15 August 2019

A book I loved: Energy and Civilization - a History, by Vaclav Smil

Here's the first post of a 7-day book challenge I've taken over from my greenie friend Alice Bulmer, who writes the Waikato Foodbasket blog. I'm also posting it on my Facebook page, which is where I do most of my posts these days. Please feel free to have a look!
This book drove home for me what a momentous change it was for humans when coal and the internal combustion energy came into being.

Long before that, all our energy came from our own muscles, via the sun that grew the plants and fed animals that we ate. Then we started felling trees for heat and cooking, deforesting the planet as we went. However, most people outside the tropics still spent the colder months absolutely freezing, with incredibly inefficient heating.

We took on farm animals to toil in the fields (but had to feed them) and harnessed water and wind. I was stunned by how the invention of a new yoking system for farm animals massively changed the crop yield - how physically hard people worked once we started farming - how tenuous was their food supply, making hunger an ever-present risk.

And then less than 200 years ago we learnt how to tap into fossilized energy (coal, gas, oil). That energy's given us an ever-exploding source of convenience, comfort and 'stuff'. Inconveniently, the carbon released from burning the fossil energy hangs around in the atmosphere (it's now a bit over 400 parts per million, whereas the highest it's ever been in the last million or so years was 300 ppm). Now half of us are suffering from not enough movement and too much food!

And it's almost impossible to obtain anything at all that doesn't rely on fossil fuels as part of its journey to us.

That palm oil does not grow in New Zealand nor arrive by wind-powered ship.

This book is the most complex non-textbook I've ever read. The author's brain overflows with historical and modern energy-related facts - he can estimate how many calories it took to build a pyramid or haul a load of coal up from a mine - and his book is a massive brain dump. I couldn't read it all. But it truly changed my perspective on what we have and how, compared to the other 250,000 years worth of humanity's existence, it is abundant, luxurious and also somewhat sick.

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