Disaster Watch

Under the ominous title Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, Vaclav Smil, a versatile geographer at the University of Manitoba, provides a broad, factual vision of the “major factors that will shape the global future [to 2050] and…their probabilities and potential impacts.” He warns the reader not to “expect any grand forecasts or prescriptions, any deliberate support for euphoric or catastrophic views of the future, any sermons or ideologically slanted arguments.” He promises that we should

instead, expect eclectic inquiries, reliance on long-term historical perspectives, reminders that limited understanding and inherent uncertainties are our constant companions in appraising the risks of globally fatal discontinuities and the strength and ultimate outcomes of unfolding trends.

On the whole, he fulfills this promise. On the way, he delights the reader with little-known and unexpected facts. Of course, it is hard for a man to smell his own breath and, as will be seen, he also makes some questionable claims.

Smil thinks societies change by bumps and grinds, although he does not use those words. Bumps are events of short duration and low probability with a global, transforming impact, as when an asteroid hit the earth 65 million years ago. Grinds, such as global warming, are “persistent, gradually unfolding trends that have no less far-reaching impacts in the long term.” Smil recognizes that this simple dichotomy is inadequate to capture all reality, and illustrates the continuum between bumps and grinds by major transitions in demography, energy, and the environment. Such changes—as, for example, the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria—typically stretch over at least a few decades, a long time on the scale of an earthquake but a short time for the reshaping of world history. Smil tries to calculate the odds of major risks and to evaluate trends using statistical data but, based on historical examples, concludes that “the only reliable forecast [is] our inability to forecast.”

Smil defines catastrophes as disasters that occur in minutes to months, have profound global, hemispheric, or large-scale regional impacts on world history, and occur at least every million years. The only natural physical events that meet Smil’s criteria are collisions between Earth and large extraterrestrial objects, massive volcanic eruptions, and tsunami-generating slides of volcanoes into the ocean. He gives fascinating quantitative and historical estimates for each of these.

As the recent outbreak of swine flu ominously reminds us, biology adds influenza to this short list of horrors. On June 21, 2009, when swine flu had reached seventy-four countries, infected nearly 29,000 people, and killed 144 people, the World Health Organization declared swine flu to be pandemic, the first global flu epidemic in forty-one years. Before this epidemic began, Smil wrote:

The likelihood of another influenza pandemic during the next 50 years is virtually 100 percent, but quantifying probabilities of mild, moderate, or severe events remains largely a matter of speculation because we simply do not know how pathogenic a new virus will be and what age categories it will …

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