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Energy And Civilization: a Review

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If you were to find yourself huddled with a small group of people in a post-crash, post-internet world, hoping to recreate some of the comforts of civilization, you’d do well to have saved a printed copy of Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History.

Smil’s new 550-page magnum opus would help you understand why for most applications a draft horse is a more efficient engine than an ox – but only if you utilize an effective harness, which is well illustrated. He could help you decide whether building a canal or a hard-topped road would be a more productive use of your energies. When you were ready to build capstans or block-and-tackle mechanisms for accomplishing heavy tasks, his discussion and his illustrations would be invaluable.

But hold those thoughts of apocalypse for a moment. Smil’s book is not written as a doomer’s handbook, but as a thorough guide to the role of energy conversions in human history to date. Based on his 1994 book Energy in World History, the new book is about 60% longer and includes 40% more illustrations.

Though the initial chapters on prehistory are understandably brief, Smil lays the groundwork with his discussion of the dependency of all living organisms on their ability to acquire enough energy in usable forms.

The earliest humanoids had some distinct advantages and liabilities in this regard. Unlike other primates, humans evolved to walk on two feet all the time, not just occasionally. Ungainly though this “sequence of arrested falls” may be, “human walking costs about 75% less energy than both quadrupedal and bipedal walking in chimpanzees.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 22)

What to do with all that saved energy? Just think:

The human brain claims 20–25% of resting metabolic energy, compared to 8–10% in other primates and just 3–5% in other mammals.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 23)

In his discussion of the earliest agricultures, a recurring theme is brought forward: energy availability is always a limiting factor, but other social factors also come into play throughout history. In one sense, Smil explains, the move from foraging to farming was a step backwards:

Net energy returns of early farming were often inferior to those of earlier or concurrent foraging activities. Compared to foraging, early farming usually required higher human energy inputs – but it could support higher population densities and provide a more reliable food supply.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 42)

The higher population densities allowed a significant number of people to work at tasks not immediately connected to securing daily energy requirements. The result, over many millennia, was the development of new materials, tools and processes.

Smil gives succinct explanations of why the smelting of brass and bronze was less energy-intensive than production of pure copper. Likewise he illustrates why the iron age, with its much higher energy requirements, resulted in widespread deforestation, and iron production was necessarily very limited until humans learned to exploit coal deposits in the most recent centuries.

Cooking snails in a pot over an open fire. In Energy and Civilization, Smil covers topics as diverse as the importance of learning to use fire to supply the energy-rich foods humans need; the gradual deployment of better sails which allowed mariners to sail closer to the wind; and the huge boost in information consumption that occurred a century ago due to a sudden drop in the energy cost of printing. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom, via Wikimedia Commons.

Energy explosion

The past two hundred years of fossil-fuel-powered civilization takes up the biggest chunk of the book. But the effective use of fossil fuels had to be preceded by many centuries of development in metallurgy, chemistry, understanding of electromagnetism, and a wide array of associated technologies.

While making clear how drastically human civilizations have changed in the last several generations, Smil also takes care to point out that even the most recent energy transitions didn’t take place all at once.

While the railways were taking over long-distance shipments and travel, the horse-drawn transport of goods and people dominated in all rapidly growing cities of Europe and North America.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 185)

Likewise the switches from wood to coal or from coal to oil happened only with long overlaps:

The two common impressions – that the twentieth century was dominated by oil, much as the nineteenth century was dominated by coal – are both wrong: wood was the most important fuel before 1900 and, taken as a whole, the twentieth century was still dominated by coal. My best calculations show coal about 15% ahead of crude oil …” (Energy and Civilization, pg 275)

Smil draws an important lesson for the future from his careful examination of the past:

Every transition to a new form of energy supply has to be powered by the intensive deployment of existing energies and prime movers: the transition from wood to coal had to be energized by human muscles, coal combustion powered the development of oil, and … today’s solar photovoltaic cells and wind turbines are embodiments of fossil energies required to smelt the requisite metals, synthesize the needed plastics, and process other materials requiring high energy inputs.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 230)

A missing chapter

Energy and Civilization is a very ambitious book, covering a wide spread of history and science with clarity. But a significant omission is any discussion of the role of slavery or colonialism in the rise of western Europe.

Smil does note the extensive exploitation of slave energy in ancient construction works, and slave energy in rowing the war ships of the democratic cities in ancient Greece. He carefully calculates the power output needed for these projects, whether supplied by slaves, peasants, or animals.

In his look at recent European economies, Smil also notes the extensive use of physical and child labour that occurred simultaneously with the growth of fossil-fueled industry. For example, he describes the brutal work conditions endured by women and girls who carried coal up long ladders from Scottish coal mines, in the period before effective machinery was developed for this purpose.

But what of the 20 million or more slaves taken from Africa to work in the European colonies of the “New World”? Did the collected energies of all these unwilling participants play no notable role in the progress of European economies?

Likewise, vast quantities of resources in the Americas, including oil-rich marine mammals and old-growth forests, were exploited by the colonies for the benefit of European nations which had run short of these important energy commodities. Did this sudden influx of energy wealth play a role in European supremacy over the past few centuries? Attention to such questions would have made Energy and Civilization a more complete look at our history.

An uncertain future

Smil closes the book with a well-composed rumination on our current predicaments and the energy constraints on our future.

While the timing of transition is uncertain, Smil leaves little doubt that a shift away from fossil fuels is necessary, inevitable, and very difficult. Necessary, because fossil fuel consumption is rapidly destabilizing our climate. Inevitable, because fossil fuel reserves are being depleted and will not regenerate in any relevant timeframe. Difficult, both because our industrial economies are based on a steady growth in consumption, and because much of the global population still doesn’t have access to a sufficient quantity of energy to provide even the basic necessities for a healthy life.

The change, then, should be led by those who are now consuming quantities of energy far beyond the level where this consumption furthers human development.

Average per capita energy consumption and the human development index in 2010. Smil, Energy and Civilization, pg 363


Smil notes that energy consumption rises in correlation with the Human Development Index up to a point. But increases in energy use beyond, roughly the level of present-day Turkey or Italy, provide no significant boost in Human Development. Some of the ways we consume a lot of energy, he argues, are pointless, wasteful and ineffective.

In affluent countries, he concludes,

Growing energy use cannot be equated with effective adaptations and we should be able to stop and even to reverse that trend …. Indeed, high energy use by itself does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens.

Opportunities for a grand transition to less energy-intensive society can be found primarily among the world’s preeminent abusers of energy and materials in Western Europe, North America, and Japan. Many of these savings could be surprisingly easy to realize.” (Energy and Civilization, pg 439)

Smil’s book would indeed be a helpful post-crash guide – but it would be much better if we heed the lessons, and save the valuable aspects of civilization, before apocalypse overtakes us.


An Outside Chance

17 Comments on "Energy And Civilization: a Review"

  1. makati1 on Thu, 22nd Jun 2017 7:42 pm 

    Sorry, apocalypse is upon us. There is no turning back at this point. We missed the last turnoff at least 30 years ago. Buckle up!

  2. onlooker on Thu, 22nd Jun 2017 7:55 pm 

    Energy is the least of our worries, what about the 4 horsemen death, pestilence , starvation and war

  3. rockman on Thu, 22nd Jun 2017 9:27 pm 

    Looker – “…pestilence, starvation and war.” Well, without enough oil we won’t have enough petrochemical based insecticide to kill the pestilence producing bugs. Or fertilize the crops to avoid starvation of the masses. Or enough energy to distributed to enough countries to keep them from waging war to control what reserves are left.

    All of which would probably lead to a Lt of deaths.

  4. makati1 on Thu, 22nd Jun 2017 9:37 pm 

    rockman, if we quit oil now, millions may die, but if we don’t, we all die and it will be the final death for humans. The sooner the oil dependency ends, the better for the planet. Maybe a few humans will survive to move on. I hope oil goes to $10 or less and takes out all of the corporations that bleed the rest of us for their benefit. An addiction is an addiction, no matter what the pusher says.

  5. Duncan Idaho on Thu, 22nd Jun 2017 9:47 pm 

    It’s all about the diesel engine (as Vaclav Smil has pointed out).
    In three days most would be without food, and in two weeks I would not want to be around.
    In a year, the survivors would be trading antibiotics for arrowheads and women in the next valley.

  6. onlooker on Fri, 23rd Jun 2017 1:30 am 

    Yes Rock, what you say is true but so is what Mak says. My point is our disequilibrium with Nature now goes beyond energy, it is our numbers, our nuclear arsenal, the way we live, our disruption to the climate system etc. We truly are headed for end times for many people maybe everyone thus my point

  7. dave thompson on Fri, 23rd Jun 2017 4:12 pm 

    Any breakdown of industrial civ. means the 440 some odd nukes go into meltdown. Good luck.

  8. onlooker on Fri, 23rd Jun 2017 4:20 pm 

    Yes Dave it cannot be overly stressed. Dammed if we do, Dammed if we don’t

  9. Apneaman on Fri, 23rd Jun 2017 4:58 pm 

    dave, you’re not allowed to talk about post collapse nuke power plant melt downs because it ruins watching “The Walking Dead” and the survival fantasies of 10 million retard gunzNammo preppers.

  10. dave thompson on Fri, 23rd Jun 2017 5:24 pm 

    Oh so sorry Apneamann, I did get a good laugh out of your comment if that is any consolation.

  11. sunweb on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 7:04 am 

    I tried to paste the chart from the book:
    This chart confirms a perspective I have been studying and proposing for several years; essentially that modern industrial civilization is not sustainable without the fossil fuel supply system and the global industrial infrastructure.
    As a corollary, solar and wind energy capturing devices are extensions of this system and hence cannot sustain the unsustainable.
    Consider the heat energy and the mobile energy needed to mine, manufacturer and provide all these basic materials.

    IN 2010

    (Mt) (GJ/t) (EJ)

    STEEL 1430 25 35.8
    ALUMINUM 40.8 175 7.1
    CHROMIUM 23.7 50 1.2
    COPPER 15.9 90 1.4
    MANGANESE 13.9 50 0.7
    ZINC 12 50 0.6
    CEMENT 3310 4 13.2
    GLASS 56 7 0.4
    PAPER 399 25 10
    PLASTIC 265 80 21.2
    AMMONIA 59 40 6.3
    Si WAFERS 9000t 20,000 0.18

    Smil, Vaclav. 2014.
    Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization.
    Wiley. UK.

    t = ton (1000kg)
    M=mega= 1.E+06 1000000
    G = giga 1.00E+09 1000000000
    E = exa 1E+18 1000000000000000000

  12. makati1 on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 8:03 am 

    Sunweb, nice chart. Those of us who think a system thru from mines to use, have seen the ‘renewables’ lie for what it is. Unicorn farts.

    A solar system on your roof may keep the electric appliances going until they die, but it cannot replace them or even itself after they do. And no wind or solar system, no matter how big, will have the capacity to support even a small percentage of our industrial system without significant FF input.

    Now we can sit back and watch the Techies try to dispute that fact. LOL

  13. onlooker on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 8:27 am 

    I know, I am repeating but
    Even trying to maintain a semblance of this worldwide civilization and/or anywhere near our current population is NOT sustainable
    This is the realization that you could say makes me a Doomer

  14. Cloggie on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 9:01 am 

    Smil, Vaclav. 2014.

    Ah, now I know where you got your pessimistic views. Vaclav Smil. They are wrong btw.

    Here a summary of Smil’s skeptical views:

    Date: 2012. Smil doesn’t say that renewables won’t work, it is just that energy transitions take a lot of time. Whereby Smil simply extrapolates wisdom from the past and extrapolates it to the future.

    which is wrong:

    All articles refer to Smil, in a negative sense.

    Data from 2012 is no longer relevant. This is 2017 and prices for solar and wind are coming down rapidly, are already competitive and constitutes the majority of new installed energy generation capacity these days.

    Opinions of old farts like Smil don’t matter.

    Here Smil arguing that the transitions is like a “crawl”:

    …ignoring that countries like Denmark and Scotland are making rapid progress.

    Again, Smil is NOT against renewable energy, he just warns against exaggerated expectations regarding speed of transitions.

    I think he is wrong and that by 2050, advanced nations will have the job largely carried out.

  15. sunweb on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 12:41 pm 

    cloggie – I have present much more evidence than that above which by the way, I just found. I presented this as more of his work. Obviously, you did not look at the numbers and what energy it would take, especially heat.

    You hang on to your belief, many others want BAU and will further destroy the world for all life.
    Me thinks the little lady protests too often.

  16. Apneaman on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 12:52 pm 

    clog, of course Vaclav Smil is wrong because you said so, which is your primary argument for everything you don’t like. Forget about your cherry picked numbers and small individual countries. Aggregate numbers only. What percent of total world energy demand is filled by wind & solar, minus all the fossil fuel inputs it took to mine, manufacture, transport & install said alts?

    Been enjoying your record breaking weather? Don’t get too attached those records will all be smashed again.

  17. Apneaman on Sat, 24th Jun 2017 12:55 pm 

    Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis

    “… this article treats humanity like any other physical process; that is, as an open, nonequilibrium thermodynamic system that sustains existing circulations and furthers its material growth through the consumption and dissipation of energy. The link of physical to economic quantities comes from a prior result that establishes a fixed relationship between rates of global energy consumption and a historical accumulation of global economic wealth. What follows are nonequilibrium prognostic expressions for how wealth, energy consumption, and the Gross World Product (GWP) grow with time. This paper shows that the key components that determine whether civilization “innovates” itself toward faster economic growth include energy reserve discovery, improvements to human and infrastructure longevity, and reductions in the amount of energy required to extract raw materials. Growth slows due to a combination of prior growth, energy reserve depletion, and a “fraying” of civilization networks due to natural disasters. Theoretical and numerical arguments suggest that when growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to such externalities as natural disasters, and the risk is for an accelerating collapse.”

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