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).

A valoration

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