“Energy and Civilization” By Vaclav Smil

Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done. The conversion of energy on Earth ranges from terra-forming forces of plate tectonics to cumulative erosive effects of raindrops. Life on Earth depends on the photosynthetic conversion of solar energy into plant biomass. Humans have come to rely on many more energy flows—ranging from fossil fuels to photovoltaic generation of electricity—for their civilized existence. In this monumental history, Vaclav Smil provides a comprehensive account of how energy has shaped society, from pre-agricultural foraging societies through today’s fossil fuel–driven civilization.

Humans are the only species that can systematically harness energies outside their bodies, using the power of their intellect and an enormous variety of artifacts—from the simplest tools to internal combustion engines and nuclear reactors. The epochal transition to fossil fuels affected everything: agriculture, industry, transportation, weapons, communication, economics, urbanization, quality of life, politics, and the environment. Smil describes humanity’s energy eras in panoramic and interdisciplinary fashion, offering readers a magisterial overview. This book is an extensively updated and expanded version of Smil’s Energy in World History (1994). Smil has incorporated an enormous amount of new material, reflecting the dramatic developments in energy studies over the last two decades and his own research over that time.

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Behemoth: A movie on the effects of rapid development

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The Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of Inner Mongolia

Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth provides a ring-side seat to the effects of rapid development, commerce, and pollution in this autonomous region of China.

Shot over two years across China’s Inner Mongolia, Zhao Liang’s latest film, Behemoth provides a ring-side seat (or perhaps a helicopter-shot suspended over the operating table) to bear silent witness to the effects of rapid development, excavation, extraction, commerce, and pollution on the planet.

The film lingers, often wordlessly, on images of violent destruction and pillage; the central metaphor here is the titular Behemoth, a devourer of mountains, “an enormous evil energy,” according to the director’s statement. A line of trucks and diggers become “the monster’s playthings;” tunnels and tubes and trolley-tracks slowly siphon away the very core of the earth, feeding its ceaseless hunger.

Yet rather than focus close-in on the maw of this insatiable beast, Zhao places his lens at a quiet and safe remove. The effect, however, is not to deliver security, but instead to emphasize scale, an even more distressing aspect of the devastation shown. One explosion may be terrifying, but a relentless series of detonations over thousands of acres becomes almost mundane, a banality of evil. The very vastness inures us to the horror of watching a valley turned into a wasteland, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. (Appropriately, when humans are shown in the film, their affect is a quiet, sad boredom, not fear or terror.)

The setting becomes the real focal point: this is a story of a primal and seemingly eternal landscape, charted ages ago by the film’s other literary inspiration: Dante’s Divine Comedy. Hell is seen in the inferno of molten iron and smoldering slag; Purgatory in the obscuring, ever-present gray construction dust; and even Paradise is found empty and abandoned in the bleak ghost city of Ordos, built to house over one-million people but never inhabited.

These disturbed landscapes represent the other side of the coin (or perhaps of the planet) of our global economic reality; for every manufacturing job “lost to China,” there is another pit mine, a slag heap, or a case of black lung in the name of modernization and progress.

Yet despite what these locations represent—a fallen status, neither classic nor modern, neither natural nor civilized—Zhao spies the beauty in the ruin. Like the photographs of Edward Burtynsky, (who also documents the environmental destruction wrought by China’s long march) each shot is perfectly composed, delicately balanced, and artfully framed. Similarly, the pacing establishes the proper mood and mindset: slow, thoughtful, meditative, without the rush to interpretation or judgment.

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(Courtesy Grasshopper Film)
Viewers familiar with Zhao’s previous films will recognize the director’s remarkable ability to focus on the unwatchable: in Petition (2009), he traces the slow, dangerous, and often brutal paths of the thousands of Chinese citizens who flock to the nation’s capital to file grievances against corrupt local actions: not pretty, but certainly real and important; his previous documentary film, Crime and Punishment (2007) features surprisingly similar scenes of bureaucratic cruelty along the Chinese border with North Korea. More recently, his most official film, Together (2010, funded by the Chinese Ministry of Health) illuminated the stories of HIV patients, a hidden suffering that many in the country would prefer to ignore.

A common theme emerges: where others would cut or turn away, Zhao’s camera lingers, staring long enough for our uncomfortable minds to move past fear and disgust, through fascination and prurience, to finally probe and reflect the all-too-human meaning of the violence and sorrow that we see; he is a master at cultivating unblinking empathy. In Behemoth, we see this master at the top of his game.

The result is an impressive film worthy of repeated viewings on a true large screen, which may be difficult given the limited release schedule. Fortunately, so haunting and poetic are Zhao’s images that once seen, they are likely to lodge deep in the psyche of the viewer, to be later excavated and re-examined in dreams.

Behemoth is screening at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts February 18th at 7 p.m. and February 19, 2 p.m. Future U.S. screenings can be viewed here.

European Coal Map (video)

Sociology of risks: lessons learn from “Vajont Dam Disaster”

I just watched a documentary on Vajont dam disaster in National Geografhics. It was said that locals knew before the disaster that the mountain has suffered  landslides in the past. Actually, the mountain was called “the walking mountain”. Nevertheless, the dam was build, in a context of postwar and needs of energy to fuel the economic growth experienced in the country between 1950 and 1960. A few lesson in relation to risk management and communication, non-knowledge and the role of social science in engineering projects (see the role of those specialized in collecting and understanding narratives and local stories): A socially robust construction process, i.e. the involvement of locals in the construction, would have gain relevant information that was unknown by scientists. Information that was present in the collective memory of the town. Hence, locals could have taken part in the knowledge production. Secondly, engineers involved in the construction knew that the the land had been sliding gradually throughout the two months before the disaster. They simply did not count with such a huge tsunami due to wrong estimation. They even knew that the landslide was going to take place sooner or later. Even though, they did not inform locals about this fact. Finally, the wave overpass the dam in 200 meters and destroy the whole valley. This event reminds that science faces, in many occasions, gaps of knowledge or the so called non-knowledge. As in this occasion, policymakers and scientist frequently communicate that decisions have to be based on reliable scientific knowledge and that the acknowledgement of uncertainties would “undermine the public´s confidence in scientific results” (Gross, 2010, p.2)


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/76140299″>Vajont Dam Disaster</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/framepool”>Framepool</a&gt; on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Origin of environmental sociology

Since its beginnings, environmental sociology has thus placed emphasis on studying the dependency of social life and cultural development from its natural surrounding, and on those factors that cause environmental problems and efforts to solve those problems. (Gross & Heinrichs, 2010:2)

Gross, M., & Heinrichs, H. (Eds.). (2010). Environmental sociology: European perspectives and interdisciplinary challenges. Springer Science & Business Media.

Ecological modernization

Ecological modernization is an optimistic school of thought in the social sciences that argues that the economy benefits from moves towards environmentalism. It has gained increasing attention among scholars and policymakers in the last several decades internationally. It is an analytical approach as well as a policy strategy and environmental discourse (Hajer, 1995).

Hajer, M. A. (1995). The politics of environmental discourse: ecological modernization and the policy process (p. 40). Oxford: Clarendon Press.