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Review of “Energy and Civilization” by Vaclav Smil

10 August 2018

If you work in the energy field, chances are you have heard of Vaclav Smil. Smil, the reclusive Czech with the position of Emeritus Professor at the University of Manitoba, is often credited as among the most influential writers in interdisciplinary energy studies (Bill Gates cites Smil as one of his favorite authors). Highly prolific, Smil has published 40 books and close to 500 articles on various topics. Smil’s writing is thoroughly research, steeped in facts and numbers, and not for the faint of heart.

Energy and Civilization, published in 2017 and a substantial revision of “Energy and World History” (published in 1993), is Smil’s latest effort and my first introduction to his work. Energy and Civilization is, like all of Smil’s books, an interdisciplinary effort and essentially a recounting of the dominant energy sources and associated technical innovations in human history. However, this is not your typical history book. Through Smil’s own calculations and an impressive bibliography, human trends in energy consumption, efficiency, and prime mover power are meticulously quantified (A prime mover is any device which transforms thermal, kinetic, or chemical energy into useful work). Though appreciating the details is a significant task, if the reader is up to it Energy and Civilization is truly rewarding. After reading this book, the discerning reader will be left with a clear grasp of the scale of human’s capture of energy flows over time. In this review and summary, I will very briefly step through and highlight what I believe to be the book’s strongest points.

An important consideration in Energy and Civilization is the notion of energetic determinism, the thermodynamic notion that energy (and its quality, intensity, and efficiency) is the key dictator in the history of the human species. Truly, energy is required for all life to exist, but does energy solely explain the complexities of society’s development? Interesting case studies of this question are found in every chapter. Chapters 2 to 4 cover pre-industrial society, specifically the food and water supply, basic fuels and prime movers of foragers and traditional farmers. In an interesting caveat to the notion of energetic determinism, Smil argues that it is unlikely that this transition was energy driven. The net energy returns of early farming were likely lower than those of foraging, indicating that sedentary crop cultivation must have appealed in other ways. Namely, it supported higher population densities, provided a more reliable food supply, and made it easier to organize for defense/offense against enemies.

However, the intensification of farming and the support of higher population sizes did drive the need for greater energy inputs. This led to a greater reliance on animals for plowing, and later grain threshing and milling. This energetic explanation (lower net energy returns and higher costs) helps explain why it took so long for humans to intensify farming. As Smil notes, “it took centuries, even several millennia, to adopt annual croppings instead of extensive and prolonged fallowing”. In another caveat to the recurring theme of energistic determinism, Smil notes that a non-energy advance, the improved availability of the essential macronutrient nitrogen greatly improved productivity and the support of agriculture intensification. In terms of agricultural advances, therefore, Smil ranks crop rotations which led to the adoption of nitrogen fixing leguminous crops as epochal, of “comparable significance to steam power”.

In Chapter 4, “Pre-industrial Prime Movers and Fuels”, Smil describes the interesting and creative ways that humans harnessed energy prior to fossil fuels. Though the energy sources themselves (e.g., wind water, biomass) did not change over millennia, combined with human ingenuity and improved organization, these sources supported complex societies and impressive feats of engineering. Incredibly, even before humans developed useful tools to convert water and wind power, solely animate power (supplied by people or animals) was organized to conduct feats such as the erection of a 140 ton stone at the Inca city of Ollantaytambo in Peru, and the construction of 85,000 km of hard top roads in ancient Rome. Technical advances in the capture of energy flows included increasingly intricate water raising and windmill machines and improved efficiency in charcoal production and iron producing blast furnaces.

Fossil fuels only began to rapidly displace biomass fuels and animate labor in the 16th and 17th centuries in England, due to serious wood shortages. Smil identifies the replacement of charcoal with coke in iron smelting as among the “greatest technical innovations of the modern era”, as it ended England’s unsustainable use of wood and drastically increased iron production. Further, it “lay[ed] the foundation for the modern steel industry and provid[ed] the key metal of industrialization”. Of equal importance are what Smil describes as the “qualitative improvements” that accompanied the use of fossil fuels. These improvements included (i) the steam engine (eventually becoming the internal combustion engine, steam turbine, and gas turbine), and (ii) the conversion of fossil fuels to electricity. Interestingly, Smil challenges the “widely held understanding that almost equates the adoption of steam engines with the process that is generally but misleadingly known as the Industrial Revolution”. In reality, he argues, adoption of the steam engine was slow. It took a century after James Watt’s patent (1769) for “the affordable availability of such concentrated power [to] transform both manufacturing production and long distance land and marine transportation” leading to “extensive urbanization, the rise of incipient affluence, growth of international trade, and shifts in national leadership.”

The second modern innovation described by Smil, electricity, is framed as a combined effort of numerous engineers and scientists, beginning with Luigi Galvani’s mistaken demonstration of “animal electricity” and Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction. This culminated in the work of Thomas Edison, who not only designed the “first reliable light bulb” but built an electricity generating plant and utility system to provide power to customers in lower Manhattan. Later, in the famous “battle of the systems” with George Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC), “fundamental physics favored AC, and after 1890 new systems were AC based”. Today, AC is the norm for electrical power systems. In describing each innovation, Smil makes sure to dwell on how each transition, in terms of how the improved quality of the fuel or prime mover, accelerated the pace of adoption and further innovation.

If I had to pick the most significant portion of the book, it would be chapters 6 and 7. In these chapters, Smil draws on material from the earlier sections of the book to discern “grand patterns of energy use”. First, in chapter 6, Smil elaborates on the causes and consequences of transforming unprecedented, “prodigious”, and finite fossil fuel resources. According to Smil’s calculations, global biomass fuel consumption was about 280 mega tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) in 1700 and 2.5 Gtoe in 2000, increasing nearly 10 fold in 300 years. In the same time frame, fossil fuel extraction grew from 20 Mtoe to 8.1 Gt, increasing nearly 400 fold. Put in a different way, Smil estimates per capita energy consumption of ~18 GJ/capita for the early Roman empire and 60 GJ/capita in 1820 England and Wales. Between 1820 and 2010 the energy consumption in the United States rose from 70 to above 300 GJ/capita (see figure below, comparing historic energy consumption with energy consumption in various locations today). Fossil fuels have truly exploded the amount of energy at our disposal. Among the consequences of this enormous increase in power, “no gain… has been more fundamental than the substantial rise in global food production”, which enabled adequate nutrition and a comfortable standard of living for a significant proportion of the global population. Furthermore, the growing power of prime movers such as steam turbines and the expansion of electricity propelled the emergence of an industrialized and interconnected global society. 

Comparison of energy supply across various nations and time periods (data for ancient civilizations from Smil’s “Energy and Civilization”, data for current countries from data.worldbank.org). Note how energy use has not grown equally across regions.

In summary, Energy and Civilization offers a fascinating recounting of past energy transitions with some context for the future. Surprisingly, Smil’s outlook offers hope rather than his typical bleak view of the future (Smil is famously pessimistic about a rapid transition to renewables). Here, Smil suggests with “the technically and environmentally desirable shift to moderated energy uses” a society “living strictly within its solar/biospheric limits” could be possible. Certainly, building a system capable of capturing and storing renewable energy flows at a scale sufficient to raise the billions in low income countries out of poverty is an enormous task, given that energy use is strongly related to economic growth. However, the relationship between human well-being and energy consumption appears to saturate around 100-120 GJ/capita (see figure below). Smil surmises that “additional increases in discretionary energy use transform into ostentatious housing… the ownership of multiple expensive vehicles, and frequent flying”. In other words, we have a lot of wiggle room if we can develop without the frivolous and inefficient consumption that is currently emblematic of western progress.

Demonstrating the saturation of human wellbeing (using the Human Development Index, HDI) with increasing energy supply (Adapted from Smil’s “Energy and Civilization”, HDI data from hdr.undp.org/, energy supply data from data.worldbank.org). 

It is no surprise, for those who are familiar with Smil, to see his aversion to forecasting the future of energy. Thus, although Smil elegantly demonstrates the critical role of energy in shaping society, he simultaneously provides sufficient caveats to make it clear that no single predictor can define such a complex system as human civilization. Smil’s ample evidence of human societies surviving and thriving with reduced energy flows serves to rebuke confident, pessimistic claims (ample time is spent on the notion of peak oil). However, Smil also fosters numerous examples of prolonged historical transitions to temper those he sees as overly optimistic. Indeed, as Smil says: “The only certainty is that the choices succeeding in the unprecedented quest to create a new energy system, compatible with the long term survival of high-energy civilization, remains uncertain”.

Jeff Rutherford is a PhD student in the Department of Energy Resources Engineering at Stanford University.

Photograph by: Janet Lindenmuth (https://www.flickr.com/photos/j3net/)