Energy and Civilization
Energy and Civilization
Vaclav Smil
Revised edition of: Energy in world history / Vaclav Smil. 1994.
In 1800 New England farmers (seeding by hand, with ox-drawn wooden plows and brush harrows, sickles, and flails) needed 150-170 hours of labor to produce their wheat harvest. By 1900 in California, horse-drawn gang-plowing, spring-tooth harrowing, and combine harvesting could produce the same amount of wheat in less than nine hours. In 1800 New England farmers needed more than seven minutes to produce a kilogram of wheat, but less than half a minute was needed in California's Central Valley in 1900, roughly a 20-fold labor productivity gain in a century.
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Eric Stoltz@eric · 3mo
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Only a tiny part of the incoming radiant energy, less than 0.05%, is transformned by photosynthesis into new stores of chemical energy in plants, providing the irreplaceable foundation for all higher life
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Eric Stoltz@eric · 3mo
Foundation for higher life is a rounding error...
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A telling comment on the complexities of energy transformations - we understood how to release nuclear energy sooner (theoretically by the late 1930s, practically by 1943, when the first reactor began to operate) than we knew how photosynthesis works (its sequences were unraveled only during the 1950s).
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Eric Stoltz@eric · 3mo
Wow shocking timeline of understandings
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p.325
Energy is the only universal currency: one of its many forms must be transformed to get anything done
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David King@dk · 6mo
One of the reasons that a digital currency like Bitcoin makes so much sense to be secured almost entirely as a function of energy supply and pricing.
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In reply to David King
1y
David King
@dk · 1y
Though travel/relocation to more fertile grounds was impossibly hard back then compared to now.
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In reply to Florent Crivello
1y
David King
@dk · 1y
I had assumed those thin margins would've been because of necessity and it was all that was available to eek out a living. Was there an alternativ... more
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In reply to Dan Romero
1y
David King
@dk · 1y
Amazing. Was the whole book with a read?
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In reply to Florent Crivello
1y
David King
@dk · 1y
Interesting framing of history. Does Smil address Bitcoin?
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In reply to David King
1y
I wonder how much of these traits are present in wild horses vs domesticated ones
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1y
Ryan Sapp
@ryanparkcity · 1y
No wonder I’m always tired 😜
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In reply to David King
1y
Dan Romero
@dwr · 1y
Was also surprised reading ‘Why the West Rules—For Now’ that China was really close to industrializing with coal in 1000-1200CE!
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In reply to David King
1y
Ryan Sapp
@ryanparkcity · 1y
Maybe that’s why we eat beef instead of horse? 😂
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In reply to David King
1y
Ryan Sapp
@ryanparkcity · 1y
Except land is much easier to come by than polar ice caps....
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1y
Colin Plamondon
@colinplamondon · 1y
Interesting- energy based explanation for higher populations in Asia over the ages. It was possible, earlier, to invest incrementally more per work... more
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In reply to Florent Crivello
1y
I don’t think he does in this book. And it’s true, information processing is missing from this list
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In reply to Florent Crivello
1y
Yeah there were ways to store food, though they weren’t fail safe. The way I’m interpreting this is that planning for the future is not a natural h... more
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1y
David King
@dk · 1y
Yup. Always hard to predict the "other tasks" until we've seen them, but good to be open to them emerging instead of holding on to the past for co... more
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1y
Ryan Sapp
@ryanparkcity · 1y
Every advancement is made to save us time, ie simplify life or a process. The faster we cover the basics the faster we can move on to other tasks.
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Several first principles underlie all energy conversions. 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 basketful of grain or a barrelful of crude oil is a low-entropy store of energy, capable of much useful work once metabolized or burned, and it ends up as the random motion of slightly heated air molecules, an irreversible high-entropy state that represents an irretrievable loss of utility. This unidirectional entropic dissipation leads to a loss of complexity and to greater disorder and homogeneity in any closed system. But all living organisms, whether the smallest bacteria or a global civilization, temporarily defy this trend by importing and metabolizing energy. This means that every living organism must be an open system, maintaining a continuous inflow and outflow of energy and matter. As long as they are alive, these systems cannot be in a state of chemical and thermodynamic equilibrium. ... Their negentropy—their growth, renewal, and evolution-results in greater heterogeneity and increasing structural and systemic complexity. As with so many other scientific advances, a coherent understanding of these realities came only during the nineteenth century, when the rapidly evolving disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology found a common concern in studying transformations of energy.
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Brett Sinclair@brettmsinclair · 1y
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The average peasant had to spend no less than 200 days a year to grow enough food for his own family, so he could not work more than about 100 days on large hydraulic projects
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David King@dk · 1y
Without capital markets it was hard to get out of the daily grind to invest your efforts for longer term projects and efficiencies.
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