I IMAG­INE THAT PHYSI­CISTS

Cosmos - - Spectrum - — SA­MAN­THA PAGE

con­stantly see mo­tion and mass in the world. Ther­a­pists over­hear in­ter­ac­tions on the street and iden­tify neu­roses. In­vestors take note of mar­gins and re­turns. Our per­sonal fo­cus morphs into the lens through which we see the world. In some pur­suits that lens might tint our re­al­ity. I write mostly about cli­mate change, for in­stance, but of­ten strug­gle to read busi­ness sto­ries about oil and gas.

Some things, though, are truly univer­sal, such as energy. At least it seems to be, as de­scribed in Va­clav Smil’s Energy and Civ­i­liza­tion: A His­tory.

Think back on the great leaps in civil­i­sa­tion: the con­trol of fire, the wheel, tamed horses, sail­ing, the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion, com­put­ers. Ev­ery sin­gle one can be di­rectly tied to a new abil­ity to con­trol and con­vert energy.

Very early in the book – which runs to a dense 441pages, plus ad­denda – Smil states: “From a bio­phys­i­cal per­spec­tive, both pre­his­toric hu­man evo­lu­tion and the course of his­tory can be seen as the quest for con­trol­ling greater stores and flows of more con­cen­trated and more ver­sa­tile forms of energy and con­vert­ing them, in more af­ford­able ways at lower costs and with greater ef­fi­cien­cies, into heat, light, and mo­tion.”

I spent days af­ter be­gin­ning this book star­tling my­self with re­al­i­sa­tions my quo­tid­ian tasks were di­rectly tied to the con­ver­sion of energy. What is food but energy for the body? Cloth­ing is way to man­age heat. Walk­ing to work or tak­ing the bus is a choice be­tween per­sonal energy ex­pen­di­ture or trad­ing money for some­one else’s.

Smil does not write just about calo­rie den­sity or for­ag­ing rates but con­ducts a thor­ough in­quiry into all the ways hu­mans in­ter­act with and con­trol energy. He sets up his wide-rang­ing trea­tise so con­vinc­ingly that by the time I got to the sec­tion on mod­ern war I was cheer­fully weigh­ing the rel­a­tive energy needed to de­velop nu­clear weapons against that to avoid mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion.

Nu­clear weaponry is not the only item that comes into fo­cus as the re­sult of an en­er­getic process. The paint­ing on my liv­ing room wall turns into lay­ers of prod­ucts: a frame de­vel­oped by the pho­to­syn­the­sis of sun­light into wood, cut down by a man wield­ing a diesel-pow­ered chain­saw, pro­cessed in a elec­tri­fied wood­shop and trans­ported by trucks; paint made from petroleum pumped out of the ground, mixed and pack­aged with other pro­cessed chem­i­cals, and ap­plied with a brush hav­ing its own energy back­story.

“All mat­ter is energy at rest,” Smil writes, and that takes care of the con­crete nouns. With his open­ing line, “Energy is the only univer­sal cur­rency,” he takes care of the ab­stract ones, as well.

There is a some­times mi­cro­scopic level of at­ten­tion to de­tail in Energy and Civ­i­liza­tion. Not ev­ery de­tail is equally com­pelling but the book could even have been, dare I say it, a bit longer. While I wouldn’t rec­om­mend squeez­ing in more in­for­ma­tion – the in­dex in­cludes every­thing from cross­bows to IBM to par­a­sitism – there are sec­tions that would have ben­e­fited from a bit more lyri­cal em­bel­lish­ment. When the au­thor’s per­son­al­ity comes through, whether in an aside about Thomas Edi­son’s per­son­al­ity or when dis­cussing the ubiq­uity of Dis­ney en­ter­tain­ment, the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence im­proves.

Smil is a Czech-cana­dian pro­fes­sor with more than 30 books to his name. Ac­cord­ing to his biog­ra­phy, he “does in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary re­search in the fields of energy, en­vi­ron­men­tal and pop­u­la­tion change, food pro­duc­tion and nu­tri­tion, tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion, risk as­sess­ment and pub­lic pol­icy”.

Bill Gates en­dorses the poly­math as the au­thor whose books the bil­lion­aires “most looks for­ward to”. It’s not hard to see why. Per­haps it is be­cause he’s Cana­dian, or per­haps it is his his­tory, hav­ing left Cze­choslo­vakia fol­low­ing the Soviet in­va­sion in the 1970s, but Smil tack­les po­lit­i­cal – and politi­cised – top­ics with straight­for­ward­ness and bal­ance.

He does not shy away from not­ing slav­ery was a ma­jor source of energy for early so­ci­eties, and for Amer­ica into the mid-1800s.

Nor does he pre­tend that our de­pen­dence on fos­sil fu­els is re­motely sus­tain­able. For any­one con­cerned about hu­man-caused cli­mate change, it might be a lit­tle frus­trat­ing that no an­swers are ad­vanced here. “There is no easy tech­no­log­i­cal fix,” Smil states. But while he doesn’t pre­tend to know what is next, he adroitly con­sid­ers what is now, elo­quently touch­ing on sen­si­tive cul­tural is­sues such as so­cioe­co­nomic in­equal­ity and the myth of energy as the cause of Amer­i­can con­flicts since World War II.

Nor does Smil’s fo­cused lens obscure other in­tan­gi­ble pur­suits that make up civil­i­sa­tion. “Artis­tic ac­com­plish­ments have had lit­tle to do with any spe­cific level or energy per se or with any par­tic­u­lar kind of energy used at the time of their ori­gin,” he writes. “No en­er­getic con­sid­er­a­tions can ex­plain the pres­ence of Gluck, Haydn, and Mozart in the same room in Joseph II’S Vi­enna of the 1780s.”

“BOTH PRE­HIS­TORIC HU­MAN EVO­LU­TION AND THE COURSE OF HIS­TORY CAN BE SEEN AS THE QUEST FOR CON­TROL­LING GREATER STORES AND FLOWS OF MORE CON­CEN­TRATED AND VER­SA­TILE FORMS OF ENERGY.”

NON- FIC­TION Energy and Civ­i­liza­tion: A His­tory by VA­CLAV SMIL MIT Press (2017) RRP $44.95 Hard­cover

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