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Publisher's Summary

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 listeners a magisterial overview.

©2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (P)2018 Gildan Media

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Not a good format for this book

This is pretty much a text book, chock full of numerical data. It's impossible to keep track of any of the data, so it all becomes meaningless. It may be a good book, but it's a terrible audio book.

21 of 21 people found this review helpful

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Astonishing depth

Admittedly audio is probably not the best format for this book. There’s just so much information presented at such a granular level that it can be hard to follow along. That said, it was still an excellent listen and the broad themes come across as well in this format as any other.

The book gets bogged down in the middle but the second half picks back up.

Overall I highly recommend reading or listening to this book. It’s full of both information and insight.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Smil is the master!

Now that I am done reading this book, I plan to start at chapter one again. My head was filled with so much information, I am positive my brain has not yet ingested nearly the number of treasures packed in this book. Smil does not gloss over facts or tell a story in the way many historians do. In this book, you will not find the kind of sweeping histories told in the captivating way Yuval Noah Harari brings to life in his book sapiens. Smil is not that kind of story teller. Telling the story Smil has told in his book, many historians might say something like:

How did humans build civilization? By using every ounce of energy they could get their hands on. Throughout history humans have used the energy stored in horses, in slaves, and in the machines they built. They stole energy from the sun (a lot of it), gaining them a share higher than seen in any other species. Humans harvested energy from the wind and water. They mined it from holes in the ground and sent it along railroads. From the dawn of civilization, humans coupled the energy from the sun, wind, and water with the energy (ATP) from the cells that reside in all living organisms (like slave and animal muscle) to build each aspect of civilization. Using this energy, in its various and wonderful forms, humans built villages, cities, and huge warring empires. They built food systems that fed and sustained incredible amounts of humans. Using energy, they built transportation systems to create a trade system that took on a life of its own and has transformed early humans into the modern humans of today. With that energy, they brought about the industrial revolution that gave humans more resources than they had ever imagined possible.

In order to set the stage for such a revolution, humans needed to stockpile a lot of energy along the way. Before the use of slaves and before the use of animals and machines to do work, humans spent all of their time harvesting just enough energy from nature to survive. That is to say, they were foraging for food, spending their energy roaming around, eating food to gain more energy to keep roaming around for food, and so on, using all the energy gained to keep the cycle in perpetual motion. No energy was left over for innovation. No energy was left over to build the great empires and cities that would be long in the future. Everything changed once humans switched from hunter gatherer strategies to trapping all that food in a smaller space, crops on farms, they produced more energy than they needed for mere survival. It was with the advent of agriculture that our civilization, for good or for bad, really emerged.

With this rapid advancement came about moral quandaries. There simply was no way to build early civilizations without slavery. From the earliest writings, we know that the very first laws ever constructed had to do with keeping the poor doing the work of the rich (who made the laws). It was just the way of life. When humans figured out that they could harvest the energy of non-human muscle, like the muscle power in horses, they used horses, meaning fewer humans had to donate their muscle energy. Slavery decreased (this was a fascinating aspect of this book and is something I want to spend more time thinking about-- how morality arose not from consciousness but from our energy needs!!!). When machines were finally build, horse muscles (horsepower) was replaced by machine power (still called horsepower). This reduced our need to use humans and animal muscle. Interestingly, humans began to focus more on human and animal rights only once they no longer needed their muscle power to bring about the advancement of their societies.

That is how a storytelling author might have written Smil's book.

Where Smil diverges from the story telling Harari's of the world is that he will not construct a story that flows, is easy to follow, where the facts are kept to a minimum. No, you will be overloaded with facts. Smil will not merely convey that there was a transfer of horsepower from horse muscle to machine energy output. He will tell you exactly how many Watts were harvested from horses, from slaves, from machines. Smil will do this on every page, and it will undoubtedly make this book much harder to read than other books. You will not be able to just sail along sinking into the type of daydream induced when reading deeply satisfying histories as told by authors like Harari. Your brain will have to constantly work to keep track of what these figures really mean for how energy transformed human existence from the prehistoric practices of hunting down one's food and roaming the earth to feed the human body to the advances we have witnessed so far, such as agriculture, the industrial revolution, the computer revolution, and conquering space, to the projected advances for the future of our species. You will have to ingest the extremely detailed facts and then remind yourself, constantly, where you are in the sweeping narrative. However, if you can do that, you experience reward beyond anything a more superficial book could produce. Smil's facts are relentless, but my god do they really drive home his points! I knew I would be interested in how much energy humans harvested from the power of water and the water-wheel driven mills that built our early modern cities or how much power it really took to build the pyramids (a much different answer than you will find from past experts), but never thought I would be interested in exactly how much energy humans could harvest from dung or whale oil. Turns out, I am very interested.

Smil examined the costs of the energy we harvest. For example, what happens when humans harvest so much energy from fossil fuels for so many years? We drive climate change/global warming on a very large scale. These are things we need to take into consideration as we decide exactly how we humans will go about harvesting energy in the future.

While reading this, I could not help but think of one scientist from the past who would have loved, so much, to have been alive to read this book. In 1944, Schrödinger asked, "What Is Life?". He answered that question by suggesting that life occurred when something went on resisting entropy longer than expected. That is, an organism is exceptional at creating a pocket of space in which energy is ingested and cycled. Schrödinger would have loved to have had access to Smil's data. Smil could have informed Schrödinger exactly how living organisms went about ingesting the energy from the sun or from the hot core of earth and how exactly those organisms went about cycling that energy. The entire reason I want to reread this book is to think deeply about how every single organism, from the first cells without mitochondria to the more advanced cells that captured it, from the first plants to boney fish, from tiktaalik to tree shrews to us and to Earth itself -- how each organism ingested, harvested, and repacked energy so that it could keep going on longer than expected. I don't just want to know that it did. I want to know exactly *how* it did.

Thank you Smil for this challenging, insightful, and exquisite book.
#tagsgiving #sweepstakes #CivilizationBuilding

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If you care about energy...

Read this book, understand the numbers, and understand the challenge. Fittingly, there is a lot of misdirected human energy that will be usefully harnessed as a result of reading this. Intelligently applied energy = civilization.

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  • fiyi
  • 05-29-18

Too longwinded

Got this because Bill Gates recommended it and I love most of his reading list. But this one I found to be more a listing of facts than many real insights.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful