Also published at Resilience.org.
What made the twentieth century such a distinctive period in human history? Are we moving into the future at an ever-increasing speed? What measures provide the most meaningful comparisons of different energy technologies? Is it “conservative” to base forecasts on business-as-usual scenarios?
These questions provide handy lenses for looking at the work of prolific energy science writer Vaclav Smil.
Smil, a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba, is not likely to publish any best-sellers, but his books are widely read by people looking for data-backed discussion of energy sources and their role in our civilization. While Smil’s seemingly effortless fluency in wide-ranging topics of energy science can be intimidating to non-scientists, many of his books require no more than a good high-school-level knowledge of physics, chemistry and mathematics.
This post is the first in a series on issues raised by Smil. How many posts? Let’s just say, to use a formulation familiar to anyone who reads Smil, that the number of posts in this series will be “in the range of an order of magnitude less” than the number of Smil’s books. (He’s at 37 books and counting.)
The myth of accelerating change
In early 2004, I wrote a newspaper column with the title “Got Any Change?” Some excerpts:
Think back 50 years. If you grew up in North America, people were already travelling in cars, which moved along at about 60 miles per hour. You lived in a house with heat and running water, and you could just flick a switch to turn on the lights. You turned on the TV or radio to get instant news. You could pick up the phone and actually talk to relatives on the other side of the country.
For ease of daily living and communication, things haven’t changed much in the last 50 years for most North Americans.
My grandparents, by contrast, who grew up “when motorcars were still exotic playthings”, really lived through rapid and fundamental changes:
The magic of telephone reached into rural areas, and soon my grandparents adjusted to the even more astonishing development of moving pictures, transmitted to television sets in the living room. The airplane was invented about the time my grandparents were born, but they lived long enough to fly on passenger jets, and they watched the live newscasts as astronauts landed on the moon. (“Got Any Change?”, in the Brighton Independent, January 7, 2004)
As it turns out Smil was working on a similar premise, and developing it with his customary authority and historical rigor. The result was his 2005 book Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact. This was the first Smil book I picked up, and naturally I read it while basking in the warm glow of confirmation bias.
In the course of 300 pages, Smil argues that many world-changing technologies swept the world in the twentieth century, but nearly all of them are directly traceable to scientific advances – both theoretical and applied – during the period 1867 to 1914. There is no other period in world history so far, he says, in which so many scientific discoveries made their way so rapidly into the fabric of everyday life.
Most of [these technical advances] are still with us not just as inconsequential survivors or marginal accoutrements from a bygone age but as the very foundations of modern civilization. Such a profound and abrupt discontinuity with such lasting consequences has no equivalent in history.
For anyone alive in North America today, it’s easy to take these advances for granted, because we have never known a world without them. That’s what makes Smil’s book so valuable. In detail and with clarity, he outlines the development of electrical generators, transformers, transmission systems, and motors; internal combustion engines; new industrial processes that turned steel, aluminum, concrete, and plastics from scarce or unknown products into mass-produced commodities; and the ability to harness the electromagnetic spectrum in ways that made telephone, radio and television commercially feasible within the first few decades of the twentieth century.
There is a good deal in Creating the Twentieth Century on increasingly efficient methods of energy conversion. For example, Smil writes that “Typical efficiency of new large stationary steam engines rose from 6–10% during the 1860s to 12–15% after 1900, a 50% efficiency gain, and when small machines were replaced by electric motors, the overall efficiency gain was typically more than fourfold.”
But I found it odd that Creating the Twentieth Century gives little ink to the sources of energy. Smil does note that
for the first time in human history the age was marked by the emergence of high-energy societies whose functioning, be it on mundane or sophisticated levels, became increasingly dependent on incessant supplies of fossil fuels and on rising need for electricity.
Yet there is no substantial examination in this book of the fossil fuel extraction and processing industries, which rapidly became (and remained) among the dominant industries of the twentieth century.
Clearly the new understandings of thermodynamics and electromagnetism, along with new processes for steel and concrete production, were key to the twentieth century as we knew it. But suppose those developments had occurred, but at the same time only a few sizable reservoirs of oil had been discovered, so that petroleum had remained useful but expensive. Would the twentieth century still have happened?
Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Smil for avoiding a counterfactual question about epochal changes a century and more ago. After all, he has devoted a great deal of attention to a more pressing quandary: how might we create a future, with the scientific knowledge that’s accumulated in the past century and a half, while also faced with the need to move beyond fossil fuel dependence? Can we make such a transition, and how long might it take? We’ll move to those issues in the coming installments.
Top photo: Trucks hauling crude oil and frac water near Watford City, North Dakota, June 2014.