Energy and Civilization: A History (Book Review)

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©. MIT Press/ Energy and Civilization

So why is everyone pumping gas and oil like mad? It's the economy.

Bill Gates is a fan of Vaclav Smil and his recent book Energy and Civilization: A History; but notes that reading his books is sometimes a slog. He writes in his review: "I'll admit that Energy and Civilization is not easy reading. In fact, when I read my first Smil books years ago, I felt a little beat up and asked myself, 'Am I ever going to be able to understand all of this?'"

He's right; it is a slog. But it is worth it because every page has interesting nuggets and every couple of pages has a brain-exploding insight. Reading it at a time when gas is being fracked and offshore drilling is being opened up and environmental regulation is being rolled back, one realizes that his basic thesis is dead-on: energy is money, the universal currency. Energy drives everything and the more we have of it, the cheaper it is, the more the economy booms.

To talk about energy and the economy is a tautology: every economic activity is fundamentally nothing but a conversion of one kind of energy to another, and monies are just a convenient (and often rather unrepresentative) proxy for valuing the energy flows.

One of the reasons the book is a slog is you are halfway through it before you even get to fossil fuels; you have to start with nuts and berries. You are waiting for something to happen for hundreds of pages. But in fact, all of humanity was waiting for something to happen, taking baby steps of incremental improvements that barely made a difference, punctuated by occasional massive change and explosions of development. Just eating plants wasn't a very good converter of energy, but meat was far more concentrated. Burning wood for heat, cooking, and manufacturing wasn't very efficient:

The power density of sustainable annual tree growth in temperate climates is at best equal to 2% of the power density of energy consumption for traditional urban heating, cooking, and manufactures. Consequently, cities had to draw on nearby areas at least 30 times their size for fuel supply. This reality restricted their growth even where other resources, such as food and water, were adequate.

That wood, like everything else on the planet, is a product of solar energy.

Fundamentally, no terrestrial civilization can be anything else but a solar society dependent on the Sun’s radiation, which energizes a habitable biosphere and produces all of our food, animal feed and wood. Preindustrial societies used this solar energy flux both directly, as incoming radiation (insolation)—every house has always been a solar house, passively heated—and indirectly. Indirect uses included not only the cultivation of field crops and trees (be it for fruits, nuts, oil, wood, or fuel) and the harvesting of natural arboreal, grassy, and aquatic phytomass but also conversions of wind and water flows to useful mechanical energy.

Fossil fuels are, of course, also very inefficient converters of solar energy, "the production of fossil hydrocarbon recovers at best close to 1% but commonly just 0.01% of the carbon that was initially present in the ancient biomass whose transformation yielded oil and gas." But they concentrated it in a way that it could be put to work in steam engines, which could run trains and boats, for belt drives in factories. Coal could be converted to coke which meant that steel could be made economically. Steam engines then ran generators, which made electricity, which ran motors, changing industry and architecture. Gasoline packed in more energy and could run cars, trucks and tractors. Perhaps most significantly, by replacing manure with artificial fertilizers made from natural gas, food production exploded and with it, the population.

By turning to these rich stores we have created societies that transform unprecedented amounts of energy. This transformation brought enormous advances in agricultural productivity and crop yields; it has resulted first in rapid industrialization and urbanization, in the expansion and acceleration of transportation, and in an even more impressive growth of our information and communication capabilities; and all of these developments have combined to produce long periods of high rates of economic growth that have created a great deal of real affluence, raised the average quality of life for most of the world’s population, and eventually produced new, high-energy service economies.

The problem, of course, is that we cannot keep this up in a warming world.

The consensus position is that, to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, the average temperature rise should be limited to less than 2°C, but this would require immediate and substantial curtailment of fossil fuel combustion and a rapid transition to noncarbon sources of energy—not an impossible but a highly unlikely development, given the dominance of fossil fuel in the global energy system and the enormous energy requirements of low-income societies: some of those large new needs can come from renewable electricity generation, but there is no affordable, mass-scale alternative available for transportation fuels, feedstocks, (ammonia, plastics) or iron ore smelting.

All of human development has basically followed a pattern of increased intensity of energy usage, and civilization has basically been a quest for higher energy use. And we are not using the energy rationally: "Urban car driving, preferred by many because of its supposedly faster speed, is a perfect example of an irrational energy use.... with well-to-wheel efficiencies well below 10%, cars remain a leading source of environmental pollution; as already noted, they also exact a considerable death and injury toll." We spend our wealth on junk: "Modern societies have carried this quest for variety, leisure pastimes, ostentatious consumption, and differentiation through ownership and variety to ludicrous levels and have done so on an unprecedented scale." We want it now. "Do we really need a piece of ephemeral junk made in China delivered within a few hours after an order was placed on a computer? And (coming soon) by a drone, no less!"

In the end, Smil argues for more rational ways of consumption, and a "delinking of social status from material consumption." He thinks that we can, and must, make a transition to a less energy-intensive society. But doesn't see it as likely.

Such a course would have profound consequences for assessing the prospects of a high-energy civilization—but any suggestions of deliberately reducing certain resource uses are rejected by those who believe that endless technical advances can satisfy steadily growing demand. In any case, the probability of adopting rationality, moderation, and restraint in resource consumption in general and energy use in particular, and even more so the likelihood of persevering on such a course, is impossible to quantify.

Critics of the book suggest that Smil is not giving enough credit to the possibilities of nuclear power, whether fission or fusion, and other green renewable technologies. But in fact, those steps in the right direction of greater efficiency and more clean energy are being overwhelmed by growth and development powered by fossil fuels, by cheaper gas and oil. We know that plastics production is being dialled up dramatically, that gas production is increasing all over the world thanks to fracking technology, that restrictions on offshore oil drilling make even more cheap American fuels.

That's because, fundamentally, the leaders of the USA and China and India know that their jobs depend on generating more growth, more development, more cars, planes and hotels, and that it is all driven by energy. Energy is money and they want more of it, not less.

Smil concludes that understanding the problem is not enough, that what is needed is a commitment to change. But wherever one looks, anywhere in the world, governed by liberal or conservative, left or right, that commitment isn't there. And technology won't save us:

Techno-optimists see a future of unlimited energy, whether from superefficient PV cells or from nuclear fusion, and of humanity colonizing other planets suitably terraformed to the Earth’s image. For the foreseeable future (two-four generations, 50–100 years) I see such expansive visions as nothing but fairy tales.

Alas, it is hard to argue with the man.