- Energy and Everything ElseVaclav Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society
The other day, my twenty-one-month-old son received a gift of a toy locomotive engine. It was connected by shiny, dome-shaped magnets to an accompanying coal tender. The two pieces fit neatly in his hands, and for several minutes he attached and detached them and made the sounds of a train whistle. He then noticed that the engine had a face (as do most trains he seems to encounter as toys or in books). He looked at the coal tender, then at the face, and said, “Eat it?”
I said yes (surely confusing him more), just as he eats food for energy, the train “eats” coal. He still seemed puzzled, so I tried a line from one of his books, “The tender carries the coal that burns in the firebox.” With that, he gave up on me and returned to the sounds of a train whistle.
While there are important differences between digestion and combustion, they do indeed both represent the transformation of energy from one form into another. Chemical to kinetic to heat and so on and on—these transformations constrain and enable everything from plate tectonics to photosynthesis to the material development of human societies (and, of course, locomotives). But is it correct to state, as did the physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald in 1892, that “In the last analysis everything that happens is nothing but changes in energy?”1 Can energy serve as the fundamental common denominator for understanding the universe, from the galactic scale to the cellular and the natural to the social?
Such a comprehensive analysis forms the basis for Vaclav Smil’s Energy in Nature and Society, a complete revision of his General Energetics: Energy [End Page 915] in the Biosphere and Civilization, published by Wiley in 1991.2 While the new book is not a work of history, it is informed by Smil’s knowledge of the past. Smil is not himself a historian, but a scholar reaching across disciplines to understand the role of energy in the physical and human worlds, past, present, and future.
Others before Smil have developed holistic studies of energy in natural and social contexts, and their works have proved provocative but also deeply flawed. In the early 1890s, for example, Ostwald constructed an elaborate and controversial theory of “General Energetics” to embrace not only the unification of natural phenomena, but human consciousness, eugenics, and pacifism.3 In the 1970s, the ecologist Howard Odum became the most prominent advocate of a kind of energy determinism in which “energy is the source and control of all things, all value, and all the actions of human beings and nature.”4 Neither Ostwald nor Odum saw their energetic views widely accepted. There is simply too much history—human, natural, and planetary—inexplicable in energetic terms alone.
Unlike Ostwald and Odum, Smil constructs a more plausible analysis by making energy central without being determinative. Smil is unequivocal that the world, natural or social, historical or contemporary, cannot be reduced merely to energy considerations. He justifies focusing on energy as a unit of analysis because “everything in the observable universe can be seen, analyzed, and explained in energy terms.” Tempering this universality, “even such a fundamental entity as energy . . . cannot be an adequate surrogate for valuing space, time, qualitative attributes of materials, biodiversity, mental labor, ideas, social order, cultural riches, and morality” (pp. 366, 345–46). Smil’s work, then, may be read as a demonstration of both the ubiquity of energy and its limits as a conceptual tool for understanding the world.
The chapters of Energy in Nature and Society progress from cosmic to human scales and, as in previous works, Smil makes good on his promise of interdisciplinarity.5 After introducing his (extensive) terminology and [End Page 916] providing a potted history of the concept of energy in chapter 1 (in its simplicity one of the weakest in the book), Smil turns in chapter 2 to describing the energetics of planet Earth—its solar fluxes, internal heat, and the geophysical processes powered by these energy flows. Chapters 3 through 5 present energy in...