Sometimes a book is beautiful in the simplicity, coherence, and utter obviousness of the central tenet. Vaclav Smil’s Energy in World History is one such book. It is a world history written by following how humans use energy from simple hunting and gathering to the unsustainable fossil fuel age we live in. It is shocking to think with all the world histories out there no one thought to look at energy, not culture or civilization, to find the thing that unites everyone until Smil published in 1992. Then again, many things seem painfully obvious after they’re pointed out.
Smil’s thesis is based on the understanding that every major change in culture was predicated on finding a more efficient way of harnessing energy. This begins with figuring out which foods packed the biggest bang in relation to the energy expended to obtain them; flows through the mechanization of the kinetic energy of humans and animals in agriculture and the limited applications of wind, water, and fossil fuels in the pre-industrial world, to finish with the complete transition to fossil fuels with the industrial revolution. It seems like a lot to cover but because everything comes back to how one form of energy is transformed into another more useful form, it is surprisingly short and concise. With so much to cover it is Smil’s treatment of the shift to fossil fuels and the continuing effects of that shift that standout. He identifies the benefits and pitfalls of this shift in a way that does not pass judgment; just provides information in text, graphs, and table illustrating the wide ranging impacts of how we use energy. There is even an analysis of where nuclear energy fits into the picture and solid logic illustrating why it’s chance to replace fossil fuels was missed (Chernobyl and Three Mile Island anyone). It is difficult not to recognize the negative long-term effects of our reliance on fossil fuels, even if you are not predisposed to view fossil fuels in a more negative light. Energy in World History makes for a refreshing take on grand narratives, even if it is nearly twenty years old.
It was with a recent reading of Energy in World History and about 25 years of environmental activism and awareness behind me that I went to a screening of “The Age of Stupid” earlier this week. I am often reluctant to go watch environmental documentaries because the documentary form allows for too much biasing of the narrative, soap box ranting, and ignoring solid scientific evidence to the contrary (instead of engaging the counter narratives to further support their narrative). Why then did I want to see this documentary? Simple, the form used to tell the story grabbed me – an archivist from 2055 looking at video documents from 2005-2008 in an attempt to understand how the human race willingly killed itself – and everything surrounding the film had a solid base in science. The film is associated with the 10:10 initiative coming out of the UK (cutting emissions by 10% in 2010), was timed to pre-empt the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December, and it was 100% independently funded through donations from every source imaginable. It is a fantastic film and everyone should see it. Actually is should be mandatory viewing for all students in western countries (and China) because it is like looking in a mirror and the reflection is not pretty.
Climate change is undeniable and is directly related to the shift to fossil fuels. The oceans ARE warming, the glaciers ARE melting, deserts ARE getting bigger, the poor ARE getting poorer, and the past 250 years of human reliance on fossil fuels has caused this. We make half-hearted attempts to curb fossil fuel use that are steeped in hypocritical rhetoric of a mass culture that cares more about making money in the present through capitalist conspicuous consumption than how those activities damage our planet in irreversible ways. In North America more than anywhere else our entire society is built to revolve around the most conspicuous symbol of fossil fuel waste – the automobile. Even if you do not subscribe to the multitude of conspiracy theories about the trifecta of evil, big oil-automobile manufactures-government, it is impossible not to recognize the need for a whole scale re-structuring of our society now to slow the damage our fossil fuel addiction is doing to the planet. We are ALL part of the problem and ALL must take action in creating a solution. That means killing every hypocritical NIMBY (not in my back yard) organization out there, stepping back from the contradictory reports circulating in the media and looking at what the scientists are saying (not what a mouth piece says they are saying), and re-evaluating what is a want and what is a need – since we don’t seem to know the difference anymore.
I should stop now as what began as a reflection on an enjoyable world history has become a rant and my rants often go on much longer than they should. We are the age of stupid. If you doubt this watch the film “The Age of Stupid” or read Smil’s Energy in World History. Better yet do both, book before film of course, and throw in Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God: the Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America for good measure – the new edition with an extra chapter on Hurricane Katrina. Oh and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang and…
Here is the trailer for “The Age of Stupid” in case you are curious.