Energy and Civilization: A History

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A comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society throughout history, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today's fossil fuel–driven civilization.

"I wait for new Smil books the way some people wait for the next 'Star Wars' movie. In his latest book, Energy and Civilization: A History, he goes deep and broad to explain how innovations in humans' ability to turn energy into heat, light, and motion have been a driving force behind our cultural and economic progress over the past 10,000 years.
—Bill Gates, Gates Notes, Best Books of the Year


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 readers a magisterial overview. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil's Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.

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About the author

Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of forty books, including Power Density: A Key to Understanding Energy Sources and Uses and Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing, both published by the MIT Press. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. In 2013 Bill Gates wrote on his website that “there is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.”

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Additional Information

Publisher
MIT Press
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Published on
May 12, 2017
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Pages
568
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ISBN
9780262338318
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Language
English
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Genres
History / World
Science / Energy
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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The first systematic, quantitative appraisal of power density, offering detailed reviews of power densities of renewable energy flows, fossil fuels, and all common energy uses.

“There's no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.”
—Bill Gates

In this book, Vaclav Smil argues that power density is a key determinant of the nature and dynamics of energy systems. Any understanding of complex energy systems must rely on quantitative measures of many fundamental variables. Power density—the rate of energy flux per unit of area—is an important but largely overlooked measure. Smil provides the first systematic, quantitative appraisal of power density, offering detailed reviews of the power densities of renewable energy flows, fossil fuels, thermal electricity generation, and all common energy uses.

Smil shows that careful quantification, critical appraisals, and revealing comparisons of power densities make possible a deeper understanding of the ways we harness, convert, and use energies. Conscientious assessment of power densities, he argues, proves particularly revealing when contrasting the fossil fuel–based energy system with renewable energy conversions.

Smil explains that modern civilization has evolved as a direct expression of the high power densities of fossil fuel extraction. He argues that our inevitable (and desirable) move to new energy arrangements involving conversions of lower-density renewable energy sources will require our society—currently dominated by megacities and concentrated industrial production—to undergo a profound spatial restructuring of its energy system.

Just as World War II called an earlier generation to greatness, so the climate crisis is calling today's rising youth to action: to create a better future.

In UNSTOPPABLE, Bill Nye crystallizes and expands the message for which he is best known and beloved. That message is that with a combination of optimism and scientific curiosity, all obstacles become opportunities, and the possibilities of our world become limitless. With a scientist's thirst for knowledge and an engineer's vision of what can be, Bill Nye sees today's environmental issues not as insurmountable, depressing problems but as chances for our society to rise to the challenge and create a cleaner, healthier, smarter world. We need not accept that transportation consumes half our energy, and that two-thirds of the energy you put into your car is immediately thrown away out the tailpipe. We need not accept that dangerous emissions are the price we must pay for a vibrant economy and a comfortable life. Above all, we need not accept that we will leave our children a planet that is dirty, overheated, and depleted of resources. As Bill shares his vision, he debunks some of the most persistent myths and misunderstandings about global warming. When you are done reading, you'll be enlightened and empowered. Chances are, you'll be smiling, too, ready to join Bill and change the world.

In Unstoppable: Harnessing Science to Change the World, the New York Times bestselling author of Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation and former host of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" issues a new challenge to today's generation: to make a cleaner, more efficient, and happier world.


Praise for UNDENIABLE:

"With his charming, breezy, narrative style, Bill empowers the reader to see the natural world as it is, not as some would wish it to be. He does it right. And, as I expected, he does it best." -Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ph.D, host of COSMOS

"Bill Nye, 'the Science Guy,' has become a veritable cultural icon....[T]he title of his new book on evolution...[is] 'Undeniable,' because, yes, there are many Americans who still deny what Darwin and other scientists long ago proved." -Frank Bruni, The New York Times

"With a jaunty bow tie and boyish enthusiasm, Bill Nye the Science Guy has spent decades decoding scientific topics, from germs to volcanoes, for television audiences....In his new book, Nye delights in how [evolution] helps to unlock the mysteries of everything from bumblebees to human origins to our place in the universe." -National Geographic

"When it comes to Bill Nye, 'Science Guy' doesn't even begin to cover it. When he's not being summoned to act as a voice of reason for news outlets or leading meetings as CEO of the Planetary Society, he is living the life of a best-selling author....His recently published book, 'Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation,' enlightens readers while using a conversational, educational tone. After all, it's his ability to break down even the most complicated topics into bite-size pieces that made him such a hit on his '90s children's show 'Bill Nye, the Science Guy.'" -The Boston Globe

"Mr. Nye writes briskly and accessibly...[and] makes an eloquent case for evolution."-The Wall Street Journal

"Because [Bill Nye is] a scientist, he has no doubts that the 'deniers' of evolution are flat wrong. And because he's a performer, his book is fun to read and easy to absorb." -The Washington Post

"Ignite your inner scientist when Nye, known for delivering geeky intel with clarity and charm, takes on one of society's most hotly debated topics (yes, still)." -Time Out New York

How much further should the affluent world push its materialconsumption? Does relative dematerialization lead to absolutedecline in demand for materials?  These and many otherquestions are discussed and answered in Making the Modern World:Materials and Dematerialization.

Over the course of time, the modern world has become dependenton unprecedented flows of materials. Now even the most efficientproduction processes and the highest practical rates of recyclingmay not be enough to result in dematerialization rates that wouldbe high enough to negate the rising demand for materials generatedby continuing population growth and rising standards of living.This book explores the costs of this dependence and the potentialfor substantial dematerialization of modern economies. 

Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerializationconsiders the principal materials used throughout history, fromwood and stone, through to metals, alloys, plastics and silicon,describing their extraction and production as well as theirdominant applications. The evolving productivities of materialextraction, processing, synthesis, finishing and distribution, andthe energy costs and environmental impact of rising materialconsumption are examined in detail. The book concludes with anoutlook for the future, discussing the prospects fordematerialization and potential constrains on materials.

This interdisciplinary text provides useful perspectives forreaders with backgrounds including resource economics,environmental studies, energy analysis, mineral geology, industrialorganization, manufacturing and material science.

An argument that America's economy needs a strong and innovative manufacturing sector and the jobs it creates.

“There's no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.”
—Bill Gates

In Made in the USA, Vaclav Smil powerfully rebuts the notion that manufacturing is a relic of predigital history and that the loss of American manufacturing is a desirable evolutionary step toward a pure service economy. Smil argues that no advanced economy can prosper without a strong, innovative manufacturing sector and the jobs it creates.

Smil explains how manufacturing became a fundamental force behind America's economic, strategic, and social dominance. He describes American manufacturing's rapid rise at the end of the nineteenth century, its consolidation and modernization between the two world wars, its role as an enabler of mass consumption after 1945, and its recent decline. Some economists argue that shipping low-value jobs overseas matters little because the high-value work remains in the United States. But, asks Smil, do we want a society that consists of a small population of workers doing high-value-added work and masses of unemployed?

Smil assesses various suggestions for solving America's manufacturing crisis, including lowering corporate tax rates, promoting research and development, and improving public education. Will America act to preserve and reinvigorate its manufacturing? It is crucial to our social and economic well-being; but, Smil warns, the odds are no better than even.

Meat eating is often a contentious subject, whether consideringthe technical, ethical, environmental, political, or health-relatedaspects of production and consumption.

This book is a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary examinationand critique of meat consumption by humans, throughout theirevolution and around the world. Setting the scene with a chapter onmeat’s role in human evolution and its growing influenceduring the development of agricultural practices, the book goes onto examine modern production systems, their efficiencies, outputs,and impacts. The major global trends of meat consumption aredescribed in order to find out what part its consumption plays inchanging modern diets in countries around the world. The heart ofthe book addresses the consequences of the "massive carnivory" ofwestern diets, looking at the inefficiencies of production and atthe huge impacts on land, water, and the atmosphere. Health impactsare also covered, both positive and negative. In conclusion, theauthor looks forward at his vision of “rational meateating”, where environmental and health impacts are reduced,animals are treated more humanely, and alternative sources ofprotein make a higher contribution.

Should We Eat Meat? is not an ideological tract for oragainst carnivorousness but rather a careful evaluation of meat'sroles in human diets and the environmental and health consequencesof its production and consumption. It will be of interest to a widereadership including professionals and academics in food andagricultural production, human health and nutrition, environmentalscience, and regulatory and policy making bodies around theworld.

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