Energy and Civilization: A History draws its oxygen from our world’s material culture past and present. A redux of Vaclav Smil’s 1994 classic text, Energy in World History, this revised and expanded edition strives toward a comprehensive history of energy use over the long haul of the world’s human past. Anchored in technological history and ecological anthropology, it is the cornerstone of the author’s astonishingly productive career that documents in detail the human relationship to energy infrastructure—to peat moss extraction, to waterwheels, combustion engines, and particle accelerators—from Paleolithic cultures to today’s fossil-fueled cultures. The book’s main argument is that beneath our economic practices and our reproductive horizons sits an energy infrastructure, made up of an interplay of human innovation and natural constraint, that both sets limits to and makes possible how human history and societies operate and move. In terms of argument and organization, Energy and Civilization mostly replicates the author’s earlier classic text. The book’s chapters and their titles remain the same, albeit with the notable reorganization of two chapters on fossil fuel civilization and a substantially revised chapter, “Energy in World History.” Those changes make this text a more valuable contribution to the outpouring of literature on energy, climate change, and global inequality. Other new features include both the author’s incorporation of recent scholarship in each chapter that updates his other arguments and a wholesale revision of the book’s statistical data to carry it up to 2015. One notable feature of this text is the author’s evocative use of excellent charts, diagrams, and illustrations to give life to the intangible nature of energy flows in history. These graphics detail, for instance, the declining energy intensity in the gross domestic product of industrial nations (figure 6.17, p. 350), the relationship between energy consumption and the human development index (figure 6.20, p. 363), and global energy subsidies for different national economies (box 7.3, p. 407). Such creative illustrations help bring to life the import of energy flows otherwise not evident to the eye. Energy and Civilization reinforces, not surprisingly, the strengths and weaknesses of Smil’s original text. Those strengths and weaknesses can be gauged by its usefulness for confronting the twin challenges of environmental history today: namely, climate change and material inequality. In this respect, the strength of Smil’s book lies in its description of the long run up to, and composition, of today’s fossil economy including energy’s relationship to stark global inequalities, today’s redounding economic growth, and the world’s ever-rising population pressures. Smil synthesizes a remarkable amount of interdisciplinary scholarship on this history that details how energy circuits have always related to such crucial matters as global food production, war and politics, demographic constraints, and the quality of people’s lives over time and space. As a descriptive history of energy and technology, Smil’s text is unmatched. The one notable weakness of Smil’s book is that it opts to engage only loosely the rich body of literature on the causality of the historical transitions it describes, especially those related to modernity’s challenges of climate change and global inequality. Such questions of causality, of course, drive the historical profession and are of vital interest to the subfield of environmental justice. On this score, although Energy and Civilization gives us an excellent portrait of the role that energy has played in leading up to today’s climate change and economic stratification, it only touches on the causality of that change, as related to big topics like “the Great Divergence.” That historical analysis is left to politico-economic scholars like John McNeill, Jared Diamond, Kenneth Pomeranz, and their interlocutors. Smil puts forward a more fundamental point: historians need to know and be curious about the deep materiality of life he describes so everyone can find “a sensible balance between seeing history through the prism of energy imperatives and paying proper attention to the multitude of nonenergy factors” that drive historical change (p. 385). That claim insists getting beyond soft definitions of materialism, and, as such, it remains an important one. On the balance sheet, Energy and Civilization is an excellent update of what is arguably the urtext in the subfield of energy history, and as such it provides a powerful primer of that history for anyone interested in the deep infrastructure of our environmental narratives and politics. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Environmental History – Oxford University Press
Published: May 15, 2018
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