2006, Books, Non-Fiction

Children of the Sun (2006) by Alfred W. Crosby

This is a brief but informative and fascinating history of human use of energy. It is so brief that it’s hard not to recommend it because my experience with “big history” books of this ilk is that they are normally gigantic, with a forbidding page count that turns most people off. So, before I get into it, I should just say: this is easy to read, it’s short and you should read it.

There are essentially two parts to Crosby’s summary: the first is the story of human use of energy up until the 20th century; the second is a brief examination of the possibilities for humanity in the 21st century and the future. The former is better and more worth your time than the latter, but I am also not really the person to evaluate the latter.

I have never really thought about how we used energy in the past. In nearly every history book I’ve ever read prior to this one, energy consumption has either been entirely absent from the discussion or a footnote. But, much like geography and other external factors, energy availability has had more of an influence on human behaviour than most of us imagine and certainly every “great men” history of the world has ever bothered to acknowledge. This history is brief, yes, but it feels pretty thorough. It does make me want to dig deeper into some of these changes, from wood to coal, and other similar leaps. Also, it is yet another reminder that I am extremely happy that I was born in 1981, and not 1481 or even 1881. It is impossible for us living in the developed world in the 21st century to truly understand how little energy humans had access to prior to electrification.

The end of the book deals more with present problems. It isn’t necessarily less effective – though I don’t know how scientifically rigorous it is – but, because it is no longer history, it is fraught with issues, one of which is that this book is now 13 years old or so, and one has to assume these chapters are scientifically out of date. Moreover, it’s really hard to know how complete Crosby’s survey of fusion and other potential energy sources truly is. That being said, it’s interesting and feels informed. It does leave me wanting a lot more, though.

The main reason to read this book – and you should read it – is the history of our usage of energy, and how that history utterly flips our notions of how human history has been driven, and how unique our current situation currently is in the history of the earth. It’s extremely eye-opening but it is so brief that you can get through this is a week or something with no problem. I’m not sure I’ve read so impactful a book that was so short.

Really worth your time.

8/10 simply because the end of it is out of date and I can’t really evaluate the science.

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