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Energy in World History.

By Vaclav Smil. (Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford: Westview Press, 1994 Pp. xviii, 300. $48.95.)

This book covers much the same ground as Energy and Society: The Relation between Energy, Social Change, and Economic Development, by Fred Cottrell (1955), although it is more up-to-date and in some respects more detailed. Yet, Cottrell is not listed in Smil's bibliography. The author is a geographer and has written several other books including Energy, Food, Environment: Realities, Myths, Options; General Energetics; and Global Ecology, Environmental Change, and Social Flexibility. He is also an expert on modern China.

The book is well-organized. An introductory chapter entitled "Energy and Society," devoted to basic concepts, and a brief chapter on "Energy in Prehistory" are followed by a long chapter on "Traditional Agriculture" which covers Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, China, and pre-Columbian America as well as Europe and North America. This is followed by a still longer 85-page chapter on "Preindustrial Prime Movers and Fuels" in which Smil emphasizes the importance of animate power (including especially human muscles), although he also discusses wind and water power; explosives; and "biomass energies" including wood, charcoal, crop residues, dried dung, and, plant and animal oils and waxes. The heart of the book is chapter 5, "Fossil-Fueled Civilization;" in it Smil details the advent of steam power and its applications, the transition to petroleum fuel and internal combustion engines, and stresses the importance of electricity. He also downplays--correctly--the so-called industrial revolution. He writes, "The process of industrialization was a matter of gradual, and often uneven, advances" (192). The final chapter, which reiterates the book's title, summarizes the whole and muses on the significance of energy in world history; but Smil is no determinist, asserting that "Energy flows do not determine biospheric organization, and they cannot explain the existence of organisms and their variability" (251).

The book is well-illustrated--with many of the illustrations on the pre-industrial period drawn from the Encyclopedie of Diderot and D'Alembert--and amply provided with charts, graphs, and tables. It is also admirably, or perhaps excessively, detailed; from it one learns that dung "has made important contributions to many societies, including cattle and camel dung in the Sahel, llama dung on the Altiplano of Peru, and yak dung in Tibet (117)". One may doubt, however, that the dungs of wild buffalo and cattle were "essential to America's westward expansion" (117). In general, many of the details are only marginally related to energy or world history, and some are incorrect.

Overall, however, this is a useful and timely book. Historians may not read it for pure pleasure, but many will find it a handy reference work.

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Author:Cameron, Rondo
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
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