Rethinking Energy Part 2

Vaclav Smil – Energy and Civilisation: A History (MIT)

Vaclav Smil has largely rewritten his 1990s text on energy because developments in the field have outstripped his original efforts, even though the book remained in print, a staple of the subject. You can see why, too, the term ‘polymath’ was made for people such as Smil.

Smil begins ‘energy is the only universal currency’ and ‘one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done.’ He claims that ‘universal manifestations of these transformations range from the enormous rotations of galaxies to thermo-nuclear reactions in stars’. On earth they include ‘the terraforming forces of plate tectonics…’

What Smil does well is to question what energy is. Early on, he says that ‘even Nobel prize winners have difficulty in giving a satisfactory answer to that seemingly simple question.’ Richard Feynman once stated that he did not know what energy was, that he did not have a picture that energy ‘comes in little blobs’ of a definite amount.

‘What we do know is that all matter is energy at rest’, Smil then explains. Here, the anthropomorphism arrives, as though stones can be heard sighing, grateful to no longer be lava, if one listens closely enough.

This kind of anthropomorphism starts on page one and shoots right through the book. Smil does question the linear assumptions of science narratives though: Humans understood how to build nuclear bombs and power stations before they fully understood how photosynthesis worked; windmills acted as important energy catalysts for decades before the mass explosion of machine technology, even though many of the pieces were in place for such a revolution.

But this questioning of development, of ‘it’ moving from better to worse, in an even upward curve, is undermined by the structure of the book itself, which bears the imprint of the kind of thinking being critiqued. It moves from pre-civilised societies to advanced urban ones.

The bottomless depths of relativism open up often: The attempts to frame energy epistemologically, horsepower in Watt’s steam engine, Joules, etc; all of these seem to assume that another value form is nearby, the money form, which is so little touched upon that it is actually overbearingly present for a reader well-versed in Marx.

However, to understand that different types of wheat and then charcoal development led eventually to modernity, that foragers and farmers were co-existent for long stretches of history, because the energy needed for farming is more than for foraging, is to step into a bigger world. This book is that effective.

The scales of horses, from the pony to the shire, and later the power of the suicide bomber belt next to world war two shrapnel impact: This is a useful and instructive book. What it loses by being framed in a default 20th century way, it gains in detail.

That I can even see that a book on energy and civilisation is framed by the rapid movement, change and development of the previous epoch is hopefully an indication that it might not be in the future. Much of the information and narrative explanation in this book could lead to a better world, for humans.

This book makes a very good counterpart to a reading of Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres Trilogy. It would also be a really great resource for a reading of Latour’s object oriented ontology, because it gives a wide range of data in accessible form that could be reprocessed through a less whiggy history and a more constellatory philosophy. This, ultimately, is what is needed. Although Smil acknowledges that a quantitative approach cannot ever over-ride the fuzzier cultural explanations of energy developments, the book sometimes seens torn between hard science and the humanities in an occasionally compromised way.

Smil ends with the French essayist Senancour: ‘Man perisheth. That may be, but let us struggle even though we perish.‘ This book is evidence of how primitive and advanced we are at the same time, the one seemingly paradoxical judgment never cancelling out the other. We can see very far, although there is good evidence that we are reaching our limit, because at the same time we can never escape – despite the wildest post-humanist claims – from seeing through ourselves.

Marx claimed the ur value was money, Smil energy. There are scientists who can see the world as genetic drift after an epoch of only chemistry. But none of them can move us beyond the experience of most humans across the longer historical curve, who experience it all as though it is a peculiar dream. The one thing we can never escape, it seems, is being human. The idea of energy as anything at all is uniquely human, and the idea of energy as currency is unique to humans within a very particular and finite age.

But don’t read my picky comments as a bad review: This book is an absolutely towering achievement; it is that rare species in our times, a grand sweep work over 550 pages long, with more than enough detail to justify its panoramic pictures.


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