Energy and Civilization

The book Energy and Civilization, from Vaclav Smil, looks at the history of civilizations through the lense of energy: how did the methods to store and transform energy change over time?

Almost all aspects of a society can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to energy. At the lowest level we need energy, as food, to sustain our metabolism. For centuries, society has been organized in a relatively straightforward manner around food production. Transformation of society happened out of necessity, to scale to larger population. The role of society is, in a way, to organise the transfer, transformation, or production of energy for our needs. In the case of modern society, this organization can be very complex. Natural resources are transformed using energy into products that are stored, exchanged, and used to transform other resources into products.

I don’t recall Vaclav Smil from every using the word “recursive” in the book, but coming from computer science, the flow of energy through society felt to me this way. We transform energy into heat, light, or motion in a recursive scheme.

The book covers all major energy transitions in great details. From hunter-gatherer to agriculture with animals and water wheels/windmills, from agriculture to stream engines and coal, from steam engines to combustion engines and electricity, and from combustion engine to renewable energy. Nuclear is of course discussed, too. Using this perspective, the industrial revolution spans several energy transitions.

The total cost in energy of a method or process can only be computed if we consider the “recursive” steps too. The horse you use to improve farming also need to be fed. Solar cells must be produced first, before they in turn generate energy. The book covers many analysis of such total costs.

Over the centuries, methods to transform energy – be it with animals like draft horse, or tools and machines like water wheels, steam engine, or coal furnace – have been improved to reduce energy waste. The book makes a great account of the improvements.

To get a sense of the depth of detail, consider that the book contains for instance a comparison of the efficiency of the various water wheels; or a description of the various tools used for farming; or an analysis of the shock on the twin towers on 9/11 in terms of energy. The book is this level deep of details.

The reading isn’t always easy and the book needs some perserverance. But this depth has its reward too, in that it’s a great documentation of human ingenuity.

Going in length to describe the various uses of energy, the book often contrast them with human labor. This made me more appreciative of the incredible power of the many tools and machines we use. Tools and machines at our disposal enable one person to achieve tasks where hundred or more people would have been required before the industrial revolution.

The book is quite short when it comes to the future. It surprised me, but we can’t fault the book for this. After all, the book is titled “Energy and Civilization: a History”, not “Energy and Civilization: an Outlook”.

Like many readers, I bought the book because it was on Bill Gates recommendations (here’s also his review of the book). While I don’t consider the book a must read, I’m thankful of Bill, since the book taught me a good deal about:

  • The various types of energy stores (coal, biomass, nuclear, wood, etc.) and transformations
  • The energy transitions and their timescale (centuries!)
  • How energy flows in society
  • The energy that modern life requires and its contrast with human labor
  • The ingenuity of mankind to transform energy efficiently
  • The challenges ahead of us to transition to renewables