As a card-carrying energy nerd, I have a healthy appetite for dry-as-cardbard books on anything energy related (The Box, anyone?). However, I’ll admit I didn’t make it very far through through Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization when I first tried to read it a few years ago. If you want a quick summary, check out this post from Bill Gates (a vocal Smil fanboy) or this post.
My 1 sentence summary of these summaries: The amount of energy humans can control has been a major driving force for advancing civilization, and much of human history has been spent eking out small advances in controlling energy that cumulatively led to the energy-enriched lives many of us live today.
Recently, I came across this thought-provoking review of the book while rocking my newborn daughter to sleep at 2am. I definitely didn’t agree with everything the author said. To start, I think the tone of the second half of the article got pretty weird and conspiratorial. For more substantive criticism, I don’t think the author’s hatred of efficiency is warranted. I’m typing this on my iPhone instead of a ENIAC computer that would require 400,000x more power. All else being equal, efficiency is unquestionably good: after all, more efficiency means more energy! Furthermore, fossil fuels have undeniable externalities — air pollution, at a minimum — which must be taken into account in the quest for more energy.
That said, I agree with the basic premise of the article: more energy is good! More energy per capita means cheaper transportation, food, water, buildings, manufactured products, computing, recycling, and many of the goods and services that almost anyone reading this post takes for granted today. We can also, for that matter, sequester carbon and decarbonize heavy industry. More energy per capita also means more people in developing countries can climb out of poverty. While the mean quality of life in industrialized societies no longer appears to be dependent on energy consumption (see Figure 1 here), I think it’s likely that the quality of life for, say, the bottom 50% of Americans by income would improve dramatically with significantly less expensive essentials (similar to how the average European today lives significantly better than European monarchs living 300 years ago).
Amidst discussions of the energy transition, we often see fossil fuels pitted against renewables, as well as nuclear compared to natural gas or hydroelectricity vs. “true” renewables. While I believe we should urgently transition away from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels, I think this rhetoric often sets up false dichotomies between various energy sources. Ideally we’ll have a balanced diet of various clean, carbon-neutral, and at worst low-carbon energy sources — but it’s the total utility of energy usage, not the split between various energy sources, that’s the real prize. Here, “energy utility” is some product of total energy usage and how much utility we can extract per joule. Critically, however, this additional energy wealth should benefit all and not mirror society’s distribution of financial wealth.
I think one natural consequence of this position is a pro-nuclear stance.
This “energy abundance” position seems to be associated with the political center-right, but I believe energy abundance benefits all and should be a bipartisan issue (provided that energy access and associated externalities are reasonably equitable). Here are two more articles (1 and 2) discussing this topic.
A useful counterpoint is offered by Prof. Tom Murphy here. In short, we don’t have infinite energy available at our disposal (in the literal sense of the word infinite), so our energy usage can’t grow forever. I agree in principle (of course we don’t have infinite energy), but I think we’re far from any practical limits on how much energy we can use today — especially in a world with soon-to-be decreasing population.