Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

Last week saw much of Britain in the grip of uncharacteristic snowstorms and freezing temperatures. The picture shows the woods near my holding in their snowy raiment. I thought it would be crowded when I went walking there, because it’s usually a popular spot. But with the roads impassable, it was almost deserted. Ah yes, traffic chaos – the cue for the usual British complaints about how bad we are at coping with a bit of snow (I always think a bad feature of British culture is our readiness to complain about how bad we are at things). No doubt it’s possible to blame the government (another common British pastime, though one I suspect not limited to this country alone) but the truth is we hardly ever have snow like this, and it would be pointless to stand constantly prepared for it. When I’ve been in places where heavy snows are a regular occurrence, what’s struck me most is the enormous fossil energy input invested in the snowploughs, gritting trucks, snow blowers, 4WDs, heating systems and so forth. All that ancient sunlight invested in keeping modern people moving, no matter what. In the 19th century Russia of Turgenev’s Sketches From A Hunter’s Album that I’m currently reading, what’s striking is that when travellers get hit by inclement weather they basically stay put, sometimes for weeks on end. Though to be fair, travelling in 19th century Russia was mostly a pursuit of the wealthy few. There’s nothing like serfdom for keeping you close to home.

Anyway, this is all vaguely relevant to my present theme, which is some thoughts on Vaclav Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History (MIT Press, 2017). It’s hard to keep up with Smil’s output, since he seems to produce about three books every year, but I find him an interesting writer. Energy is so critical to the present and future of global civilization, and yet it gets curiously little attention in everyday debate. Smil is an academic expert on the topic, and he’s never been especially sympathetic to the green-hued, peak oil worrying, nuclear-bothering tribe that’s my spiritual home. For me, then, he’s worth a read so he can round out my rough edges.

There’s an awful lot of information crammed into the 400 plus pages of this latest offering. Veritably, it’s a nerd’s delight. Who knew, for example, that a draft mule has a working speed of 0.9-1.0 ms-1 with a power output of 500-600W, whereas a donkey manages only 0.6-0.7 ms-1 at 100-200W? I was going to save that for the next dinner party I was invited to, but there you go – now I’ve given it away for free. I get very few dinner party invites these days, anyway. Can’t think why.

So, as usual in a blog post of this sort I’m not going to try to precis the whole book, but just offer a few idiosyncratic sleeve notes of my own devising on parts of it that especially piqued my interest. They fall under seven headings:

 1. Peak oil

Smil has long been a critic of the peak oil hypothesis, and he criticises it again here. Of course it’s true that the availability of fossil hydrocarbons isn’t determined solely by how much of them are left in the ground – improvements in extraction technologies, changing demand and the throughput of the global economy are also relevant. But when Smil himself writes “Modern civilization has been created by the massive, and increasing, combustion of fossil fuels, but this practice is clearly limited by their crustal abundance” (p.18) you get the sense that his anti-peak oil convictions are wavering a little. Clearly, humanity is depleting the ‘crustal abundance’ of hydrocarbons. It would be nice to hear Smil’s estimate as to when that depletion might start to become noticeable, or – since, as he rightly says, a better way of tracking future energy scenarios is considering the marginal cost of production – what the future price curve is likely to look like. You get the sense from various asides in the book that his answers might be something like ‘pretty soon’ and ‘not nice’. Elsewhere (p.440), Smil opines that the exhaustion of fossil fuels is unlikely because climate change will get us first. So that’s a comfort.

2. Fossil fuel

That ‘modern civilization’ quotation above expresses a reality that, unlike many, Smil does not shy away from. The world today is massively dependent on fossil fuels and, for all our modern ingenuity, few really convincing future alternatives have yet emerged. Here’s another ‘modern civilization’ excerpt from him: “Modern civilization depends on extracting prodigious energy stores, depleting finite fossil fuel deposits that cannot be replenished even on time scales orders of magnitude longer than the existence of our species. Reliance on nuclear fission and the harnessing of renewable energies…have been increasing, but by 2015 fossil fuels still accounted for 86% of the world’s primary energy, just 4% less than a generation ago, in 1990” (p.295). It seems to me likely that there will be a continuing shift away from fossil fuels towards renewably-generated electricity, but the idea that it will be able to match current levels of energy use any time soon, or ever, seems fanciful. Moreover, as Smil points out, while electricity can substitute for fossil fuels in some sectors “there is no affordable, mass-scale alternative available for transportation fuels, feedstocks (ammonia, plastics) or iron ore smelting” (p.383). More comfort – time to get composting?

3. Energy transitions

Smil is well known for his argument that energy transitions are typically slow, even when new and obviously superior energy sources become available, largely because of sunk infrastructure costs. Photovoltaic enthusiasts like Chris Goodall have questioned this. I couldn’t possibly comment, except to say that the strength of the global economy is intimately connected with that fossil fuel infrastructure, so a rapid buildout of alternatives looks, shall we say, economically challenging – this perhaps is Gail Tverberg’s point, represented on here some time ago by the much-missed commenter wysinwyg. On the upside, Smil decries the chronic conservatism and lack of imagination that people display in relation to the power of technical innovation to improve future energy scenarios. But lest anyone is tempted to pigeonhole him with the techno-fixers, he also decries in the very same sentence the “repeatedly exaggerated claims made on behalf of new energy sources” (p.436)

4. Nuclear power

Smil describes nuclear power as a ‘successful failure’. Successful, because at one stage it was providing about 17% of the world’s electricity relatively cleanly (but remember that electricity is only a small proportion of the world’s total energy use). Failure because of “technical weaknesses of dominant designs, the high construction costs of nuclear plants and chronic delays in their completion, the unresolved problem of long-term disposal of radioactive wastes, and widespread concerns about operation safety” (p.284). Though Smil is rather scathing about the safety concern issue, the other ones seem of sufficient gravity that Small Farm Future proposes respectfully to relabel nuclear power as a ‘failed failure’. No doubt it will continue to play a marginal role in the energy mix in a few wealthy countries for the time being, but presently the chances of it stepping in to replace global fossil fuel dependence seem to be essentially nil.

5. Cities

Smil is refreshingly candid about the energy-hunger and social dysfunction of cities. Urbanisation, he suggests, involves substantial increases in per capita energy use (p.355). He adds that “large parts of many of the world’s largest cities remain epitomes of violence, drug addiction, homelessness, child abandonment, prostitution and squalid living….Cities have always been renewed by migration from villages – but what will happen to the already mostly urban civilization once the villages virtually disappear while the social structure of cities continues to disintegrate?” (p.437). Smil is under no illusions about the nature of rural, agrarian poverty, but it’s nice to see him avoiding the siren song of romanticising urban slums along the lines of Stewart Brand and the multitudes of his ecomodernist imitators. Smil does, however, talk positively about superlinear scaling, where increased population density results in disproportionately positive effects. My sense of the research literature is that some of the superlinear scaling claims are overblown, but I’ve somewhat lost track of this one. If anyone could point me to some relevant studies I’d be grateful. Meanwhile, Smil’s take-home message seems to be that it’s pretty miserable being poor in the countryside, and just as bad or even worse in the city. More comfort.

6. Agricultural involution

Smil has quite a lot to say about the energetic basis of premodern agrarian societies, which is interesting but not something I’m going to dwell on too much here. He asserts that societies based only on animate energies struggled to provide an adequate food supply for their populations, which no doubt has generally been true – but doing so was rarely a top priority for the ruling classes in agrarian societies of the past. I think it would be a good idea if we strived to make it a top priority for the ruling classes in agrarian societies of the future. Smil invokes the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s classic study of ‘agricultural involution’ in colonial Indonesia, essentially to argue that the intensification of traditional peasant agriculture can support increasing population densities but is ultimately a road to nowhere that reaches a point of diminishing return. However, he doesn’t engage at all with Geertz’s point that the involution of subsistence rice production in Indonesia was articulated with the production of sugar as a colonial cash crop. Suppose instead of the extractive colonial situation an ‘involuted’ peasant agriculture geared to providing for the teeming peasant multitudes, articulated with a state geared to using whatever surplus it could generate to deliver collective benefits to those multitudes, particularly by supporting labour-intensive, community-building sectors like health and social care. It seems to me that a future agricultural involution is likely in many countries with current high-energy capitalist agricultures. It would be a good idea to try to organise the state in such societies to distribute rather than concentrate or export the accrued benefits of the involutionary turn.

7. Materiality and social status

Finally, Smil makes the excellent point that our contemporary high energy civilization needs to delink social status from material surfeit if we’re to successfully negotiate the energy and resource squeezes that await us. He points out that what he (problematically, perhaps) calls the old ‘high cultures’ of the past never engaged in the mass production of consumer goods. Some might argue that this was because there were few ‘highs’ in these ‘high cultures’ and a lot of ‘lows’, something that we’ve mercifully transcended in conditions of modernity. But I don’t think that argument entirely washes, and it wouldn’t hurt to look at ourselves a bit more self-critically. Smil suggests that we need to move beyond the equation of civilization with high energy throughputs. It’s a demanding task, but I can only say amen to that.

38 thoughts on “Energy prospects: little to Smil about?

  1. Who knew, for example, that a draft mule has a working speed of 0.9-1.0 ms-1 with a power output of 500-600W, whereas a donkey manages only 0.6-0.7 ms-1 at 100-200W?

    May I raise my hand? So I would not have given an answer in watts or meters per second, but I could have shared the relationship. Also of note for the scorecard of the mule is their high level of fitness – they can work much longer (tire more slowly) and tolerate more difficult conditions. Of further significance in the comparison though is the level of skill required to manage these respective beasts. The draft mule handler is made of much sterner stuff, and necessarily much more experienced. The disposition and raw power of the mule requires it. The “profession” of teamster is not entirely missing from the modern landscape… but like a scythe, there are few around anymore who might actually be proficient enough to employ this kit.

    I don’t have any figures to hand – but I would suggest it likely the mule also has an advantage in terms of efficiency – work accomplished per unit feed and keep. The biggest drawback (above the ‘cost’ of training handlers) I can see for mules is the cost of maintaining breeding mares and stud jacks so that mules can be produced in the first place.

    • I propose that a mule handler’s job can be eased a little by pressing into service the miniature mule.

      • Excellent. Or, in order to take advantage of Kleiber’s Law one might develop a mule handling robot. Artificial intelligence meets the four footed fiend.

          • I believe not. With most techno solutions I always get the feeling I’m looking at tomorrow’s junk… “That little guy? That was one of the mule droids. We had a small field of PVs powering ’em. All got swept away when that twister blew through.”

    • One advantage of mules not mentioned is their long life of 50-70 years. But I guess this is compensated by not being able to breed, so you have to keep horses and donkeys around in order to keep a steady supply of mules.

  2. My sense of the research literature is that some of the superlinear scaling claims are overblown

    Perhaps. But first I should offer thanks for your mentioning SS in the first place. Hadn’t run across the concept. Had heard of Kleiber’s Law (which might also explain something of the mule vs donkey issue above), but hadn’t seen it expanded to describe city size relationships. A 5 minute background on SS is available at:

    Comparing city dimensions and the possibilities for SS reminds me of corporate scale comparisons. And not just “too big to fail”, but the benefit larger operations have in terms of economies of scale. Capitalism rears its head yet again. The author in the linked piece above talks at length about collaboration as a key element in why SS might work. I’d have to spend more time catching up on the issue, but it seems the time might be worth it.

    • Interesting Kleiber article.

      I noticed that the Superlinear Scaling was observed happened among ‘creative’ professionals as they collaborated. I take this to mean that six laborers hefting a log will not experience that same superlinear boost.

      Which leads me back to Chris citing Smil: ‘civilization needs to delink social status from material surfeit’.

      Yes, amen. And the delinking would be a ‘creative’ action, scaling superlinearly as we collaborate on the weightless ideas and cultural notions that motivate us and all our neighbors.

      I am feeling (perhaps irrationally) more hopeful now, having just written that last sentence than when I started this comment. Superlinear collaboration, thanks.

      The trouble, as always comes because we cannot delink from the material world. And I believe that a sane person wouldn’t even want to try.
      It might be possible to delink from our social status. Or redefine our sense of surfeit.

      Try as I may though, I have not come up with a way to make the Orwellian sounding ‘Poverty is Wealth’ into something that anyone finds attractive.

      Maybe with some collaboration…

      • Reminds me of Ruben’s laudable “now we can do anything, we should do less” (apologies if that’s a poor paraphrasing of the quote).

        • I think you almost nailed it, and I am pleased it is useful for you.

          As is my way, I think I say “must” instead of “should”. 😉

      • Eric suggests:
        I noticed that the Superlinear Scaling was observed happened among ‘creative’ professionals as they collaborated. I take this to mean that six laborers hefting a log will not experience that same superlinear boost.

        Agreed – hefting a log upon the shoulders should distribute the mass linearly among the participants – no superlinearity. But there are still two demonstrable ways this example can be seen to actually point toward a superlenear outcome. First – without collaboration the log is not hefted upon one set of shoulders and thus goes nowhere. If the load is spread out among a set of collaborators it becomes manageable and can be moved. Success vs failure.

        The second collaborative element that presents is for collaborators to creatively solve the matter of moving the log by means beyond the brute force method of hefting it in the first place. Rolling the log, floating it on a stream, lifting one end and setting it upon a cart… etc. Work smarter, not harder. And now that our six collaborating laborers have learned some lesson they can teach it to others they come in contact with. Meme dispersion.

    • Previously cited here at Small Farm Future is this article:
      West, G. and Bettencourt, L. 2011. Bigger Cities Do More with Less: New Science Reveals Why Cities Become More Productive and Efficient as They Grow. Scientific American. 305, 3: 44-45.

      The co-author (and theoretical physicist who grew up in Somerset) Geoffrey West is the subject of the article cited below, where more background is given about SS.

      Relevant to energy prospects, West said, “The only thing that stops the superlinear equations is when we run out of something we need. And so the growth slows down. If nothing else changes, the system will eventually start to collapse.”

      Constant innovation (in theory) leads the way from resource exhaustion to the exploitation of a new resource, avoiding collapse. “But the escape is only temporary, as every innovation eventually leads to new shortages.”

      An interesting quote from the article: “[T]he urban equations predict a world of ever-increasing resource consumption, as the expansion of cities fuels the expansion of economies. In fact, the societal consumption driven by the process of urbanization — our collective desire for iPads, Frappuccinos and the latest fashions — more than outweighs the ecological benefits of local mass transit.”

      Bettencourt and West also looked at corporations, and found that “corporate productivity, unlike urban productivity, was entirely sublinear,” as described in the article:

      “A Physicist Solves the City”
      by Jonah Lehrer, The New York Times
      December 17, 2010

  3. Thanks for the comments. Sounds like you might be my ideal dinner companion, Clem – we could swap traction statistics. We just need to find a mutually convenient place to meet. The Azores?

    On super-linear scaling, I recall somewhere a study that suggested the effects were mostly artefactual…but I can’t quite remember the paper or the arguments. The mathematician David Orrell’s critique of economic theory in his ‘Economyths’ also springs to mind, where he talks about things like the rise of mega-cities as a fractal, inherently unstable state. Or Ford Denison in ‘Darwinian Agriculture’ on the bet-hedging benefits of spreading scientific funding around rather than concentrating it in a few super-high status labs. Or the sense I have that super-large-scale commodity crop farming involves simplification of the human and non-human ecology, not a super-linear scaling at all. My feeling is that large scale can certainly optimise on some given parameters, but there’s nothing to say that those parameters will turn out to be the wisest ones to have chosen in the longer-term. If we promote big city residence on the basis of super-linear scaling, my feeling is that we may be missing a good old-fashioned bit of agricultural wisdom: don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

    • Hmmm, Azores. Not exactly in the middle. And the Atlantic isn’t too generous with opportunity either. How about Tokyo? Look the other way. Still an island nation. Not capable of feeding itself. Enormous cities, ripe for study of scale in urban settings. And the agriculture that does manage to squeeze in is quite small scale. The traction equipment is very comparable in size to mules and donkeys. Robots abound. [beginning to convince myself this is actually a good idea]

      I’ve had the pleasure of being in Tokyo once. Very interesting. Not convinced I want to go back unless the situation would merit (which a dinner discussing small farm traction would do)… basically because I’m more a rural sort. So here’s a thought – we both apply to be WOOFers for farms between Tokyo and Kobe. How hard could it be?

  4. If one farmer can do it, then it is possible.

    See these two presentations in Alberta, Canada. In the first, we note that:

    Brix score increases from 4 or 5 to 22 (which means more carbon content)
    Pounds of cattle per acre from 6500 pounds to 200,000 pounds

    In the second, by David Johnson of New Mexico State University:

    Primary Net Production increased from 400 g/m(2) to a potential of 3000 g/m(2)

    The results indicate that by ceasing to do some of the damaging things farmers and ranchers customarily do, and by maximizing photosynthesis, production can be increased quite significantly.

    Put those facts together with Albert Bates work on ‘carbon cascades:. Using linked local industries to get the maximum use of the energy stored in a carbon molecule, and sequester atmospheric carbon as a final step.

    Particularly last two posts. But if you want more gee-whiz stuff, see his earlier post on the Cool Lab.

    Here is the point:
    Ask not how the Powers That Be are going to provide you with the same quality and quantity of energy you presently use….Instead, ask what you are going to do when the current system collapses.

    An excellent parallel is Diabetes. We have known for years how to cure diabetes. A trial in Britain about 10 years ago showed that 3 weeks on an 800 calorie per day diet will do the trick. Yet we continue to spend, in the US, around 75,000 dollars per year treating diabetics. The sick, in their delusion, think that the drugs are ‘dealing with’ their problem. The diabetics need to be asking:
    What will I do when the government money runs out?

    Don Stewart

  5. Thanks again for further comments – especially to Steve L for rectifying the sub-linear scaling of my own brain by leading me back to where I wrote about this previously: . This includes an interesting critique of Bettencourt’s super linear scaling ideas by Shalizi. West’s comments cited by Steve are also most interesting.

    Perhaps relevant to this in a wider political sense is a great essay by Ralph Nader on the 1930s critiques of corporate capitalism in the USA that was drawn to my attention by Ruben: . Please will somebody remind me about this essay in the future when I forget about it.

    WWOOFing invitation with Clem in Japan accepted – let’s meet at Fukuoka’s place for a chat about traction. My opener (a guilty secret under a blog about fossil energy): I once bought a 20hp Suzue tractor. It was a real donkey, so I soon traded it in for a 50hp Ford, which has proved to be a fine old workmule for many years.

  6. Smil’s take-home message seems to be that it’s pretty miserable being poor in the countryside

    I purposely left out the second part of the quote, about it possibly being even worse in the city.

    But I believe, as I think you do, that it is possible to thrive and be poor in the countryside. If you have control over your own food supply, you need not be too concerned about governments coming and going. If you like in a homogeneous neighbourhood, with no one very much poorer nor very much richer than you, it seems even more likely that you can thrive without government “help.” If you can offer “employment” to others, in the form of room and board in exchange for work (“WWOOFing”), then it’s even more likely that you can thrive in poverty.

    I’m reminded of the excellent film, Schooling The World, The White Man’s Last Burden, which shows happy, healthy indigenous people, working away to feed themselves, training their own future generations in their ways, controlling their own destiny, having near zero cash income. Then some do-gooder westerner comes in and decides to “help” them by building a school, where they learn the skills needed to go work in factories and live in slums in misery. Then some World Bank suit smugly notes, “Look how we’ve improved them! They’ve gone from $0 income to a couple thousand dollars a year!”

    Fear of poverty can be worse than poverty itself. If one strives to be creatively poor, it can be quite rewarding.

    • Yep, much to agree with there – and there’s also the methodological issue with poverty research now so obsessed with figures like living on $1 or $2 a day, that $1 a day in the countryside usually goes a lot further than $1 a day in the city. The key phrase for me in your comment is “if you have control over your own food supply”, which isn’t necessarily the case for many among the rural poor for a variety of reasons, tenure and landlordism looming large among them. For me, the sensible response there is to develop policies around rural tenure rather than assuming that life will be better in the city. There are those who argue that it’s easier for the poor to organise politically around their interests in the city than in the countryside, which I suspect is often true – but I’m not sure it’s enough to justify the pro-urban slant of much anti-poverty thinking, which too easily slides into ‘development’ thinking along the lines you criticise. I think a lot of this rural/urban poverty debate too easily misses the fact that poor people in poor countries are quite mobile between the two as they pursue family risk-spreading and opportunistic money-earning activities – as Banerjee & Duflo point out in their ‘Poor Economics’ book, it’s a huge risk for rural poor people to abandon their footing in the countryside and move to the city, something they’d only do through force of circumstance or if there were really secure economic opportunities in the city. But I agree with your wider point that sensible anti-poverty strategies should really focus on making low income life in the countryside better than it would otherwise be, rather than going down the slum-romanticising route of the ecomodernists.

  7. Oh, come on! For that little bit of snow you wouldn’t need snow plows (ridiculous), you’d just need snow tires. ( Which, even though we only get any snow a handful of times per winter (never more than in your picture and it almost always melts again within a few hours or days), you are obligated to own and put on your car every winter, here in North-Eastern Germany. Not owning snow tires in a country that gets snow even just occasionally seems as careless as not owning a pair of decent boots. And to keep pedestrians from slipping on their way to the train (which shouldn’t be bothered by those 5 to 10 cm either, as the train passing over the tracks produces enough friction heat to melt it – only the moveable parts of the track at intersections might need defrosting in some weather conditions), you have a law that requires each home or business owner to sweep the snow and put sand any ice on the 50 to 100 m of pedestrian walkway in front of their property. (If the postman slips and breaks a leg because you didn’t bother, he can sue you, for example.) Only major inner city streets ever get gritted or de-iced – usually by spraying saline solution. Which isn’t good for the roadside greenery and alley trees, but it’s no-more fossil fuel intensive than the machine sweeping the street free off slipery leaves in the fall, or the various trash / recycling collection trucks covering each street every other week.

    As for me and my insistence to do everything by bicycle – well, it’s perfectly possible to do almost all of your heavy grocery shopping for the winter before Christmas has passed and the real frost starts. Even without a large storage freezer. Most winter vegetables that are part of traditional European or temperate American cooking (onions, carrots, cabbage, leeks, potatoes, various roots, brussel sprouts, kale, winter squash, chicoree; etc.) were bred to be stored for months without refrigeration, or just placed outside in the cold. Eggs and modern pasteurized milk store without refrigeration as long as they’re closed. Vegetable oil, carbs and dried legumes store easily even longer. Canned vegetables / fruit / sausages are a thing for good reason. And it’s always worth learning how to bake at least some simple bread rolls from flour and dried yeast, for those few days when the weather is just too miserable (face-stinging levels of frost during the day; or more often: never-ending rain), or I’m too sick to leave the house. Anyone who has to go panic-shopping when unusually severe winter weather is announced, is failing at how to manage a household in a temperate climate winter.

    As for generally freezing winter weather. Is that really so abnormal in the UK? Like, so abnormal that you wouldn’t have a non-heated space (garage, cellar, greenhouse, staircase in appartment buildings) to put all your potted plants, so the soil in them doesn’t freeze solid for weeks on end and kills your otherwise frost-hardy plants through dehydration? Isn’t your plant hardiness zone selected so you choose your garden planting (eadible or otherwise) to be at least somewhat frost-hardy?
    I really have trouble imagining what it’s like not to be prepared for a brief spell of -5°C or whatever it was. I mean, you wouldn’t even need to protect outdoor water spouts from that little bit of frost, and I don’t bother carrying big plant pots to safety or covering up the strawberries and leeks until more than -10°C at night are predicted. (And the covering wouldn’t even be necessary if it was snowing while freezing – the snow traps air and makes pretty good insulation. Unfortunately, most of the time, we get “bare frost” – i.e. frost without snow, which is much more difficult to survive for plants.) Hell, if there’s a week-long period of severe night frosts (-15 to -20°C), the temperature will fall to -5°C even in the garage and greenhouse, but the plants will survive that well enough. Though I might have to transfer the stored vegetables into the house, in that once-every-few-years case (potatoes don’t like to freeze; sadly, we don’t have a proper root cellar that wouldn’t freeze). Trying to keep completely non-frost-resistant tropical plants alive over winter in a temperate climate zone like North-Western Europe seems like a foolhardy idea to me. Besides, wouldn’t the lack of sunlight on our lattitude kill them anyway?

    And as for mobility: Yeah, I wouldn’t like to ride a bike in weather like shown in your picture, but just why wouldn’t people be able to walk wherever they need to go? Ankle-high snow makes for reasonably good walking in winter boots with proper thread even without any street cleaning efforts (much better than “black ice” – rain on sub-freezing ground – or the half-melted, dirty slush the snow will turn into once it thaws), and -5°C (presumably that means during the day, not just as a night time minimum?) isn’t even really bad enough yet to need to put on tights or leggins under your jeans. Not for a 15 minute walk, anyway. You’d probably need gloves, a scarf and a wooly hat – but Harry Potter left me under the impression that people in Britain do own that sort of basic winter gear. Kids got days off from school for that? Seriously?

    • Vivi, I’m not greatly moved to spend time defending Britain’s ability or otherwise to cope with snow, but I think you’ve misunderstood several points so that quite a number of your charges miss their target. My point about snowploughs wasn’t to suggest we need them here, but that places with regular heavy snows cope with them by profligate use of fossil fuels. In my book, mandating every driver to keep a set of snow tyres here in Somerset, where in the 15 years I’ve lived here I’d reckon they might have been useful maybe twice, would be another profligate waste of fossil fuels (though not necessarily a worse one than much other high-energy frivolity in our age of absurdity).

      The larger point in my post above turns not so much on how Britain ought to expend more energy to cope better with a bit of snow, but how the world ought to expend less energy to cope better with much more pressing environmental challenges. But if anyone would enjoy the spectacle of an Englishman offering a lengthier defence of his country’s snow preparedness, let me know and I’ll maybe give it a whirl.

  8. Urbanisation, [Smil] suggests, involves substantial increases in per capita energy use.

    I have been pondering this assertion for the last few days. It seems to me to be clearly true over the last few hundred years, but I have been wondering where the energy for cities came from early on in human history, well before the fossil fuel era.

    If we consider an early pastoral or subsistence agrarian population, all of the energy and other resources needed for life were produced in the immediate vicinity of the consumer. Averaged over a period of several years there was very little per capita surplus. What little there was came from the surrounding land, which acts as a large solar energy collector. Rural populations can increase their energy access (food and wood) by either enlarging the area of the land they manage or by changing its collected output to favor humans. Output improvements can be made changing the species mix or applying what little capital can be accumulated to the land to increase production (irrigation canals, paddy construction, etc). Enlarging the land area means converting unoccupied land to human use or taking it away from other people.

    But as Malthus pointed out long ago, increases in land productivity or land area under management are mostly small, linear increases, whereas unconstrained population increases are exponential. Without outside interference, rural populations tend to expand to the carrying capacity of the land and are brought into undulating equilibrium with land productivity by periodic famine or active reproductive management. So far there is still no surplus to support urbanization.

    To enable the existence of urban consumers who do not produce food, an increase in rural per capita surplus food production is necessary to support those urban consumers. That much is obvious. But if a rural population is already in equilibrium with its food supply, the only way a surplus can be created is by partially depopulating, or restricting population increases in, the countryside from which those resources come.

    At first this concept of reducing the rural population or having population stagnate so that future increases in food production could be diverted to city building seemed strange. But I see no other way that rural surpluses can be developed except by preventing rural people from allowing those surpluses their full application to their own population growth.

    I imagine that such a scenario must involve a significant amount of coercion in the taking of rural surpluses in support of cities. But before cities exist, how does the coercion happen? Does anyone know of any references that explain the processes by which the resources to support first cities were developed? Most discussions of this subject just point to the development of agriculture as the means by which surplus food is produced. But how and why did those surpluses get separated from the agrarian populations that produced them?

    • I’ll second Gunnar’s thought, and add that the question is nicely articulated as well.

      So I wasn’t there when it happened – even as old as I am. But I would guess the whole concept of ‘surplus’ likely has something to do with the matter. If you have surplus food you have to manage it. Kill a large beast – more than you and the tribe need for the next few days – and you need to prevent it spoiling (and you have to defend it against other predators). Smoking it helps, but you still need a cache of some sort. No surplus, no worry. No surplus, however, leaves you at the mercy of your surroundings.

      Grain storage creates another issue if it is centralized – accounting. Who gets a share, how much, and meting out the surplus over a season so that stores are not lost before the next time something is in season to be gathered. Collective actions – organized group activities (hunts of large beasts for example) can give rise to specialization among members of the group. Benefits to the group seem necessary or the large group would disband in favor of smaller groups. So long as a centralized set of specialists provides value to the whole, an urban core can be justified.

      Perhaps the North American indigenous peoples could offer some sort of light upon this. There were some large urban settlements – and these developed at different times (and in vastly different geographic locations/habitats). But there were also many other tribes who did not develop urban settlements by the time Europeans came on the scene. Do anthropologists and sociologists have an opinion on this?

        • True – but one hopes there might be some stage of “development” between surviving at the whim of nature and the intraspecific domination of slavery.

          I put development in quotes for lack of a better word. It goes to the matter of one society projecting upon another the measures of success (and thus poverty).

          If slavery is explained along a continuum from wage labor, indentured servitude, protected slavery, all the way down to devastating enslavement… and poverty is set to a continuum in an analogous manner, they might be compared and contrasted. Is the opposite of slavery, freedom? Is the opposite of poverty, wealth? These simplistic dichotomies have been debated.

      • In the comments under the Graeber & Wengrow article that Chris linked to the other day, there’s an interesting anecdote from an anthropologist, remembering how her prejudices were upturned when she was working in West Africa: a local chief showing her his grain store ‘boasted’ that he had grain from eight years of harvest but then went on to say “I have enough to feed the whole village now during the next drought!”.

        So, as you suggest, Clem, the establishment of central authorities didn’t necessarily come about through coercion and wasn’t necessarily due to ‘aggrandisers’. The key to why coercion subsequently developed, to my mind, is that when relatively small groups merged their centralised functions the easy accountability there is at small scale was lost; power was essentially delegated to the centre with no effective means of reclaiming it.

        • Good point. Perhaps there was no coercion at all.

          It occurs to me that cities might have developed at centers of trade. Water born transport on river or sea could have allowed the accumulation of enough surplus that their concentrated flow through boat landings or wharfs became the nucleus of a small urban area.

          The first buildings in a city might have been the warehouses around a natural harbor that where used to keep trade items protected until they traveled further inland.

          The first urbanites might have been the people who gathered around those warehouses to support the transient boatmen and warehouse workers. They could have all lived off the trade flow as long as it either contained food or enticed food to come in from the countryside to be bartered for items that came in by boat.

    • Interesting question. The two books I have that bear most on the point are John Vandermeer’s ‘The Ecology of Agroecosystems’ and James Scott’s recent and much discussed ‘Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States’.

      I’m not sure I can adequately represent their arguments here, but here’s a few offerings:

      – Sedentism in relatively dense settlements goes right back to and beyond the origins of field agriculture, so the issue in that epoch isn’t so much about cities as about the division of labour and non-agrarian elites (though it’s true that cities often arose around trade and strategic control).

      – It wasn’t generally the case that ancient or premodern populations were at a Malthusian limit. There’s quite a complex relationship between the sustainable (or ‘Malthusian’) population, the population necessary to achieve the established work regimen, and the actual population – and it’s a dynamic relationship, so ‘limits’ aren’t necessarily experienced as an immediate crunch but as forces affecting human action over time (Vandermeer is good on all this stuff – I need to get my head around it a bit better).

      – Cereal crops are relatively ‘non-Malthusian’, in the sense that up to a limit it’s possible to achieve relatively constant returns to inputs – labour inputs and others. This is one reason why all the major urban civilisations (including our present one) are based predominantly on cereals.

      – There are various ways of intensifying crop production within a given agroecosystem. Increased labour input is one, others include things like shortening fallows, improving irrigation, rotation/manuring and other husbandry techniques. Some of these store up longer-term problems, others can be relatively sustainable. Peasant cultivators aren’t usually interested in intensifying crop production for its own sake, but centralised states indeed often chose this approach using coercive methods – though it didn’t always work.

      – Societies are never bounded, so that generates other options – trade or plunder (both key factors in the emergence of early city states), emigration/escape, expanding the geographic margins of cultivation.

      – In many premodern societies, the non-agrarian population was relatively small – and agrarian labour was strongly seasonal – so it wasn’t necessarily that difficult for elites to cream off an adequate surplus and/or to use mass labour for state-building projects. But what emerges from the writings of people like Scott (also Graeber, who I recently linked to) is that it took a long time for would-be elites to work out how to ‘do’ centralised states and hierarchy in stable and enduring ways. Unfortunately, they cracked it in the end.

      • Societies are never bounded, so that generates other options – trade or plunder (both key factors in the emergence of early city states), emigration/escape, expanding the geographic margins of cultivation.

        First, thanks for the references and your summaries. As someone who is not an anthropologist, every little bit helps my understanding of these issues.

        I can see how once a small city-state becomes established it can use plunder to maintain and enhance its resource supplies. Transport of any significant quantity of food would need to be by sea, so I would assume that raids on food stores in other port cities would do the trick.

        On the other hand, very small cities could be close enough for transport of plunder by land. Hence, I suppose, the walls around many of the old towns all over the world.

        I also have to keep reminding myself that the earliest ‘cities’ were really very small. According to this source,, even after the invention of agriculture, very early urban concentrations were only a few hundred to a few thousand people.

        Cities didn’t break the 100,000 mark until 4,000 years ago and didn’t break one million until Rome and Alexandria, 2,000 years ago. It looks like a million people was about the limit right up until the industrial revolution.

        • An interesting feature of Scott’s book is the importance of the relationship between early state elites and ‘barbarians’ – pastoralists, traders, raiders and slavers – who threatened states and their subjects but also allied with them in important ways and generally controlled and drew resources out of state hinterlands otherwise unavailable to the agrarian states. Water transport was certainly key for state provisioning – river systems, or the sea. Carolyn Steel argues in her book ‘Hungry City’ that preindustrial cities based on drawing food resources from their immediate hinterlands could rarely exceed populations of about 100,000 because of energy/transport realities. Of course, Rome was much bigger but that was due to the low cost of importing grain from Egypt, and its status as an imperial hub. The original cities and city states were, as you say, relatively small, and agriculture was part and parcel of them. It’s interesting looking even at the old buildings in Frome where I live, and seeing how many of them were commercial buildings relating to farming and how close the farming was (and in some ways still is) to the town almost up to the present. Likewise with the port functions of a lot of big global cities until the last few decades when the ports got too big to fit into a mere city – apparently the port of Shanghai is bigger than the whole of Greater London. Good ol’ fossil fuels…

  9. I am full of admiration for all of you hardy Northerners and your endurance of snow and ice.
    Thanks for promoting Smil to us. I am reading China’s Past, China’s Future and I’m an instant fan. I know more about China than the average bear but evidently I know very little!

    • The only one of Smil’s books that I have read is Energy in World History (1994), which I found very informative and interesting. From Chris’ description of the contents of Smil’s Energy and Civilization: A History (2017), the two books seem to be very similar.

      • Yes, the 2017 book is a revised and expanded version of the 1994 one – so much so that he felt it deserved a different title. Aha! That’s how he does it!

        His ‘Enriching the Earth’ on the history of fertiliser is an interesting read. I also have his ‘Feeding the World’ sitting unread on the bookshelf – I doubt his answer is a small farm future…

        • Aha! That’s how he does it!
          And he’s an emeritus professor… not likely running a small farm… or a blog… but yep – he is a pretty incredible force; a power to be reckoned with; a bundle of energy. Omnivorous, and almost omnipotent. My personal library could do with a couple more Smil volumes.

  10. Man, I really need to stay more on top of the comments here. Look away for a minute and you miss all the excitement!

    I am not sure if it is this post or another, but somebody mentioned fractals, and I have a nerd-need to post about the Constructal Law.

    Fractals are just math, and continue infinitely, unlike nature. The Constructal Law can predict what scale structures will continue to before they stop. One of my favourite Constructal soundbites is that we should try to Optimize Imperfection.
    Constructal Theory

    And then again, I am not sure if it is this post or another that reminded me of this, but I feel like the conversation about superlinear scaling is a good time to post one of John Michael Greer’s best paragraphs.

    “The difference in energy concentration between input and output, it bears repeating, defines the upper limit of complexity. Other variables determine whether or not the system in question will achieve that upper limit. In the ecosystems we call human societies, knowledge is one of those other variables. If you have a highly concentrated energy source and don’t yet know how to use it efficiently, your society isn’t going to become as complex as it otherwise could. Over the three centuries of industrialization, as a result, the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity defined by the concentration differential. The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.”
    Archdruid Report Mirror: As Night Closes In

    Okay, I am off to read the comments in other recent posts, perhaps I will just recycle all of this there.

  11. Thanks Michelle – good to get a southerner’s admiration to help cool an argument between northerners about who’s best adapted to their local climate. I guess I should read Smil’s China book – I try not to track his output too much as it makes me feel like a terrible slacker.

    And thanks Ruben for your thoughts on constructal theory which I’ll have to follow up (any crossovers with Vandermeer on the constructivism of ecological niche creation?) and also for combing the archives to find the best of Greer…which indeed does seem increasingly to involve archival work these days. All I’d add is that it reprises the discussion we were having with Joe about ‘complexity’ where I’d argue that energy-fuelled increases in complexity at the societal level isn’t necessarily experienced as such by individuals. Something to come back to, perhaps.

    And thanks to other commenters above who I haven’t specifically acknowledged for building the picture.

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