este tren que tenga paciencia y no se apresure a abandonar el libro porque no le interesa mucho el papel que jugaron las innovaciones en el collar de los caballos de tiro o en el arado durante la dinastía Qing.

Las cosas empiezan a ponerse realmente emocionantes a partir del capítulo 4. Si son del team impacientes pueden saltarse el capítulo 3 completo e ir directamente al capítulo 4. Pero si son aún más impacientes y no quieren una clase de 500 páginas y más bien gozar un buen resumen de la historia de la civilización en función de la energía, lean primero el capítulo final "La energía en la historia del mundo", una verdadera joya.

En fin, son 600 páginas y miles de datos y goodreads solo me da como 30.000 caracteres (y a los que verdaderamente les gusta la historia de la tecnología, posiblemente solo necesitaran 240 caracteres para animarse a leer).

Dejen de consumir energía en la pantalla y vayan a consumir energía intelectual (que como aprendí en este libro, es de las más baratas que existen) leyendo el fantástico libro de Smil.
Profile Image for Whisper19.
567 reviews
May 5, 2020
So, in the end, a very interesting read. Different from most things I've read so far, but there were many moments when I went "huh, right"

If the prospect of reading a 400ish pages of numbers and percentages and Joules and Watts doesn't seem that attractive, read only the 7th chapter. It feels like he wrote this capter first, and then expanded the first half of the chapter into the book itself. But that chapter gives you a clear overview of the previous 400 pages and then proceeds to show you some possible futures or consequences of our current situation.

All in all, thanks Bill for this idea. ;)
8 reviews
December 19, 2021
Well written, extremely technical book that made my brain feel like mush Going to stick to spy novels aimed at pre-teens for the rest of the summer.

That said, if you’ve ever wanted to know anything about energy production / consumption / evolution ranging from early humans to now, then the answer is probably in this book.
Profile Image for Liquidlasagna.
1,517 reviews70 followers
July 11, 2021
Heavy on the data, light on the analysis, terrible in the writing. And adding almost nothing since the Club of Rome.

At least reading all the editions of The Limits to Growth gives something insightful, with meaningful data.

Really is the waste of a tree.
Profile Image for Martin Lumiste.
37 reviews8 followers
October 12, 2021
Bill Gates introduces Vaclav Smil as the foremost expert of energy in the world. After reading this, I tend to agree. While the author considers himself a pure scientist, he reminds me more of a modern day Socrates, an archetypical scientist-philosopher who seamlessly blends multidisciplinary research with his own value judgements on how to live a good life. Combine this with his eccentric personality (no doubt derived from his extensive research into the nature of things) and you have a fascinating author, to say the least.

This book is unique in many ways. Energy seems a more plausible single explanation of the world affairs than any other that is commonly proposed in popular history books - finance, material base, culture, religion, class struggle etc. And Smil's treatment is truly fascinating. Going into astonishing depth, he reconstructs the energy contents of prehistoric diets, the return on calorie investment of establishing permanent agriculture, the natural bounds on population densities as a function of diet, the nitrogen content of different fertilisers and so on. Every aspect of energy and history which you might have just taken for granted or treated as a footnote is made subject of a rigorous analysis and modelled quantitatively. These comparison tables alone are a reason to read the book. Another thing I loved is the use of enlightenment era engravings from Diderot's Encyclopedia to illustrate all kinds of concepts related to pre-oil societies - it adds a degree of venerability to the content.

This book will help you appreciate how much of a boon fossil fuels have been to support our current wellbeing and what a momentous task replacing them with something else will be. It even makes you wonder whether our whole Age of Reason and innovation are not just byproducts of finding cheap fuel from the ground, which kickstarted us out of the Malthusian cycle of poverty. Smil himself, outside of this book, advocates degrowth by returning to a 1960s in the West like standard of living but like others, does not know of ways to get there. In Energy and Civilization he remains open for other futures though, including a technooptimistic scenario and biospheric collapse. The only certainty in the future will be that energy transitions are a marathon, taking up to multiple generations, and our current wind/solar/other revolution will not be any different.

My only criticism of the book is that it seems self-published and could do with heavy abridging, some of the later chapters seem to be just filler and there are many repetitions of the same thoughts.
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341 reviews48 followers
March 25, 2018
В списке пяти лучших книг 2017 года Билла Гейтса эта самая любопытная. Гейтс — фанат автора и прочел все 36 его предыдущих к��иг! 74-летний канадский профессор удивительно плодовит, только в 2013-м вышло сразу четыре его работы. Эта же, судя по всему, итоговый труд.

Вацлав Смил представил захватывающий рассказ о цивилизации с точки зрения джоулей и калорий. «Все природные процессы и вся человеческая деятельность в наиболее фундаментальном физическом смысле являются преобразованием энергии», — уверен он. Надев очки Смила и взглянув на окружающий мир, вы, как в «Матрице», за изображением увидите ползущие цифры кода: свеча преобразует в свет лишь 0,01% химической энергии, лошадь спит стоя благодаря анатомическому читингу, все остальные млекопитающие лежа потребляют на 10% энергии меньше, взмахи руками при ходьбе снижают расход калорий на 3%... Книга при этом не превращается в таблицу, цифры приводятся лишь в качестве доказательства. Например, вы со школы в восторге от архимедова винта, а вам доходчиво рассказывают (и табличкой иллюстрируют), насколько он малоэффективен и, более того, уступает целой плеяде бедуинских приспособлений для подъема воды.

Удивительно, но на протяжении всего повествования от каменного века до «кремниевого» автор умудряется не терять ни темпа, ни читательского интереса. Темы, грозящие увести нарратив в сторону, аккуратно упаковываются в лейденские банки виньеток и обвешиваются гирляндами ссылок для самостоятельного изучения на досуге. С энергетической точки зрения изобретения и находки не возникают как из воздуха, а обретают довольно стройную причинно-следственную связь. За технологическими пробуксовками случались и весьма своевременные открытия. Так, начало добычи нефти в США связано с возросшими потребностями в освещении, которые ранее обеспечивались за счет китового жира. Увы, использование электричества этот вариант применения нефтепродуктов сделало малоэффективным, но, к счастью для нефтяников, тут же подоспел двигатель внутреннего сгорания и автомобили.

Питание, оружие, урбанистика, транспорт, производство, сельское хозяйство — все в книге охвачено и переплетено проводами. Смил не согласился бы с Фрейдом: вовсе не cекс основной мотиватор человечества. Двигатель прогресса — это желание поменьше работать, более известное нам как лень.
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