Book review: ‘Energy and Civilization: A History’ by Vaclav Smil

The struggle to harness and exploit energy goes back to the roots of human history.

The fact that energy can be transformed from one form to another but not created and destroyed is one of the first principles hammered into young people when they start studying science in earnest. As they progress through their education though, it’s usually only those who stick with sciences who get to consider what the first law of thermodynamics means on a large scale. Even then, for the non-engineers it tends to be in the context of problems involving idealised closed systems and not the practical implications in the real world.

As Vaclav Smil’s ‘Energy and Civilization: A History’ (MIT Press, £32.95, ISBN 9780262035774) clearly illustrates, the challenge of harnessing energy has been central to the story of humankind’s survival and development. The timeline of human evolution can be distilled into the quest to store and control larger and more concentrated forms of energy. Achieving that, through controlling fire, designing more efficient tools, and harnessing wind and water power, has gradually made life easier by reducing the time we have to spend simply surviving.

It’s tempting to think that harnessing energy is something that only began in earnest with the Industrial Revolution. The story goes back thousands of years, however, to the question of how simple biomechanics dictated the ability of early humans to use tools that eased their daily struggle to gather enough food for their energy needs. Engineering could be said to have been born at that point.

The story of how the millennia between then and now have seen humans constantly struggling to get as much energy as they can by expending as little as possible is an entertaining narrative that makes for a fascinating book. This truly interdisciplinary book has much to offer the engineer wanting to learn more about how technology has both made social development possible and been restricted by it, and also the historian familiar with the story of human development who wants to find out about the science.

Vaclav Smil is an academic at the University of Manitoba who has spent his career specialising in energy-related topics and knows how to get the importance of how science works in real life across to the reader in an entertaining way. Technical detail is conveniently boxed off at appropriate points, for example, so it can be skipped by the technically literate reader and avoid disrupting the narrative.

Despite being at heart an update to Smil’s 1994 work ‘Energy in World History’, enough has happened in the years since then to make this a substantially different book, and one that deserves the attention of engineers and historians alike. Both groups, and anyone interested in this neglected topic, will find lots to enjoy.

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