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Energy and Civilization: A History

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  1,767 ratings  ·  255 reviews
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 raindrop
Hardcover, 568 pages
Published May 12th 2017 by The 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
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
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
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
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
Nov 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
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.
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
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
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
Roel Debruyne
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 di
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
Raul Pegan
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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: w ...more
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..
Aug 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
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,
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
Edilson Baloi
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
It was an exceptional and interesting long read through this book. It is an in depth view of the evolution of civilisation on the different corners of the world being shaped by the usage of the different usage of energy resources.

It's definetly a recommendation for people looking to learn something new and have another scope on many topics. It's quite long and there is a lot of facts being dropped throughout the book.

Overall it's a great book and looking to read or listen on audible to other t
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
Jun 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Energy and Civilization is a rewrite of Smil's earlier book, Energy in World History. If I had to limit the book's aims and methods by assigning it a discipline, I would put it somewhere between the history of technology and anthropological ecology. In short, it details humankind's relationship to energy and energy tools - starting with hunting and gathering and ending with nuclear power and the world in the mid-2010s.

Smil's book contributes to understanding how energy plays a role in climate ch
Masatoshi Nishimura
Nov 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
An excellent history book. It's not just ordinary history. I've read many innovation books in the past. But this by far has the strongest narrative when it comes to our technological relationship. What surprised me most was how well Vaclav describes technology, inventors, physics, and sociology all in one go. I was particularly impressed he's made sure to draw a progress line which makes him one hell of a futurist.

The true triumph of his claim is his study even dates back to prehistory. Who wou
Ben Rogers
Feb 13, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People curious why coal is still being used
I found this book fascinating.

About the Book
Smil details what energy is, and how different civilizations harness it. He also outlines a bunch of opportunities for energy production and recommendations.

I had no idea a 500+ book about energy and civilization was going to be so engaging and interesting!

A Thank You
I would like to thank Bill Gates for recommending this book in his book recommendation website. I really enjoy reading his quarterly blog posts!

Excellent read. I really appreciated the p
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.
Tarmo Tali
Sep 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
I have a love-hate relationship with this book. In a way, it's brilliant and insightful, but occasionally it's as exciting read as a phonebook. Given a research-like nature, a neutral tone may be beneficial, but I have seen similar topics handled in much more palatable ways. So far, so good, I can live with that. What made me hate the book was the last third of it. It's a bite-sized rehash of the first 2/3 with no clear focus or goal. After getting the same fact shoveled to your face seventh tim ...more
Richard Marney
Jan 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: environment, science
An extraordinary work. The book reads like a well-written history, but stands on your shelf afterwards as an informative, easily accessible reference source.

The narrative takes the reader (even a non-technical soul like me) through the transition from phytomass to fossil fuels, and animate to mechanical power, and the profound effects of these transitions on the evolution of economics, politics and society.

It’s great to understand how we got here!

Well worthwhile!!
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Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Energy and Civilization, published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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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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