I IMAGINE THAT PHYSICISTS
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