Book Review: Energy in World History

Reviewed Work:
Vaclav Smil, Energy in World History (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994).

Before the advent of the light bulb, man illuminated his environment by setting fire to it.  Stationary fires or more mobile torches required a steady supply of wood.  Any increase in the quantity of light invariably required an increase in the quantity of burning wood.  Gradually, innovations such as candles and oil lamps promoted alternative fuels such as whale oil, beef tallow, and beeswax to be burned in the place of wood.  While each new fuel burned longer the degree of illumination remained consistently poor.

In short, lighting the world by setting light to the world proved inefficient as well as inconvenient; inefficient, considering that the candle only converted 0.01 percent of paraffin into usable light, and inconvenient, considering that homes relied heavily on oil gleaned from the blubber of sperm whales to fuel lamps.  In fact, when Thomas Edison began contemplating a potential use for electric currents in the late nineteenth century, American oil lamps required a harvest of 160,000 barrels of whale oil each year.  When he successfully harnessed an electric current within a glass bulb a source of light emerged that was one hundred times brighter than the flame of an oil lamp.

The transition from torches to light bulbs reveals the extent to which technological innovations maximize the output of useful energy from a specific fuel source in order to meet a specific objective; in this case, making light in a dark world.  The first electric light bulb converted 0.2 percent of the passing electric current into useful light and by the end of the twentieth century sodium lamps converted 20 percent of electricity into useful light.  Our innovations may never hold a candle to the sun, but today’s light bulbs artificially illuminate the world with 2000 times the efficiency and effectiveness of a candle.

This relationship between fuel, extracted from the environment, and innovation, developed by man to harness the potential energy contained in such sources, forms the backbone to Vaclav Smil’s engaging and ambitious work, Energy in World History.  Presenting a global history of energy use is perhaps as daunting as is hammering out a concrete definition of energy itself, yet Smil accomplishes this task in a highly creative and easily readable manner, undergirding his narrative with two foundational maxims:  First, the flow (e.g. water and wind) or potential (e.g. animal, biomass or fossil fuels) of energy must exist in an exploitable quantity before it can be consistently transformed for use.  Second, human actions and human tools are required to transform such energy flows and potentials into useful forms (3).  On this foundation, a horse harness and a nuclear reactor find common ground.

After defining various energy units in the first chapter, Smil traces a broad history of energy use from prehistoric foraging societies to post-Industrial urban societies.  While the book is largely a chronological analysis of five specific energy eras, each chapter is sub-divided thematically, exhibiting human tools across cultures used to harness energy in different ways.  In the second and third chapters Smil discusses agricultural developments such as plowing, fertilization, irrigation, and eventual crop diversity that required animate (human or animal) prime movers and he explores the different tools developed in Egypt, China, Mesoamerica, Europe and North America to control or assist the inhabitants in maximizing the yield of the land.

The fourth chapter traverses the pre-Industrial world, and Smil presents new household mechanisms for heating, light, and food preparation alongside developments in metallurgy that aided in both the construction of civilization and its destruction. The fifth and sixth chapters deal primarily with the unprecedented power of production of industrialization evident in the increased capacity for agriculture, transportation, information and communication flows as well as, most notably in the twenty-first century, warfare.

Throughout Energy in World History, the author effectively presents an quantity of facts using a variety of quality visualizations, such as graphs, charts and illuminating works of art.  One graph indicates the speed (meters/second) and power (watts) of various draft animals in order to prove the superior work accomplished by the horse compared to the ox, donkey, and water buffalo (41).

Another chart compares energy consumption in Europe, Egypt, China, England, Japan and North America by visualizing the amount of energy used in food production, household management, transportation and services over time (236).  In this manner, Smil creatively qualifies his statement that “a week’s worth of gasoline for a two-car suburban American family was equivalent to the total annual primary energy consumption of a fairly well off Indian villager! (242).”  The information contained in these visualizations offer an invaluable service for academics engaged in cross-comparisons of cultures and their technologies.

Despite the benefits of creative visualizations, any sweeping narrative of world history that assess the degree to which a civilization develops in relation to the energy it harnesses and puts to work, is bound to raise more questions than it answers.  Readers might wonder to what degree do non-energy factors such as politics, corporate interests, available infrastructure, or religious worldviews control and direct the use of energy over time?  Or, how does one navigate between arguments of primacy when considering the impact of innovation in the extraction of new fuel sources versus the impact of new fuel sources prompting novel innovations?

Smil briefly addresses a few of these issues in his final chapter, arguing that a history of energy must not be simplistically deterministic, but take into account a variety of socio-economic factors shaping human decisions over time.  Describing the failed acceptance of Roman watermills, the author points to an entrenched system of slave labour in the empire that stunted the creation of labour-saving mechanisms.  However, Smil does not reconcile this argument with the previously mentioned network of aqueducts and roadways connecting and unifying the Roman countryside.

Further, Smil mentions the dignified place of manual labour in European monastic societies as a potential factor contributing to the Western technological revolution that ushered in “an enormous performance gap” with the rest of the world (234).   Perhaps a statement concerning the Chinese view of manual labour would strengthen this assertion, particularly when the author later mentions the early advancements in nautical technologies that allowed the Chinese to traverse the globe more effectively than their European counterparts.

Nevertheless, the book offers a valuable assessment of energy use over time, indicating both positive and negative consequences.  There is little doubt after reading this work that a concentrated energy supply tends to promote a concentration of production over time.  This production of useful energy has made possible an unprecedented degree of affluence and a quality of life, including lower infant mortality, higher literacy and an abundance food unimaginable to individuals of earlier centuries.  Conversely, Smil notes that a world increasingly dominated by technology fosters an uneasy submission to processes not always visible.  This inevitably removes individuals from the processes of production and consequently fixates individuals on the practices of consumption.  The paradox inherent in the growth of such consumption in that it “threatens the bio-spheric integrity on which its very survival depends”(255).

The torch, the candle, the oil lamp and the light bulb were innovations that required, and to a large extent were made possible by, a readily available fuel source such as wood, wax, whale blubber or coal.  Simultaneously, each innovation maximized the output of light while impacting the environment in varying degrees.  Fires required the clear cutting of forests and lamps, the radical depletion of whale populations.  An unexamined consumption of energy in the twenty-first century demands a thoughtful consideration of its production.  Vaclav Smil meets this demand in Energy in World History by challenging readers to consider both the benefits and the caveats of their energy production and consumption.


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