Global Catastrophes and Trends - the Next 50 Years

Vaclav Smil, MIT Press, 320 pages, $29.95, ISBN-10: 0-262-19586-0-13; ISBN-13: 978-0-262-19586-7

This is largely a book on quantitative scientific analyses of probabilities for, and consequences of, potential events or developments that could have catastrophic or drastically altering effects on humankind. These are divided into three categories, each covered by a lengthy chapter:

  1. fatal discontinuities like encounters with extraterrestrial objects, volcanic mega-eruptions, and disease pandemics;
  2. unfolding trends like transitions in energy sources, changing seats of political and economic power and influence, and globalization;
  3. environmental problems like global warming, water supplies, and loss of biodiversity.

All of these problems and many more are analyzed at substantial length, presenting a wide spectrum of scientific viewpoints with each elaborately referenced. These references, about 750 in all, are perhaps the most valuable aspect of the book for research-oriented readers, and their abundance is truly impressive. Uncertainties in the analyses are constantly acknowledged, but these do not deter the author from arriving at what he describes as consensus conclusions.

Here are some samples of these conclusions:

  • Over the next 50 years, there is a 1% chance that there will be as many as 40,000 deaths from incoming extraterrestrial objects, 3 million deaths from volcanoes and tsunamis, 40 million deaths from influenza pandemics, and 40 million deaths from a very large war. There is a 0.01% chance that over the same time period these numbers will be 1 million deaths, 10 million deaths, 100 million deaths, and 100 million deaths respectively.
  • Except for inhabitants of the Near East, the average person's lifetime risk of dying in a terrorist attack is one chance in 50,000; his risk of dying in a car accident is 600 times larger.
  • Following very extensive discussion and analysis, he concludes that a transition from fossil fuels to renewables will be extremely difficult and very slow to occur. For example, substituting corn ethanol for gasoline in U.S. would require twice the country’s entire cultivated area; using cellulosic alcohol would require 75% of its farmland and would have drastic environmental consequences.
  • A hydrogen economy could take shape only during the closing decades of this century, and he has little optimism about fuel cells. His best hope for the near future, a very uncertain one, is on methanol.
  • Discussion of the new world order occupies one third of the book and presents many facts and references, but it is only superficially a scientific treatment. He concludes that China’s rise and the U.S.'s retreat will continue, but slowly, with no other countries challenging them. He gives lengthy arguments for why they will not be challenged by Europe, Japan, India, the Muslim world, or Russia.
  • There are serious problems arising from economic inequality both within nations and among nations. These inequalities have been getting worse, with little hope for them to improve.
  • The best available evidence is that global warming will be 2.5 to 3 degrees Celsius by 2100; he even gives a curve of probability vs. temperature rise. The economic costs of this warming would be about 1% of the gross world product, with large uncertainty, but the effects vary greatly for different nations.
  • He estimates a sea level rise of 15 cm by 2050.
  • Water availability will be a severe problem in many areas. Contaminated water and water-borne diseases now kill 5 million people per year.
  • Anthropogenic fixation of nitrogen is a serious problem which will be extremely difficult to overcome.
  • For the past century, extinction of species has been 100 times faster than indicated by the fossil rate, and it may become 1000 times faster in the next 50 years.
  • Antibiotic resistance is becoming a very serious problem; without new breakthroughs we will lose our ability to combat bacterial infections.
  • Unpredictable consequences of our interference with biospheric functions could have catastrophic effects.

The final chapter is about how to deal with risks and uncertainty, keeping various risks in proper perspective and recognizing the large uncertainties in many of his previous analyses. He ends by reminding the reader that “demise” or “collapse”are categories of our making, and that catastrophes and endings are also opportunities and beginnings.

The author, Vaclav Smil, is a professor in the Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources at the University of Manitoba and author of several books and numerous research papers on related subjects. I found this to be a very valuable book, loaded with facts, figures, and above all references to wide varieties of analyses whose conclusions are summarized and commented upon. It is easy and interesting to read, although reading is slowed down by the ubiquity of numbers and the necessity for mentally digesting the concepts presented. I certainly plan to keep my copy close at hand as a reference for a long time to come.

Bernard L. Cohen
Professor-Emeritus, University of Pittsburgh

This contribution has not been peer-refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.