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Intricate Energy

Todd Ziebarth reviews Vaclav Smil's Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization

EnergiesLet me come clean at the outset about my academic record. While in high school, I did not take a chemistry or physics class.

During the 1985-86 school year, my freshman year of high school, I found myself in the midst of Mr. Boskey's earth sciences course. Mr. Boskey was a short, portly fellow who wisecracked his way through our daily hour of devotion to the basics of geology. I was as befuddled by his one-liners as I was by the questions on our weekly examinations.

During my sophomore year, I enrolled in Mr. Smith's biology class, a course that many of my more intelligent friends had aced while I was stumbling through Mr. Boskey's class. Mr. Smith, the husband of my third-grade teacher, was keen on leading slow-witted students such as myself down a particular path, only to eventually reveal the dead end that awaited us. For purposes of a functional self-esteem as an adult, I have chosen to forget the grades I received in the course.

At the minimum, Mr. Smith was a kind and decent fellow, even when gleaning enjoyment from our illogical blunders, so I decided to enroll in his physiology class during my junior year. By this time, the scientifically gifted students had begun their chemistry studies with Mr. Roos, who was also my cross-country coach. Mr. Smith's physiology course proved to be one of my more enjoyable experiences in high school. Still, when the class finished, so did my engagement with the sciences.

Upon graduation, I felt somewhat guilty about passing over chemistry and physics. Not ashamed enough, of course, to enroll in either course in college, but I definitely sensed that a few pieces in the puzzle of worldly understanding escaped me. This feeling has only intensified in the intervening years. Therefore, it was with a combination of ignorance, curiosity and trepidation that I approached Vaclav Smil's Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization.

Energies is an ambitious project by Smil, whose basic idea is to offer, in a scientifically sophisticated yet accessible style, a comprehensive and integrated survey of the energies shaping our world.

Smil splits the book into two equal sections. The first explores the energies that exist within the biosphere, with chapters on the sun and earth, plants and animals and people and food. For scientifically unsophisticated readers such as myself, these chapters are the most technically difficult to navigate. Still, the author loads this section with a variety of fascinating observations, such as:

  • During the twentieth century, earthquakes have been responsible for more death than floods, cyclones and volcanic eruptions combined.
  • Individual redwoods, above all giant sequoias, are not only the tallest (over a hundred meters) and most voluminous trees, but also the most massive (over three hundred tons) life forms on the earth. As a point of reference, the largest blue whales weigh around one hundred tons.
  • Camels forage on dry plants, tolerate long spells without water, can lose up to 40 percent of their body mass, and can re-hydrate rapidly by drinking an equivalent of more than 30 percent of body weight within ten to twenty minutes.

Smil also makes several more profound observations, which serve to jar the reader and provoke an appreciation for the complexity of the universe. Early in the book, Smil states:

After about 4.5 billion years of life the sun is almost halfway through its transformation from a dwarf to a red giant. Its luminosity will eventually become about a thousand times higher than today, and its vastly expanded diameter will reach the earth. For a time, the planet will orbit within the star's low-density envelope, but eventually and inevitably it will spiral inward and be swallowed by the red giant's core.

Shortly after recovering from the effects of this statement, the reader is confronted with a moment of frankness about how much we truly know about our planet's origins. According to Smil:

Decay of long-lived radioactive isotopes allows us to fix the earth's age at 4.5 billion years, but hardly anything is certain about the formation of the planet or about the energetics of the early earth. Formation of the sun from a gravitational instability in a dense interstellar cloud and the subsequent agglomeration of planets from the remaining orbiting matter is a highly plausible account of the solar system's origin, but it is not clear if the earliest earth was extremely hot or relatively cool.

After explaining the multitudinous forms of energy at play in the biosphere, Smil moves into the second section, which provides an examination of the interplay between energies and civilization. Throughout this part of the book, which has chapters on preindustrial societies, fossil-fueled civilization and transportation and information, Smil deftly weaves the ever-present role of energy, the only universal currency according to the author, into the evolution of the day-to-day existence of human beings.

This section is at its strongest when Smil elaborates on the interrelationships between energy and civilization, usually through well-grounded insights on their implications. For instance, after cataloguing the typically cited benefits of fossil-fueled civilization, Smil offers the less flattering counter-perspective:

But looking ahead brings more worries than confidence. Most importantly, only about a quarter of humanity is well off, and it supports its affluence by consuming nearly three-quarters of the world's fossil fuels and primary electricity. In contrast, the poorest quarter of humanity can afford to buy less than one-twentieth of all commercial primary energies. Such a gap is obviously no foundation for long-term global social and political stability. Yet closing it rapidly by greatly expanded supply may cause globally unacceptable environmental impacts, above all a rapid climatic change.

Throughout Energies, illustrations play an important role in providing a visual explanation for the oftentimes technical concepts. At times, these illustrations only served to further confuse this occasionally befuddled reader. On the whole, though, they provided clarity to Smil's explorations into the complexities of the universe.

In the end, there were more than a few moments during the reading of Energies where I was returned to the classrooms of Mr. Boskey and Mr. Smith, complete with the spinning head, the upset stomach and the sinking heart. Still, I emerged from the experience fascinated by the intricacies of the role of energy in our biosphere and civilization, and appreciative of Smil's accomplishment in this book.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization

by Vaclav Smil

   MIT Press
   April 2000 (Reprint)
   ISBN 026269235X


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