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Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems Paperback – 1 Feb 2008


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`I firmly believe that the key to managing future global energy is to break with the current expectation of unrestrained energy use in affluent societies.' It is with this statement that Vaclav Smil begins the conclusion to this masterful book. Smil is probably the most knowledgeable person in the world about all aspects of energy. This book, his 22nd, is a comprehensive demonstration of that assertion...The span of material covered here is immense. From fossil fuels to agriculture to basal metabolism rates. And the quantity of detail is similarly huge. There are times when the volume of numerical facts is just excessive - but mostly they are just fascinating...this is a book to learn from and enjoy on many levels. And where else could you find a comparison of the energy flow of solar radiation intercepted by the earth with that of a large hen egg and a fly on a kitchen table?'
-- Chemistry World, 1.9.08, Bernard Bulkin

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, the environment, food, and the history of technical advances, including Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Essential Encyclopedia 26 May 2009
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I bought the book "blind", since MIT Press have not enabled "Look Inside". If you are in two minds about the book, here is the Table of Contents to help you make up your mind:

1. The Universal Link: Energetics, Energy, and Power
1.1 Evolution of Energetics: From Aristotle to Einstein
1.2 Approaches to Understanding: Concepts, Variables, Units

2. Planetary Energetics: Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, Lithosphere
2.1 Sun: The Star and Its Radiation
2.2 Energy Balance of the Earth: Radiation Fluxes
2.3 Hydrophere and Atmosphere: thermal and Mass Fluxes
2.4 Water and Air in Motion: Kinetic Fluxes
2.5 Geoenergetics: Heat, Plate Tectonics, Volcanoes, Earthquakes

3. Photosynthesis: Bioenergetics of Primary Production
3.1 Photosynthetic Pathways
3.2 Global Primary Productivity
3.3 Productivities of Ecosystems and Plants
3.4 Phytomass Stores
3.5 Autotrophic Scaling

4. Heterotrophic Conversions: Consumer Bioenergetics
4.1 Metabolic Capacities
4.2 Ectotherms and Endotherms
4.3 Locomotion
4.4 Biomasses and Productivities
4.5 Heterotrophs in Ecosystems

5. Human Energetics: People as Simple Heterotrophs
5.1 Energy Sources and Basal Metabolism
5.2 Requirements and Uncertainties
5.3 Thermoregulation
5.4 Limits of Human Performance
5.5 Gathering, Hunting, and Fishing

6. Traditional Food Production: Humans as Solar Farmers
6.1 Extensive Practices
6.2 Permanent Cropping
6.3 Muscles, Implements, Machines
6.4 Cropping Intensification
6.5 Traditional Agricultures

7. Preindustrial Complexification: Prime Movers and Fuels in Traditional Societies
7.1 Animal Power: Human and Animal Muscles
7.2 Water and Wind: Wheels and Mills
7.3 Phytomass Fuels and Metallurgy: Wood, Charcoal, Crop Residues
7.4 Construction: Methods and Structures
7.5 Transportation: Roads and Ships

8. Fossil Fuels: Heat, Light, and Prime Movers
8.1 Coals: The Earliest Modern Fuels
8.2 Hydrocarbons: Crude Oils and Natural Gases
8.3 From Extraction to Combustion: Modern Fossil Fuel Industries
8.4 Mechanical Prime Movers: Engines and Turbines
8.5 Fossil-Fueled Electricity: Generation and Transmission

9. Fossil-Fueled Civilization: Patterns and Trends
9.1 Fuels and Fossil-Fueled Electricity: Energy Production and Trade
9.2 Nonfossil Contributions: Biomass and Primary Electricity
9.3 Global Consumption Patterns: Growth and Inequality
9.4 Qualitative Changes: Transitions and Efficiencies
9.5 Energy Conservation: Gains and Rebounds

10. Energy Costs: Valuations and Changes
10.1 Energy Cost of Energy: Net Gains
10.2 Basic Materials: from Concrete to Fertilizers
10.3 Structures and Products: From Buildings to Computers
10.4 Crops and Animal Foods: Subsidized Diets
10.5 Modern Food System: Gains, Costs, Efficiencies

11. Environmental Consequences: Metabolism of Fossil-Fueled Civilization
11.1 Power Densities: Energy and Land
11.2 Energy Conversions and Heat Rejection
11.3 Energy and Water
11.4 Energy and the Atmosphere
11.5 Interference in Grand Biospheric Cycles

12 Energetic Correlates: Complexities of High-Energy Civilization
12.1 Energy and the Economy
12.2 Energy and Value
12.3 Energy and the Quality of Life
12.4 Energy and War
12.5 Energy and the Future

13. Grand Patterns: Energetic and Other Essentials
13.1 Energy in the Biosphere
13.2 Energy and Civilization
13.3 The Challenges Ahead

Appendix: Tables of...
SI Units, multiple prefixes (kilo, giga, etc), common energy conversions, energy content of fuels, energy content of foodstuffs, energy flows:31 orders of magnitude, power of continuous phenomena,, power of ephemeral phenomena, efficiencies of common energy conversions, typical energy cost of common materials, global harvests, energy subsidies, and population densities, 1900-2000, table of natural, personal, and energy related risks, population and primary energy 1500-2005, Global Reserves, Resources, and Fluxes of Energies.

Selected Abbreviations, Acronyms, and Symbols

Name Index

Subject Index

Now, my review. How much energy does the Earth receive from the Sun every day? Why are humans able to live in environments ranging from very cold to very hot - a wider range than any other mammal? Could we run our civilization on biofuels, wind power, solar, or geothermal energy? Does extracting uranium from seawater to generate electricity cost more energy than it supplies? How much improvement can we expect in crop yields from genetic engineering? How efficient are compact fluorescent lamps versus incandescent bulbs or the new white LEDs? What was special about James Watt's steam engine?

Professor Smil has made a thorough and wide-ranging survey of the knowledge we have accumulated about energy flows on the grand scale. Inside the book you can find the answers to some of these questions. But, more importantly, in this book you can find enough about the processes involved to be able to assess other people's answers. The book gives you the building blocks to create your own knowledge.

On the negative side, tne book is marred by hundreds of small typos, and grammatical and formatting errors, for example "photovaltaic", "the France", "01.6". Sometimes the mistakes change the sense of what is being said: 1.6MJ per molecule is a whole different kind of energy to 1.6 MJ per mole - 6.02x10<sup>23</sup> molecules. Some diagrams have incorrect units - for example, in fig 3.11 a and b, the horizontal scales are log of body mass, and the vertical scales are log of growth rate and body length respectively. Once or twice, the text and diagrams appear to conflict. These are relatively minor irritations, though.

The book could be improved by including sub-headings or marginal notes when there is a change of topic within a section. For example, section 4.3, Locomotion, compares swimming, flying, and running, and then discusses some details of each in turn. So it has four sub-sections. However, there is no marker in the text to indicate the change of sub-topic. The whole section is just an undifferentiated mass of text, equations, and diagrams.

Never mind. I am satisfied with the book as it is, and I am sure I will be referring to it many times in the coming years.
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Cogent analysis by a keen mind 29 Dec. 2008
By Brian H. Fiedler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A scholarly work relatively free of advocacy, except for advocating sticking to the facts. You will find more pages meticulously diagnosing the history of the energetics of agriculture, transportation and steel making than you will pages forecasting what future energy trends will be, or should be. The author reviews the history of some of these forecast attempts. Here is a sample from page 358: "Reasons for the large number of wrong forecasts can be found in the herdlike behavior of forecasters smitten by prevailing moods". "The U.S. Atomic Energy commission's 1974 forecast had 260 GW installed in the United States by 1985, and 1.2 TW in 2000. The actual 2000 number was 81.5 GW, and there were no clear prospects for fusion." "The same adjectives used to extol nuclear generation - inexhaustible, cheap, nonpolluting - reappeared in glowing descriptions of renewable energetics published during the 1970s as the advocates of small-scale, decentralized energy production promised a new, morally superior millennium devoid of nuclear and fossil fuel sins." And on page 362: "...by the year 2000...new renewables contributed just 3.2 EJ, only one-tenth of Lovins's forecast."

The author wants to avoid falling into Lovins's and the AEC's trap. Nevertheless, scientifically sound constraints on future activity are offered without hesitation, for example: the potential for hydroelectric development, the limits of photosynthesis and geothermal fluxes. But on page 384, the author perhaps becomes polemical: "The ultimate makeup of a new global energy system that may dominate in the second half of the twenty-first century will not resemble currently fashionable scenarios." Notice the choice of words: "will not" rather than "may not". Later on page 382: "I strongly believe that the key to managing future global energy needs is to break with the current expectation of unrestrained energy use in affluent societies." Whose expectation? I live in an affluent society and my energy use is not unrestrained and I don't expect it to be. I presume the sentence applies to other guys, who need to be broken.

Well, let's not nitpick over that sentence. There is no scientific principle more productive than the principle of conservation of energy (my advocacy). There is no analysis of "how stuff works" with greater predictive power than that provided by a monitoring of the energy conversions. This book is a masterpiece by a honest scientist with enormous skill in organizing knowledge of energy.

See MIT Press for a detailed preview inside the book.
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