Save yourself some pain–skip if you can.
In the first two chapters, Smil lays out a whole laundry list of details about energy, how much there is, how efficient it is, how much we use, comparisons, etc. Unfortunately, the textualized spreadsheet goes on for quite some time. It would have been a faster, more pleasant read if the words were omitted and the numbers were left behind.
In the third chapter, Smil demonstrates with a spectacular array of examples that forecasting is wrong unless it just accidentally got it right. Instead of making poor guesses at what might happen and acting on it, we should decide what will happen, and aim for it.
4 and 5 are more details about nonrenewable and renewable energies respectively. He takes the approach of considering overall potentials and constraints, which sadly is not often brought up. For instance, it’s going to take a whole LOT of land for biomass to meet current fuel demands.
Chapter 6 was almost pleasant. Energy efficiency will help us a lot, but not enough. Take care of your planet, you’re stuck with it. Invest in renewables but don’t buy into all the hype. Get real: we won’t last forever on coal.
This book has… grown on me somewhat since I started reading it. There is valuable information in this book, it’s just hard to access, and possibly not worth the trouble to find it. I am adverse to skipping anything and a slow reader, so your mileage may vary here. I have my doubts however, that anyone will read this book unless it’s necessary that they do so. That analogy about not seeing the forest for the trees does not quite fit here. Forget the trees–it’s more like a note was taken down every time two trees’ branches crossed.
I also found out that the speed limit was lowered to 55mph during the Carter administration to conserve energy… That explains a lot.