307 pages, 74 illustrations
Fundamental change occurs most often in one of two ways: as a "fatal discontinuity," a sudden catastrophic event that is potentially world changing, or as a persistent, gradual trend. Global catastrophes include volcanic eruptions, viral pandemics, wars, and large-scale terrorist attacks; trends are demographic, environmental, economic, and political shifts that unfold over time. In this provocative book, scientist Vaclav Smil takes a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary look at the catastrophes and trends the next fifty years may bring. This is not a book of forecasts or scenarios but one that reminds us to pay attention to, and plan for the consequences of, apparently unpredictable events and the ultimate direction of long-term trends.
Smil first looks at rare but cataclysmic events, both natural and human-produced, then at trends of global importance: the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources; demographic and political shifts in Europe, Japan, Russia, China, the United States, and the Muslim world; the battle for global primacy; and growing economic and social inequality. He also considers environmental change – in some ways an amalgam of sudden discontinuities and gradual change – and assesses the often misunderstood complexities of global warming. Global Catastrophes and Trends does not come down on the side of either doom-and-gloom scenarios or techno-euphoria. Instead, relying on long-term historical perspectives and a distaste for the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge, Smil argues that understanding change will help us reverse negative trends and minimize the risk of catastrophe.
"I think Smil should probably be set as homework for every Member of Parliament, and there will be a test later [...] "
– Dick Pountain, The Political Quarterly
"This book is the best antidote I have found to the universal tendency to be overconfident in predicting the future. Smil leads the reader through a wide assortment of natural, biomedical, technological, and geopolitical developments that could shape the next fifty years. While analysts, corporations, and governments will continue to make confident fifty- or hundred-year predictions of GDP, energy consumption, greenhouse gases, and similar quantities, Smil shows readers why such predictions should not be believed."
– M. Granger Morgan, Head, Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University
"In a world awash with alarmist commentators and vested interests, Vaclav Smil's Global Catastrophes and Trends is a timely antidote. Believers and skeptics alike should welcome this carefully measured assessment of the relative orders of magnitude that can reasonably be attached to the civilizational risks he describes. Smil's approach is rare in managing to combine a consistently hard-headed, quantitative analysis of risks with a humane appreciation of the difficulties the management of these risks entails. This is not a book for people who have made their minds up in the absence of evidence. It is essential reading for those interested in informing themselves about risks and trends that could derail our settled expectations and concerned to ensure that the responses they advocate are of sensible proportions."
– Simon Upton, Chairman, Round Table on Sustainable Development, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
"At home alike in both the natural and human sciences, the author gives an incisive analysis of the way change occurs both in terms of unpredictable discontinuities and gradually unfolding trends. His treatment of trends over the next fifty years is especially interesting, and his pages on America's 'retreat' informed and convincing. Smil offers not predictions but a balanced, holistic treatment of what may be ahead for humanity. Anyone interested in history, demography, economics, environmentalism, or riskanalysis, along with globalization, will find this a 'must-read' book."
– Bruce Mazlish, Professor of History Emeritus, MIT
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Vaclav Smil is Distinguished Professor at the University of Manitoba and the author of many books, including Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, Energy at the Crossroads, The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change, Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization, all of which are published by The MIT Press. He was awarded the 2007 Olivia Schieffelin Nordberg Award for excellence in writing and editing in the population sciences.