Notes on Energy and Civilization
The book makes a history of power devices, from nutrition-derived (through differences in meal sources in Prehistory to agriculture) to human and animal working forces through history. It discusses extensively everything from coal to oil, through hydraulics and almost any other power source you could conceive. It also has extensive discussion on energy output of all sorts of devices, many graphs and figures. It’s one of those “the history of X from the very beginning to today” books (with the caveat that it isn’t really a history book- see below).
The good: It is really good at showing the limits of human and animal power efficiency - the language is clear, if a bit technical sometimes, specially when describing the various mechanisms of different power decives. Different tables, explanation boxes and illustrations help a lot in making this book readable. The best part, of course, discusses fossil fuels (around the second part of the book). The book also plays the “hard, factual” role, not offering much to say about climate change other than a prudent general warning. It doesn’t engage in speculation, that for sure - or, rather, that’s what Vaclav Smil believes. The truth is that Vaclav Smil is confusing fact and analysis, or maybe he doesn’t care much about this distinction. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s something you’ll have to decide.
So there goes the bad: see, about 80% of the book could be cut, unless you are very interested in the specifics of the evolution of energy efficiency and technical innovation. I realized later, trying to understand what exactly didn’t work in the book, that this is because Vaclav wrote a history without engaging in the methods of History. He refuses interpretations and overall any non-shallow analysis of the facts he presents, except for bits here and there… except that that leaves for 600 pages of factoids (in the sense of trivial, unimportant facts) where most insights require a patience that doesn’t always correspond to their value.
Actual notes on the topic
- Every major energy transition relied on existing energy sources - meaning, we are skrewed. Except for hyper-dense energy sources, most energetic transitions are slow and battling against existing energy shares of previous sources.
- Economic growth is energy, period. Any apparent decoupling is delocalization of manufacture, due to the fact that 1. services don’t spend as much energy as production itself, and 2. as long as transport is cheap, mass production will relocate to wherever it’s cheaper to produce (along with it’s energy expenditures). Most of the energy in the first stages of development is used to lay out infrastructure.
- Efficiency is important, but doesn’t matter for our particular problem with fossil fuels.
- Urbanization is unsustainable and dependent on cheap transport, only capable due to fossil fuels. Kind of obvious, but…
- Plus: Pig iron, concrete, plastics and ammonia can’t be obtained by renovables.
- Even animals and biomass can be more efficient than muscle power. Whatever we do when we stop using fossil fuels, there will be innovations we’ll be able to make use of. Assuming functioning agriculture, of course.
- In the first world, reducing meat intake is (apparently) enough to compensate the 40% drop in agricultural output that would result from stopping to use ammonia in agriculture. Not sure about the numbers there though, so might be worth checking against another source. Also, the rest of the world is in grave danger of alimentary insecurity if we ever stop using ammonia. I fear the worst.
- Funny how Smil doesn’t buy the peak oil thing. He’s clearly more concerned about climate change (though he somehow avoided the topic for about 500 pages on a book about energy, he does have many other books on that).
- This book won’t give you solutions, other than “we need to change our lifestyle to be less energy-demanding”. In a certain sense, decrecentism/degrowth, then - I agree, of course. But the books political stance is implied and mild, to put it bluntly. Smil seem to detest both techno-optimists and “catastrophists”. Considering the IPCC’s last report, I’m not so sure what he understands by catastrophism. In any case, by focusing on the technical Smil managed to take a fascinating topic he clearly knows a lot about into a 500 page description of energy sources and transformations with bare minimum analysis. The work of applying the conclusions to the elephant in the room is left to the reader.