Power-hungry humans

Vaclav Smil and Chris Turner on the millennia-old story of energy

Just before Christmas, I found myself at a snowbound cabin in the woods about three hours north of Toronto. The cabin was off the electrical grid. It featured a wood stove for heat, solar panels for light, and a backup generator for emergencies. Every morning, my husband knelt before the wood stove, worshipfully coaxing its embers back to life and tending to the fire as the day wore on with split logs from the stack kept outside by the door. Every morning, I dashed out in my tall rubber boots and parka to sweep the night’s blanket of snow off the solar panels, waking them so they could store the sun’s rays for the day to come.

It wasn’t just that we were patrolling our energy use. (Did that light really need to be on? Couldn’t I wear one more sweater rather than put another log on the fire?) And it wasn’t just that we were acutely conscious of where the energy came from—the sun, the woods around us. It was also the knowledge that energy and our own actions were in an intimate embrace: another log meant more warmth; another sweeping of the snow meant more light. Energy came not from an amorphous, impenetrable delivery system that our species had set up over generations but from things we could touch and see and feel for ourselves.

In Energy and Civilization: A History, Vaclav Smil tracks this coupling of people and energy across the complex course of human civilization, measuring not just the consequences of what we have done but also the meaning. Smil is an unrepentant genius. A distinguished professor emeritus in the department of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, he has spent his life thinking about how energy interacts with other systems: environment, economy, politics, and society among them. Along the way, there have been about 40 books and 500 academic papers. The glorious Energy and Civilization could be called the highlight of a career filled with them.

This is a book to excite not just admiration, but also passion. It is a literate and precise analysis of the evolution of human societies viewed through the lens of energy. In the first sentence of his book he dubs energy “the only universal currency.” He considers it an “essential explanatory variable,” going back in time to the interplay of energies that made our planet habitable in the first place. Why is gravity a prerequisite for life on Earth? Because its energy holds a sliver of a gassy atmosphere in place around the planet. How do plants form the foundation for modern life on Earth? By converting less than 0.05 percent of the sun’s light into chemical energy. Animals take it from there and use plants to make tissues and muscles and movement and eventually figure out how to keep body temperatures constant. And then proto-humans come along and work out how to use energy to do more than simply exist and move and feed themselves. They harness energy to make tools and, eventually, machines and, much later, complex economic systems and urban societies.

Did you know that early hunter-gatherers were able to hunt during the day in hot climates because they had developed the knack of sweating more profusely than their prey as they ran? That meant they cooled off better than the big plant-eaters they sought—the kangaroos of Australia, the pronghorns of the North American plains, the zebras of African savannahs—and therefore had greater endurance. (We retain the sweating advantage even today, Smil tells us.) Those hunters replaced the energy they lost through all that running and sweating by killing as many big fatty animals as they could. So nicely padded mammoths were prized over the leaner reindeer, and sumptuous bison over skinny deer. Eventually, they made spears and then spear-throwers so they didn’t have to run quite as fast. Later still, they began planting crops and then harnessing animals to pull ploughs, turn mills, haul carts. Using animals wisely was, in Smil’s calculus, a clear energetic bargain: these beasts took in less energy than they produced and often did so more efficiently than humans put to the same task.

Late-Victorian London, for example, featured about 300,000 horses for different methods of transportation. If you are Smil, you see this as an algorithm of energy, taking into account not just the growing and delivery of grain and hay to the horses, but the energy costs of stabling, grooming, shoeing, and harnessing them, plus removing their wastes. Keeping horses was one of the most energetically expensive elements of urban living in the late 1800s.

Of course humans harnessed not just animals, but also the energy of the wind for windmills and sails and of the water for grinding grain and powering waterwheels. They dug peat and made charcoal. All of it added to the energy available for expanding human endeavour.

Smil’s book is much more than a chronological history. Fossil fuels, Smil reminds us, are simply solar energy in another form, except it is ancient solar energy that made plants and animals grow perhaps millions of years ago. Now they have been transformed by death, time, pressure, and heat into coal, crude oil, and natural gas.

And what a transformation they wrought on society! Not just through new machines, such as the internal combustion engine, or new techniques to transform fossils into chemical wonders like polymers and fertilizers, but also by ushering in the brave new world of commercial electricity. The socioeconomic changes were almost instantaneous, creating a new world within a few generations, Smil explains. Where people lived, what they ate, how their food was grown, how they got around, what they did to earn money, how they spent their leisure time—how they communicated, how they treated illness, all these were altered beyond recognition, and overwhelmingly for the better.

There were always costs to getting the fossils out of their burial sites in the Earth’s crust and into use. Smil cites a harrowing example from a report published in 1812 about the women and girls of Scotland’s coal trade who carried coal from the pits in baskets on their backs. The mother, carrying a lighted candle between her teeth, ascended with a daily total of 1,850 kilograms, followed by daughters as young as seven years old carrying similar weights, sometimes weeping from the exertion. This effort, Smil notes, came close to the energetic daily maximum any human body could provide, mathematically speaking.

No society was transformed as radically by fossil fuels as the United States. In 1850, the U.S. was a wood-fueled backwater. By 1950, it had tripled its per capita consumption of energy, was the largest producer and consumer of fossil fuels, and had become an economic and military superpower. All of it happened hand in hand with its citizens’ extraordinarily high use of energy.

In tracing the arc of human history this way, Smil also traces the emotional pull of unfettered fossil fuel use. It does not just build civilizations. It builds power and influence. As Smil puts it: “To generalize, across millennia, that higher socioeconomic complexity requires higher and more efficiently used inputs of energy is to describe indisputable reality.”

If this is your guiding narrative, why in the world would you pull back from fossil fuels? It doesn’t matter that today’s use of fossil fuels is not necessarily rational or that it doesn’t necessarily add to a country’s influence. Take Smil’s calculation of the energetic idiocy of driving a car in the city. If you take into account the time and energy needed to earn money to buy or lease it, fuel it, maintain it, and insure it, the average speed of a city-driven car in the U.S. amounted to five kilometres per hour in 2000, about the same as walking and pretty much the same as the horse-drawn vehicles of the Victorian era. And that is without factoring in the costs of pollution or collisions, or the expanding urban gridlock of the past couple of decades.

And yet humanity cannot keep using fossil fuels, myth-building narrative or not. Smil’s conclusion is stark: “Our current energy system is self-limiting.” This is not because fossils will run out, although they will. Instead, Smil’s unforgiving energy math tracks the impact of the extra heat trapped in our atmosphere and oceans by the carbon-based gases emitted during the burning of fossil fuels.

We are familiar with the litany of disasters unfolding even now—climate havoc, ocean acidification, sea level rise—and understand that the solution is to move to new forms of energy, such as solar and wind and geothermal, that don’t emit carbon-based gases. But Smil provides the long historical view, which is invaluable here. He points out that humanity has made the leaps of technology, political will, economics, and faith to make such profound energy transitions before. He has painstakingly reconstructed three. Coal replaced wood, oil replaced coal, and natural gas took the place of oil.

Coal, for example, made up five percent of the global energy market in 1840. Sixty years later, in 1900, it was 50 percent. Then, in 1915, oil began the rise, moving at almost precisely the same pace at which coal had overtaken wood. Oil, in its turn, was partly supplanted by natural gas, whose share rose from five percent in 1930 to twenty-five percent in 1985. Smil’s revelation is that each transition has taken two or three generations, or 50 to 75 years. Each has also required massive investments in new infrastructure and the painful abandonment of old energy systems that had been heavily costly to set up.

The fourth energy transition—to renewables—has barely begun. In 2015, solar and wind made up less than two percent of the world’s electrical output. Smil lays his bet on another lengthy transition taking several generations. He points out that even if we could resolve the issue of how to store renewable electricity on a huge scale, we’d still need to figure out how to replace transportation fuels, energy and materials to make plastics, pig iron, and cement, plus the ammonia used in fertilizers, without burning old carbon. It is, as he says, an “epochal” challenge with an uncertain end.

If Smil takes readers on the grand global tour of energy, Chris Turner immerses us in the tiny, claustrophobic slice of it that so many of us in Canada find ourselves struggling to understand, in The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. This is a deep dive into the history, politics, and people of the bitumen-laden sand and clay near Fort McMurray, Alberta, known to those who dislike it as the tar sands, or the dirtiest oil on Earth. It’s globally controversial. Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore once described the bid to get at the energy contained within the oil sands as the equivalent of a junkie finding veins in the toes when those in the arms and legs collapse.

Turner is a Calgary-based journalist and author who has spent much of his career writing excellent books on how humans are affecting our planet through the use of fossil fuels. His 2007 book The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need was short-listed for a Governor General’s literary award in non-fiction. The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, published in 2011, was a road map for how to make the transition to renewables and clean technologies. He ran as a Green party candidate in a 2012 federal by-election. Turner knows what’s at stake here.

It’s all the more surprising, then, that this book is so deeply unsatisfying. At a guess, Turner set out to debunk the sloppy untruths that have taken hold about Fort McMurray (crack city) and the bitumen mines (most destructive projects on Earth) and to explore the business impulse that led to the establishment of the project.

So, to start with, he goes to Fort McMurray with his fine journalistic eye and paints a picture of some of the people who depend on the Patch, as it is known. Fort McMurray is not the iniquitous place of gangs and prostitutes and street drugs, he says, but a model of successful, wealthy suburban multiculturalism that other Canadian cities could aspire to. Here are 2,000 assembling in the gymnasium of Fort McMurray’s McTavish Junior Public High School for Friday midday prayers during Ramadan:

They came wearing hijabs, taqiyahs, embroidered shalwar kameez, and immaculate white dishdashas. One woman wore a baseball cap over her hijab, another had hers tucked into the hood of a Montreal Canadiens sweatshirt. There were groups of women in heavy black cloth and groups of men in crisp, flowing white. Small talk came in a dozen languages and a dozen more accents. There was no differentiation between Sunni and Shia, Pakistani or Indian, Nigerian or Sudanese, Jordanian or Syrian or Iranian.

It’s a beautiful way to let us get to know some of the people who work in that part of the industry. But it feels sycophantic, and akin to doing a loving portrait of the dreams and hopes of one of those Victorian Londoners who drove a horse-drawn carriage, just as the internal-combustion engine was taking hold. It’s clear to all of us that many people’s livelihoods and stock portfolios are bound up in bitumen. The painful task is moving all that honest human energy into work that won’t do so much damage to the planet.

One of the most illuminating parts of the book is his description of the obsessions of Harbir Chhina, a petroleum engineer who is an executive vice-president of Cenovus, a bitumen miner. Chhina has spent a career trying to coax bitumen out of Alberta’s sands and is still trying to figure out how to do it more cheaply for the industry and the environment. You can practically see him sitting in his big office in Calgary’s Bow building, crunching his numbers.

The great hindrance to improving netback [a profitability measure that calculates the revenue, after costs, of bringing one unit of oil to market], as far as Chhina sees it, is a factor that haunts the Patch like a spectral cloud, impossible to dissipate and almost as hard to grasp. It’s the missing link, the last piece of critical infrastructure not fully accounted for across a decade-long boom—the totemic condition long known as “market access” and these days sometimes referred to more precisely as “access to tidewater.” Alberta’s oil is landlocked.

But for all Turner’s expertise, this ultimately feels like a defence of the mines, of the businesses, of the pollution itself. It’s not really as bad as people think, the reader is led to conclude. In fact, Turner comes off as offended at—even mocking of—the fact that Alberta’s bitumen and the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry its oil south have become the global symbols of centuries of pollution from fossil fuels. His lament is not directed at the folly of the enterprise, but at the fact that the public discourse has become so pitched. He wants a fairer game.

Turner’s airless portrait of Calgary and Fort McMurray emphasizes Smil’s point that unfettered fossil energy can create extreme wealth and influence that fight like hell to keep going. But no matter how you crunch it, the math says that it takes far more energy to mine bitumen than to get other oil out of the ground. It’s not, as Smil might say, a clear energetic bargain. And particularly not when the load of carbon in the atmosphere and ocean is growing faster than it’s grown for millions of years.

Turner ends with an accusation: We all benefit from bitumen mining and therefore we are all complicit in it. No revelation there. The way our energy system is set up right now, it’s nearly impossible to opt out of it. Even the backup generator in my borrowed off-the-grid winter cabin ran on fossil fuels. We are at the odd point in human history when once-blameless actions like getting oneself to work or making dinner for one’s family amount to committing the sin of carbon emission. So there’s guilt. Blame. Anger. Despair. Grief. A narrative of powerlessness that paralyzes. Even Turner, who wears his own hair shirt in the final chapter, seems mired in it. But it doesn’t get us where we need to go. And the antidote, I would argue, is cultural, or perhaps philosophical, rather than technological or scientific.

Both Smil and Turner come to a similar conclusion. Turner calls for a truce that would ease what he predicts will be a “long fade” in the Patch’s activity. Smil, for all his steely statistics, says that understanding the problem is not enough. It must be accompanied by “a commitment to change.”

But how? To me the starting place is to invoke the ancient, deeply unfashionable psychological process of forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves, each other, our species. This act of letting go, when it works, resolves grief. And that unleashes energy—the emotional kind that could allow us to unstick ourselves from this sorry narrative of guilt, giving us the permission we so desperately need to move further toward the real work, which is the next big energy transition.