Book Review- “Energy and Civilisation: A History.” by Vaclav Smil

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This book was written in 2017 as an update of a similar book from 1994, by an emeritus Professor who has spent his life studying economics, energy and history. After establishing the initial concepts of energy (as stores and flows subject to various controls) he tracks the use of energy from prehistory, through early agriculture, all the way to industrial civilisation. The book is extremely detailed in its treatment, with most of its assertions backed by fascinating graphs and figures. Not every reader will find every subtopic as compelling, so you might consider skimming in places.

The central role of fire and tool making in allowing humans to access more energy is explored. The high efficiency of human locomotion compared to other mammals is another important point. Domestication of grain, with its much higher energy density than tubers, made storage and transport feasible (though transport over water was vastly superior to transport over land, a reality that continues today even with oil powered machinery).

Much is discussed of the importance of draught animals and metal production, though the book only briefly acknowledges the complex new world societies that rose without the aid of either. One point that stood out was the role of improving plough technology allowed German farmers to colonise land in Eastern Europe that had been too heavy to cultivate previously, setting up the initial tension which sparked WWII. Even in the most productive farming systems at least 0.3 acres of irrigated and fertilised grain was needed per person (consistent with the estimate in “Farmers for Forty Centuries” which I previously reviewed). Most regions with less favourable conditions needed much more arable land per person for food production.

Biomass production was the main limit to the growth of cities before industrialisation, with a vast surrounding area deforested to support construction, cooking and especially smelting. The transition to coal allowed societies to break through this limitation (though ironically the world consumes more biomass energy today than it did before industrialisation).

A positive feedback loop emerged where firewood created better metal tools for cutting wood, just as how coal powered machinery was first used to facilitate the extraction of deeper coal reserves. The book details the steady increase in the energy efficiency of machines and power per mass of engines, made possible through improvements in alloy properties and precision machining.

I ran into some interesting facts in the book, such as how the average speed of car travel in the modern world is a mere 7 km/hr if one includes all the time spent making money to buy and maintain the car. This drops to a mere 5 km/hr, the same speed as walking, if you include traffic congestion in the calculation. This correlates with similar calculations for train travel between cities, and with the energy efficiency of an electric stove being lower than simply burning the coal in an open pit fire on a cold and windy day since most of the energy is lost during conversions along the way. So much of our industrial system seems to be designed around convenience rather than efficiency.

Along the lines of this book, I have my own theory for the emergence of industrialisation in England. This island has an unusually stable climate, with gentle, year round rainfall that doesn’t readily cause erosion after deforestation. This allowed the British to push their wood production capacity to the limit without collapsing the ecosystem (as usually happened in seasonally arid locations in the middle east and mediterranean). Its geography allowed absorption of cultural and technological innovations from the continent without the constant threat of land based warfare (as happened in continental northern Europe). The British expertise in sailing made energy efficient water based transport more effective for internal trade. Sailing expertise then allowed Britain to leverage industrial power into the fastest wave of economic expansion and domination ever seen. The only comparable nation in terms of biogeography would be Japan, but their lack of local coal resources prevented them industrialising under their own power.

Toward the end of the book there is a short section looking towards the future (though the author has expanded his views on this topic in subsequent works). The book does its best to pick examples highlighting how per capita energy consumption doesn’t always correlate with quality of life (after pointing out that economic development and energy consumption represent the most tightly correlated relationship in all of macroeconomics). It also dredges up historic examples of experts who failed to predict the potential of technological changes, and expresses hope that renewable energy or fusion will provide the next steady energy system transformation. In this work the author seems reluctant to face the possibility that fossil fuel resources will run short before such transitions happen, and only briefly acknowledges the risks of consuming the remaining (low quality) coal reserves. Perhaps this book was better off focusing on being a detailed historic account of the role of energy in society, so I can understand the choice to make a cursory hopeful note in conclusion.

The stark fact is that human populations were constrained below half a billion people for thousands of years under agriculture (a system which often undermined its own foundations). Tapping fossil fuel reserves led to explosive population growth to 8 billion (coupled with astonishing environmental degradation). There is compelling evidence that fossil fuel extraction has reached an all time maximum (especially in terms of net energy available after extraction) and that the mineral resources needed to scale up renewable energy are lacking. Just because we recently passed through a few energy source transitions doesn’t guarantee an unending list of new alternatives are waiting to maintain the current arrangements. 

Overall I would recommend this book to someone who is relatively new to the interplay between energy and civilisation and who has an appetite for lots of historic data, graphs and figures. If a lower energy future awaits us then a detailed understanding about how society functioned inside pre-industrial limits could be invaluable for charting a path forward.

4 thoughts on “Book Review- “Energy and Civilisation: A History.” by Vaclav Smil

  1. Bill Gates often mentions Smil, seems to have read all of his books, and calls him “one of his favourite authors”. And like Smil, seems to have no clue about energy density, ERoEI, limits to growth, or resource constraints. He invests in solar and wind and talks about “transition”.

    Maybe I’m the dummy.


    1. Early Smil seems to be more hopeful of a future energy transition, but more recent work from him seems more sceptical that renewable energy has the necessary resource base to scale up. He also seems to be aware of the hard limits on concrete and metal production that no renewable system has any hope of addressing. Still a very interesting book to dig into the details of how pre-industrial civilisation handled issues around energy.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. > such as how the average speed of car travel in the modern world is a mere 7 km/hr if one
    > includes all the time spent making money to buy and maintain the car.

    Does he give a reference or do the calcs for this? Even with pessimistic assumptions, I can not get the car speed below 21 km/hr.

    Imagine if that were true, that the rational decision would be to walk everywhere, and you’d be saving time!


    1. Here is the original section-
      After taking into account the time needed to earn monies for buying (or leasing) the car and to fuel it, maintain it, and insure it, the average speed of U.S. car travel amounted to less than 8 km/h in the early 1970s (Illich 1974)—and, with more congestion, by the early 2000s the speed was no higher than 5 km/h, comparable to speeds achieved before 1900 with horse-drawn omnibuses or by simply walking.
      Illich, I. 1974. Energy and Equity. New York: Harper and Row.


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