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Energy and Civilization: A History

Author(s):Smil, Vaclav
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017. x + 552 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 978-0-262-03577-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.
The arrival of an encyclopedic tome of 550 pages, crammed with graphs, calculations, bar diagrams and the interruption of plentiful “boxes,” so giving every appearance of being a textbook, does not usually fill the breast of a reviewer with joy. Fortunately reading this volume turns out to be a pleasure. Vaclav Smil came to notice in 1984 with The Bad Earth, an early account of China’s environmental degradation, and has since written prolifically on topics concerning energy. He is described as an “incorrigible inter-disciplinarian,” a stance that helps him compare and calibrate sources over the widest possible range. His latest book is a greatly expanded version of an earlier volume and may be taken as a summary of his life’s work. It is immensely valuable for reference as well as for calm, decisive commentaries on the state of knowledge, besides on what is actually or potentially computable about uses of energy worldwide and throughout the very long term.

What Smil concludes about the early modern period provides some of the most insightful passages among a vast number of offerings. The immense stretches of time when most humans remained either hunter-gatherers or toiling peasants can, of course, be approached along an energy perspective. Interpretations of these tedious periods by many authors nevertheless tend to lean on mere assumptions about motive and on various anthropological analogies that are sometimes plausible but commonly arbitrary. They typically amount to pronouncements about indifference to accumulation (readily but unconvincingly supported by material poverty) and chronic aversion to physical labor. Nor is Smil impressed by assertions about the labor supposedly required to erect the great monuments of the past, such as the Great Pyramid, and demonstrates how exaggerated they often are. Better documented detail is available once 1850 is passed, when the Western world took up fossil fuels on a grand scale and soon became a fossil fuel civilization. From that date he pays even closer attention to the energy implications of inventions in sphere after sphere after sphere. He offers a new and informative slant on many of these developments. In principle all this is, however, familiar ground.

Smil’s work on early modern times accordingly stands out between these epochs. What one might call the early modern prologue was remarkably progressive compared with many previous centuries. Smil shows just how much human labor could produce with no more than sweat, levers, treadmills, animals, wind power and water power, and how gradual advances were being made in the diffusion and productivity of these every day methods. His “box” on the raising of Alexander’s column at St Petersburg in 1832 is especially impressive, notwithstanding the facts that foreign architects were employed and that the Monument to the Great Fire of London constructed in the 1670s is taller still. Far earlier than any of this the Romans had made strides in exploiting the power afforded by people and nature. Yet from our distant viewpoint the most interesting fact may be how gradually best practice had spread. The tapping of ostensibly straightforward sources of energy continued for a long time — very long. Water wheels, Smil says, were the most significant energy foundation of Western industrialization. Even allowing for the telescoping effect of hindsight, the ancient world had experienced phases of rapid advance that were not matched for a considerable spell. The later Western world, taken as a whole, was often slow by contrast but at least its gains tended to be cumulative. Permissible loads drawn by French horses in the mid-nineteenth century were about four times the Roman limit. But can we say that reaching this point had been achieved at a reasonable pace?

Agreed, pace depends to some extent on where one stands. Even in the modern period, best practice could diffuse with what to our eyes seems a marked sluggishness. From 1745 the English introduced a fantail to turn the sails of windmills automatically into the wind. Their neighbors, the Dutch, who owned the most windmills in Europe, did not take up this device until the early nineteenth century. For all such blemishes on attainable advance, and despite most labor in England and Wales remaining craft work in 1850, energy output had nevertheless risen fifteen-fold in two hundred years. Was that fast or slow? Either way it meant that industrialization as conventionally defined piggybacked on economic changes already springing up with some frequency. Studies of energy use show that the period leading to modernity was complete by the mid-nineteenth century and by any reasonable measure things changed rapidly thereafter.

Studies of individual subjects might perhaps be thought somewhat like single-issue politics, with the distortions it entails. However Smil explicitly avoids the trap of explaining world economic history in terms of energy alone. Although per capita GDP and energy supply are linked more closely than many elements in socio-economic life, they can be decoupled and a determining role for energy is repeatedly frustrated by political and other choices. Energy use is after all an input, though doubtless one with beneficial outputs, but distributional considerations often alter the expected results. The population response that development economists once thought likely to neutralize any income gained from slow technical advances may have been deflected because elites commandeered a lion’s share of the gains. Smil insists on the need to get the balance right between energy imperatives and a multitude of non-energy factors. He rejects tempting comparisons across sectors, such as the uncannily similar energy use by sailing ships and drainage windmills during the United Provinces’ Golden Age, pointing out that no volume of peat dug would have made possible the voyages to the East Indies. Certainly there were too many overlaps in types of exploitation at any one period to separate history into energy eras. There is long experience and a maturity of judgment in this book that inspire much confidence.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) [with Charles Foster], Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton, 2016, paperback) and Middle Ridgeway and its Environment (Wessex Books, 2016) [with Patrick Dillon].

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Subject(s):History of Technology, including Technological Change
Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative