Energy and Civilization

A History

by Smil

ISBN: 9780262338295 | Copyright 2017

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A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel–driven civilization.

"I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next 'Star Wars' movie. In his latest book, Energy and Civilization: A History, he goes deep and broad to explain how innovations in humans' ability to turn energy into heat, light, and motion have been a driving force behind our cultural and economic progress over the past 10,000 years.
—Bill Gates, Gates Notes, Best Books of the Year


Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done. The conversion of energy on Earth ranges from terra-forming forces of plate tectonics to cumulative erosive effects of raindrops. Life on Earth depends on the photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into plant biomass. Humans have come to rely on many more energy flows—ranging from fossil fuels to photovoltaic generation of electricity—for their civilized existence. In this monumental history, Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel–driven civilization.

Humans are the only species that can systematically harness energies outside their bodies, using the power of their intellect and an enormous variety of artifacts—from the simplest tools to internal combustion engines and nuclear reactors. The epochal transition to fossil fuels affected everything: agriculture, industry, transportation, weapons, communication, economics, urbanization, quality of life, politics, and the environment. Smil describes humanity's energy eras in panoramic and interdisciplinary fashion, offering readers a magisterial overview. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil's Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.

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Contents (pg. v)
Preface and Acknowledgments (pg. ix)
1 Energy and Society (pg. 1)
Flows, Stores, and Controls (pg. 4)
Concepts and Measures (pg. 8)
Complexities and Caveats (pg. 17)
2 Energy in Prehistory (pg. 21)
Foraging Societies (pg. 28)
Origins of Agriculture (pg. 41)
3 Traditional Farming (pg. 49)
Commonalities and Peculiarities (pg. 52)
Routes to Intensification (pg. 65)
Persistence and Innovation (pg. 87)
The Limits of Traditional Farming (pg. 110)
4 Preindustrial Prime Movers and Fuels (pg. 127)
Prime Movers (pg. 130)
Biomass Fuels (pg. 163)
Household Needs (pg. 171)
Transportation and Construction (pg. 177)
Metallurgy (pg. 207)
Warfare (pg. 217)
5 Fossil Fuels, Primary Electricity, and Renewables (pg. 225)
The Great Transition (pg. 228)
Technical Innovations (pg. 267)
6 Fossil-Fueled Civilization (pg. 295)
Unprecedented Power and Its Uses (pg. 296)
Consequences and Concerns (pg. 351)
7 Energy in World History (pg. 385)
Grand Patterns of Energy Use (pg. 385)
Between Determinism and Choice (pg. 417)
Addenda (pg. 443)
Basic Measures (pg. 443)
Scientific Units and Their Multiples and Submultiples (pg. 445)
Chronology of Energy-Related Developments (pg. 446)
Power in History (pg. 456)
Bibliographical Notes (pg. 459)
References (pg. 463)
Name Index (pg. 531)
Subject Index (pg. 535)

Vaclav Smil

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses and Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, both published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that “there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.”

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