Energy and Civilization: A History

  • Vaclav Smil
MIT Press: 2017. 978-0262035774 | ISBN: 978-0-262-03577-4

Vaclav Smil's Energy and Civilization is a monumental history of how humanity has harnessed muscle, steam and combustion to build palaces and skyscrapers, light the night and land on the Moon. Want to learn about the number of labourers needed to build Egypt's pyramids of Giza, or US inventor Thomas Edison's battles with Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse to electrify homes and cities, or the upscaling of power stations and blast furnaces in the twentieth century? Look no further.

Credit: Illustrations by Matt Saunders

Admired by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, Smil is a prolific writer on energy and environmental issues, with a penchant for history. This is especially valuable today, when renewables such as wind and solar power are set to disrupt the fossil-fuel-based energy system. Our use of energy has been transformed since the late nineteenth century with the extraction of oil and natural gas, the diffusion of technologies driven by electricity and the expansion of power-distribution networks. History offers guidance on paradigm shifts, and how we adapt.

The book is a significantly revised, updated and more detailed version of Smil's Energy in World History (Westview, 1994). It takes us back to prehistory to quantify the energy expended by foragers, hunters and agrarian societies. Smil uses evidence from the !Kung people in Botswana, the Maasai in Kenya and Alaskan whalers, and discusses 500,000-year-old spear tips found in South Africa and the role of hunting in the extinction of the mammoths.

From the fifth millennium BC to the middle of the second millennium AD, civilizations such as those of ancient Egypt, Rome and China through to medieval and Renaissance Europe collectively invented technologies reliant on muscle power, wind and water, along with increasingly refined wheels and pulleys. Smil explains that the shift from human to animal power and the use of irrigation, fertilizer and crop rotation were key to increasing agricultural yields and ultimately population size. He reveals how settlements in warm climates, such as Mesoamerica or India, depended on an area of agricultural land 60 times greater than that of the average town at the time. It was 100 times greater in colder climates such as northern Europe, where forests providing fuel for heat were also needed. The ability to mine and use energy-dense fossil fuels altered the 'energy footprint' of towns and cities and allowed urban centres to become denser. Smil dwells on genius scientists and heroic engineers of the first and second industrial revolutions between 1760 and 1913, and the high-tech takeover of the twentieth century.

He is not a historian. There is no strong narrative or testing of a central hypothesis. But he does provide economic and geopolitical context. For instance, he touches on the importance of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the oil-price shocks of the 1970s in ushering in a new energy era. Larger petroleum reserves, alternative energy sources and more efficient technologies were frantically sought to minimize the economic damage from the oil-price hike.

Smil concludes with some broader points. He notes that advances in the capacity to harness energy have led to huge improvements in human well-being, including greater mobility and illumination. However, he stresses that many political leaders in the twentieth century, from Vladimir Lenin to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, have been let down by the promise of economic growth boosted by huge energy investments, such as hydroelectric dams and nuclear power stations. These are not panaceas, because abundant energy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for development.

Similarly, energy subsidies — mostly for fossil-fuel production and consumption — may do more harm than good. Running at around 6.5% of global gross domestic product, they lock economies into energy-intensive and polluting consumption patterns, making them more vulnerable to price shocks, trade-balance deficits, political pressures from energy companies and pollution. Furthermore, Smil warns, humanity's ability to harness greater power could lead it down several very different pathways, including melting the entire Antarctic ice sheet and raising sea levels by 58 metres. Ultimately, he warns that the long-term survival of our high-energy civilization remains uncertain.

Smil's detailed review of military applications of energy is fascinating, and unusual. He notes, for instance, that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by US forces on 6 August 1945 produced 63,000 gigajoules of energy. On other negative aspects of energy production and consumption, the book is weaker. Coal mining and nuclear accidents — such as the disasters in Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Fukushima, Japan, in 1986 and 2011, respectively — have scarred communities. Yet the most lethal side-effects of energy use have been car accidents and air pollution, each only briefly mentioned. Traffic accidents cause almost 1.3 million deaths per year. Harder to quantify, air pollution has also led to millions of lost lives in the past 200 years.

Although these risks have been tolerated, Smil reminds us that concerns about air pollution have encouraged transitions away from coal in Europe and China. Chinese investment in wind turbines and solar panels has driven down the price of renewable power so that in many locations it is the cheapest source of electricity. Although it is too early to say, we could be witnessing a dramatic new chapter in energy history. But a lesson from history is that solving one environmental problem often leads to another: increased energy consumption.

Solving one environmental problem often leads to another

Because of the vast literature on energy written since Smil's 1994 history, this radically revised version is 60% longer. Structurally and in terms of message, the books are similar, however, probably because the new literature has not fundamentally changed our interpretation of the energy landscape. It is also a credit to Smil's original and enlightening way of seeing energy in world history. Read it and be dazzled by the panoply of ways in which humanity has powered progress, with forces, materials and sheer blazing ingenuity.