Energy and Civilization: A History

Notes from Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil:

* From a fundamental biophysical perspective, both prehistoric human evolution and the course of history can be seen as the quest for controlling greater stores and flows of more concentrated and more versatile forms of energy and converting them, in more affordable ways at lower costs and with higher efficiencies, into heat, light, and motion.

* Every form of energy can be turned into heat, or thermal energy. No energy is ever lost in any of these conversions. Conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics, is one of the most fundamental universal realities. But as we move along conversion chains, the potential for useful work steadily diminishes. This inexorable reality defines the second law of thermodynamics, and entropy is the measure associated with this loss of useful energy. While the energy content of the universe is constant, conversions of energies increase its entropy (decrease its utility).

* A great deal of traditional farming required heavy work, but such spells were often followed by extended periods of less demanding activities or seasonal rest, an existential pattern quite different from the nearly constant high mobility of foraging. The shift from foraging to farming left a clear physical record in our bones. Examination of skeletal remains from nearly 2,000 individuals in Europe whose lives spanned 33,000 years, from the Upper Paleolithic to the twentieth century, revealed a decrease in the bending strength of leg bones as the population shifted to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. This process was complete by about two millennia ago, and there has been no further decline in leg bone strength since then, even as food production has become more mechanized, an observation confirming that the shift from foraging to farming, from mobility to sedentism, was a truly epochal divide in human evolution.

* The organic fertilizer with the highest nitrogen content (around 15% for the best deposits) is guano, droppings of seabirds preserved in the dry climate of islands along the Peruvian coast.

* Until the early 1980s there were no private cars in China, and until the late 1990s most commuters rode bicycles even in the country’s large cities.

* Electricity is the most convenient, most versatile, and, at the point of its use, the cleanest form of modern energy.

* Infant mortality is an excellent proxy for conditions ranging from disposable income and quality of housing to the adequacy of nutrition, level of education, and a state’s investment in health care: very few babies die in countries where families live in good housing and where well-educated parents (themselves well nourished) feed them properly and have access to medical care. And, naturally, life expectancy quantifies the long-term effects of these critical factors.

* That fossil fuel resources are finite does not imply any fixed dates for the physical exhaustion of coals or hydrocarbons, nor does it mean the early onset of unbearably rising real costs of recovering these resources and hence the necessity of a rapid transition to a post-fossil fuel era. […] Consequently, it is not worries about an early exhaustion of fossil fuels – most prominently expressed by the advocates of imminent peak oil – but rather the impact on the habitability of the biosphere (above all through global climate change) that is the most important near-and long-term concern resulting from the world’s dependence on coals and hydrocarbons.

Energy and Civilization: A History [Amazon]

January 10, 2020