I recently finished Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: a history from MIT Press.
It is not light summer reading. In fact, the book requires a good deal of concentration as it is information dense, quantitative in nature, and grand in scope.
In short, it is energy-intensive.
But that is to be expected. It’s a big story with a lot of actors and a timeline of millenia. It is history, for sure, but not the usual stuff of battles and leaders, or prophets and zealots. It is more incremental and focuses on technological changes, everything from the moldboard plow to the integrated circuit.
And he puts numbers on everything. (Be sure to brush up on metric units!) I like that. If you can measure something, or at least work up a reasonable estimate, then why not do it? It beats just talking. Sometimes numbers aren’t revealing, but most of the time they are, so it is just intellectual laziness not to whip out the slide rule and report results. Smil is careful to explain the assumptions behind the numbers and to describe their uncertainties. That is essential to a good discussion.
Energy and Civilization won’t make Oprah’s list but it will enrich your view of the world. Smil shows us the energy costs of living the way we do and he asks us if we should continue to do so. I think that’s an important question regardless of the answer.