Energy and Civilization: A History (The MIT Press)

October 30, 2019 - Comment

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

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 to turn energy into heat, light, and motion have been a driving force behind our cultural and economic progress over the past 10,000 years.
―Bill Gates, Gates Notes, Best Books of the Year


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.

Comments

Anonymous says:

Wonderful history, a unicorn hope for the future. This is one of those books which should be widely read; a concise explanation of “energy” as relates to society beginning with terms and definitions which most people do not consider. Smil starts with the obvious (but often overlooked) statement that we on earth have no source of energy which is not provided by the sun in some form or another.From there, we start with the calculations regarding the number of calories any human needs to get through the day; pretty basic and clearly…

Anonymous says:

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 recommended.

Anonymous says:

The calculations back and forth when it comes to Joules/tons/kwh (or even barrels) is very useful for engaging the mind outside speed reading I am only 70% through the book, knowing that the rest will touch upon the noton that our dependence on a very high consumption of energy based on fossil fuels is unsustainable and that renewables gives only some comfort to this conclusion. As an economist I truly which that this perspective was more commonly available through education, as the available energy influcence on economic wealth and especially a long term perspective on this is severly overlooked in todays financial world…

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