Urbanization, Gender and Energy in World History


In many ways, Vaclav Smil’s Energy in World History is indispensable for those wanting a better understanding of the changing relationship between human society and energy.  Yet, his account is not without its shortcomings.  For example, as I have addressed elsewhere, Smil neglects the role of international forces, such as imperialism, in fashioning energy use.  Nevertheless, this is not the only oversight in Energy in World History.  This article will briefly address how Smil also misrepresents the roles of urbanization and gender in a history on energy.


There is much work examining the causes and consequences of modern urbanization, and Smil does reference some of it (Bairoch 1991; Chandler 1987; Engels 1887; Kay 1832; Williamson 1982).  He also recognizes the dialectical character of urbanization.  On one hand, he highlights the negative ecological implications of this development.  Widespread environmental degradation, Smil writes, “stems from the extraction and conversion of both fossil fuels and nonfossil energies, industrial production, and rapid urbanization.  The cumulative effects of these changes can go beyond local and regional problems to cause destabilizing global biospheric change” (158).  In his view, pervasive, densely-populated human settlement depends on an enormous quantity of energy, a demand satisfied with energy-dense fossil fuels, not with biomass.  This makes modern urban living unsustainable.  On the other hand, the massive population shift away from rural to urban areas, characteristic of industrialization, resulted in an explosion of technological and energy-saving innovations in the city (209).  Nevertheless, from an energetic point of view, Smil’s evaluation is clear: “The infrastructural requirements of urban life increase average per capita energy consumption levels far above rural means even if the cities are not highly industrialized” (237).

What is also important in a world history of energy is an understanding of the consequences of early modern urbanization on the material conditions of human beings moving into the city.  In this respect, Smil misrepresents the initial benefits of living in urban areas.  He writes, “Then as now [people leaving the countryside for the city] are often leaving conditions that, on balance, were even worse” (210).  In fact, this mass migration did not produce the outcomes Smil claims it did.  For example, Humphrey, Lewis and Buttel (2002) write, “By 1830 residents of British industrial cities could expect to live, on average, twenty-nine years, while the national average life expectancy was forty-one.  One paid a truly grave price for the higher wages of these early industrial cities” (81).  For some British cities, urban living conditions in 1830, however poor they were, actually had improved over the years.  “Until about 1750,” Bagchi observes, “London was a net killer of its residents…” (104).  (In the eighteenth century, overall health for many European countries reached a nadir.  Regarding the English population as a whole, Bagchi writes that “life expectancy declined to a low of 27.88 years in 1731 before beginning a slow and halting upward movement to 40.80 years in 1836, and it remained more or less at that level until 1871, when it grew to 41.31 years” (103).)  The rural-urban disparity was repeated in other European countries undergoing rapid urbanization and industrialization (e.g., Belgium [Bagchi 2005: 84]).  Additionally, infant mortality rates were lower in the countryside than in the city (107).  At this point in history, contrary to Smil’s argument, people were not leaving relatively poor conditions for the city where life was richer and better.  Just the opposite was the case.  Of course, in many European countries the disparity in life expectancy between rural and urban areas eventually was reversed.  But, this later improvement in living conditions experienced in European cities was the outcome of a variety social forces.  Rising standards of living must be explained with at least a reference to European imperialism, which was responsible for the deterioration of the quality of life in non-European countries (Bacghi 2005).


Again, Smil acknowledges the complex interaction between changes in energy use and gender relations but still misses some key points.  First of all, he discusses the energy comparison between industrial and traditional forms of agriculture, pointing out how, if all energy inputs (both animate and inanimate) are considered, traditional forms of agriculture are in fact more efficient.  He writes, “If the cost of producing a modern crop includes all fossil fuels and electricity converted to a common denominator, then the energy returns in modern agriculture fall substantially below traditional returns” (13).  As other analysts have pointed out, modern gains in agricultural production resulted largely from the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the employment of irrigation (Humphrey, Lewis and Buttel 2002: 124-5).  The transition from traditional to modern agriculture not only had consequences for energy efficiency but also gender relations.  As agricultural production intensifies and subsistence production becomes cash-crop production, women’s work tends to be devalued (Waring 2004).  Such is the case with the Green Revolution.  Humphrey, Lewis and Buttel (2002) write, “Women, in general, have been adversely affected by Green Revolution changes because previous tasks allocated by gender have been renegotiated in response to changes in ecological, social, and economic conditions….Land, water, seeds, and technical training, in general, were offered to men while women were expected to continue their traditional tasks in newly cash-cropped fields” (127).  The increasing predominance of men is characteristic of modern, Green Revolution agriculture.  Strictly from an energetic point of view, the declining role of women in food and fiber production corresponded with an inferior form of agriculture.  But this is a connection that Smil overlooks.  While he describes changes in energy use and efficiency related to the shift from traditional to industrial agriculture, he does not capture the gendered nature of this change.

The Green Revolution in agriculture demonstrates the extent to which animate forms of energy (i.e., human and animal power) have overwhelmingly been replaced by fossil fuels and electricity in modern society.  This development can be represented as liberation from strenuous labor.  Yet, this liberation should neither be overstated nor discussed without reference to gender relations.  In this way, the discussion in Energy in World History is misguided.  Smil writes, “No matter if it was washing, cooking, and cleaning in cramped English apartments or doing daily chores in American farmhouses, women’s work was still exceedingly hard during the 1930s.  Electricity was the eventual liberator” (212).  But, to say that electricity liberated women from “exhausting and often dangerous” (212) work overlooks the continued burden disproportionately carried by women.  In her book More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan challenges the view supported by Smil.  She writes, “Modern labour-saving devices eliminated drudgery, not labour.  Before industrialization, women fed, clothed, and nursed their families and prepared (with the help of their husbands and children) food, clothing, and medication.  In the post-industrial age, women feed, clothe, and nurse their families (without much direct assistance from anyone else) by cooking, cleaning, driving, shopping, and waiting” (quoted in Waring 2004: 183-4).  Therefore, as Cowan makes clear, any discussion about the liberation of women in the “post-industrial” age must acknowledge continued gender inequality.  Waring (2004) writes, “Whether or not women’s time spent in housework has decreased may be debatable; what is not debatable is the fact that women work harder at home than men” (184).  Just as the Green Revolution’s dependence on unprecedented inputs of energy corresponded with a devaluing of women’s agricultural labor, the incorporation of inanimate forms of energy in domestic work did not ameliorate gender inequality in the household.  Neither of these histories are explained in Smil’s book.


Smil offers an insightful and at times very critical history about energy in human society.  “Indeed,” he concludes his world history, “higher energy use by itself does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens” (256).  Yet, his criticism stops short on certain topics, particularly with regard to urbanization and gender.  Addressing these shortcomings is important not only to gain a better understanding of the dialectical relationship between human society and energy in the past.  But also, ongoing debates about how to transform our current energy infrastructure will be incomplete without acknowledging the relationship between this transformation, on one side, and urbanization and gender inequality, on the other.  Smil accepts the unsustainability of urban living (255) but ignores the negative impacts from early modern urbanization on living conditions.  This omission effectively helps to naturalize the emergence of city life.  For some people, the eventual benefit of living in the city only came about later, partly as a result of the imperial transfer of wealth from the periphery to core (Bagchi 2005).  Furthermore, the massive amounts of energy flowing into industrial societies, and their subsequent electrification, did not eliminate gender inequality.  Consequently, any attempts to sustainably transform energy use by human society will likely be futile without addressing this fundamental disparity.  Moving the energy debate forward must take these critical issues into consideration.


Bagchi, A. K.  2005.  Perilous Passage: Mankind and the Global Ascendancy of Capital.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Bairoch, P.  1991.  “The City and Technological Innovation.”  In P. Higonnet, ed., Favorites of Fortune.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 159-176.

Chandler, T.  1987.  Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth.  Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen.

Engels, F.  1887.  The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.  New York: Lowell Company.

Humphrey, C. R., T. L. Lewis, and F. H. Buttel.  2002.  Environment, Energy, and Society: A New Synthesis.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

Kay, J. P.  1832.  The Moral and Physical Conditions of the Working Classes Employed in the Cotton Manufacture in Manchester.  Londgon: J. Ridgway.

Smil, V.  1994.  Energy in World History.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Waring, M.  2004.  Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Williamson, J. G.  1982.  “Was the Industrial Revolution Worth It?  Disamenities and Death in 19th Century British Towns.”  Explorations in Economic History 19: 221-245.

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