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Paperback | $36.00 Short | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780262693561 | 496 pp. | 8 x 9 in | 136 figures| December 2007

Instructor Resources

Energy in Nature and Society

General Energetics of Complex Systems


Energy in Nature and Society is a systematic and exhaustive analysis of all the major energy sources, storages, flows, and conversions that have shaped the evolution of the biosphere and civilization. Vaclav Smil uses fundamental unifying metrics (most notably for power density and energy intensity) to provide an integrated framework for analyzing all segments of energetics (the study of energy flows and their transformations). The book explores not only planetary energetics (such as solar radiation and geomorphic processes) and bioenergetics (photosynthesis, for example) but also human energetics (such as metabolism and thermoregulation), tracing them from hunter-gatherer and agricultural societies through modern-day industrial civilization. Included are chapters on heterotrophic conversions, traditional agriculture, preindustrial complexification, fossil fuels, fossil-fueled civilization, the energetics of food, and the implications of energetics for the environment. The book concludes with an examination of general patterns, trends, and socioeconomic considerations of energy use today, looking at correlations between energy and value, energy and the economy, energy and quality of life, and energy futures.

Throughout the book, Smil chooses to emphasize the complexities and peculiarities of the real world, and the counterintuitive outcomes of many of its processes, over abstract models. Energy in Nature and Society provides a unique, comprehensive, single-volume analysis and reference source on all important energy matters, from natural to industrial energy flows, from fuels to food, from the Earth's formation to possible energy futures, and can serve as a text for courses in energy studies, global ecology, earth systems science, biology, and chemistry.

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.


"Energy in Nature and Society is filled with facts, measurements, and brief but accurate descriptions of dozens of techniques, which when combined, force facts to make sense.", Alfred W. Crosby, BioScience

"Energy in Nature and Society is unique in its value and its comprehensive coverage of all energy matters; it should be on the bookshelves of all professionals in science, social science, economics, and history.", T.L.T. Grose, CHOICE


"The economist Julian Simon once called energy the 'master resource.' With this marvelously erudite, wonderfully detailed book, Vaclav Smil once again shows that when it comes to insightful discussions of the myriad complexities and consternations of the master resource, he is, without question, the master."
Robert Bryce, energy journalist and managing editor of Energy Tribune

"This is the book for the curious of any stripe who wants to dig in quantitatively and improve his or her ability to think about whole energy systems and their complex parts. In a sense, Smil has created a geography of biospheric energies, the most complete sweep of the subject. The world needs the wisdom in this book now more than ever."
John Katzenberger, Aspen Global Change Institute

"Vaclav Smil's appreciation of energy systems combines Thomas Edison and Franz Kafka. He celebrates innovation and progress but also vividly shows the strange fates and fall-out of what appear to be some of humanity's best machines."
Jesse H. Ausubel, Director, Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University