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Energy and Civilization: A History

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,118 ratings  ·  168 reviews
A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel-driven civilization.

"I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next 'Star Wars' movie. In his latest book, Energy and Civilization: A History, he goes deep and broad to explain how innovations in humans' ability
Hardcover, 568 pages
Published May 12th 2017 by MIT Press
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Mario the lone bookwolf
Feb 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 0-humanities
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
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 Smi ...more
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Vaclav Smil puts together a very well researched big picture history and study of humanity's relationship with energy and energy technologies be they agricultural or industrial. He traces human development from hominid evolution and the energy saving benefits of bipedalism and the development of our omnivorous gut through Hunter and gatherer societies food economy to traditional food production in agrarian societies around the world and then to the main event which is the first and second indust ...more
Aug 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
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 e
Apr 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 m ...more
Oct 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 achie
Alexander Curran
May 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
“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
Aug 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Brahm by: Bill Gates
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 fo
Dec 15, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Reading the origins of civilization in agriculture, religion, writing, and bureaucracy are typical, but here Vaclav Smil argues energy and its consequences was one of the most important elements of the emergence of civilization and the reason urban culture continues. However, it is also the most dangerous threat to our way of life.

An important book for anyone interested in the origins of civilization [urban culture]

Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
John Devlin
Jan 25, 2020 rated it liked it
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 rese
Sep 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
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..
May 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
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 som
Feb 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
'Greater possessions and comforts have become equated with civilizational advances. This biased approach excludes the whole universe of creative - moral, intellectual, and aesthetic - achievements which have no obvious connection with any particular levels or modes of energy use: there has been no obvious correlation between the modes and levels of energy use and any 'refinement in cultural mechanisms.' But such energetic determinism, like any other reductionist explanation, is highly misleading ...more
Taylor Pearson
Dec 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: economics, tech, history
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 ...more
Robert Stevenson
Jan 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
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 gre
Oct 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Dense and eye opening and epic.

Smil presents human history through the lens of energy; the limitations of human power and the unlocking of progress by new energy sources, like domesticated animals, wood, coal, coke, fossil fuels, and more. The author doesn't present energy as the end all be all, but I think energy is a factor in history that should't be ignored. If you want a better understanding of the leverage of energy, technological progress, and how unevenness of human innovation, I can't r
Dec 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I really wanted to read this for the wisdom Smil would offer about where we are heading with energy use, consumption and global climate change. The reading is dense and full of well-referenced and researched explorations and analysis of the history of civilization through the lens of energy sources and use. Concepts such as "prime movers" and "energy transitions" recur as the relationships of energy sources, technological advances and population growth do their tango. There are abundant illustra ...more
Richard Meehan
Seriously dense, but great read.

Summary premise "From a fundamental biophysical perspective, both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them, in more affordable ways at lower costs and with higher efficiencies, into heat, light, and motion."

-he then goes on to do the math.

History, anthropology, science, technology and environment all in one.
Feb 19, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2020
An extensively researched view of human civilisation development through the lens of energy. Overflowing with data and analysis across a very wide spectrum of energy usage, from prehistorical agriculture to modern electricity generation and everything in between. A good reference source, but written in a very academic style which unfortunately makes it an extremely dry read.
Obi Ezeadi
Dec 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Andrew Louis
May 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
5 stars for giving me new ways of understanding the world; 3 stars for readability and style (regardless, highly recommended)
Veronica Chen
May 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
I learned a lot about this book and it really helped with some aspects to the research for my book that I'm writing. This is more of an educational read than a fun read unless you enjoy the nonfiction aspects of this book. Would definitely recommend though!

UPDATE ON MAY 16, 2020: There's a blog post on my blog so go check it out!
Jan 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
Excellent information-dense survey of energy throughout history. Such a broad survey cannot delve into details. Sample calculations and copious bibliographic references are provided for those who want to delve deeper.

I read a copy from the library at work, but will purchase a personal copy with my own money because it's a useful reference for people who work in energy and climate-related fields.
Jay Waghray
Apr 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ron Stoop
Jan 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
An excellent primer for someone with little knowledge on the domain of energy.

The book has a chronological approach, starting from prehistoric times. Many developments in the course of our humanity have been shaped by energy-related imperatives. From the longer term planning and more complex societies that resulted from a more agricultural lifestyle to the simply energy realities of plowing the land vis-a-vis burden animals.

From there we go to biofuels (in the beginning mostly dung, wood and s
Mark Lawry
Aug 08, 2018 rated it liked it
I was quite disappointed since I love reading about science, history, engineering, and economics. This is a massive work of research but as interesting a read as the Encyclopedia Britannica. You'd find the first half most interesting if one is a lover of biology. I'm not a lover of biology. At some point after the midpoint Smil starts talking about the industrial revolution. This is when life started getting exponentially better and more exciting. At about that point the book ended. My own educa ...more
Apr 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting but not a casual read.

I purchased this book based on a recommendation by Bill Gates. It's very interesting and takes you through the history of how humans have used and transformed energy and how that increasingly efficient energy use has advanced societies (and where it hasn't).

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 reco
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Vaclav Smil does interdisciplinary research in the fields of energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment, and public policy.

He has published 35 books and more than 400 papers on these topics. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy), and the

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“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.” 1 likes
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