Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil

  1. A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today’s fossil fuel–driven civilization.
Key Takeaways
  1. Energy is the only universal form of currency. It must be transformed in order to get anything done. Although the concept is universal, defining what energy is has proven hard. Matter is energy at rest, it can take many forms, and can’t be destroyed
  2. The entire flow of history can be seen as the desire for control of more versatile and condensed field of energy and converting it faster and with more efficiency to light, heat or motion
  3. Human bipedalism, ability to throw and hunt and make fire and to harvest nutrient dense foods, allowed for our ancestors to grow in size, strength, and brain power. We were able to spread to new areas and adapt thanks to these tools. Our ability to run long distances and perspire turned us into diurnal hunters who could chase big animals down due to overheating and exhaustion
  4. Agriculture and domestication of plants and animals obviously had huge impacts on how we lived, ate, traveled, and even how our bodies functioned. All animal meats and mushrooms have complete proteins but most cereals do not
  5. There are three steps in the agricultural revolution: the use of animals which helps eliminate the most difficult jobs, freeing up time to pursue other activities or simply make the work easier for the us; fertilization and irrigation which helps the whole process become more efficient; broader array of crops which helps make the whole process more productive and robust
  6. Energy use per person has gone down and become more efficient, also needing less economic growth to reach prosperous levels
  7. Increasing energy use is only linearly correlated at early stages of introduction with diminishing returns once most of the population gets the basics
  8. Search for new more and better energy sources has led towards innovation, globalization, change in social hierarchy, spread of wealth, and much more
What I got out of it
  1. An incredibly detailed and in depth look at the evolution of energy from hand tools to weapons to steam and internal combustion engines to nuclear power plants to forms of transportation. Their role, how they’ve shaped our lives and how they came to be