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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 preferentially attack.

Among violent conflicts, Smil concentrates on what he calls transformational wars: the Napoleonic Wars (1796–1815), the Taiping War (1851–1864), the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II. These wars added up to some forty-two years of conflict over two centuries and averaged seventeen million deaths of combatants and civilians per conflict. Smil estimates the probability of a transformational war during the next fifty years at “no less than about 15 percent and most likely around 20 percent.” These estimates are ten to a hundred times higher than the probabilities of globally destructive natural catastrophes. As Pogo said, the enemy is us.

Of terrorist attacks, Smil writes: “Only a single conclusion can be reached with certainty, namely, that the oft-repeated post-2001 aspiration to eliminate terrorism (‘winning the war on terror’) is unachievable.” The risk to Americans from terrorist attacks and military responses to them, including all US military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq and related noncombat deaths, is, Smil estimates, about ten times less than the risk of dying from homicide and a thousand times less than the risk of fatal car accidents averaged between 1991 and 2005. “During the first five years of the twenty-first century, the US highway death toll exceeded the 9/11 fatalities every single month.”

Globally, between 1970 and 2005, fatalities caused by terrorist attacks averaged below a thousand a year, not much greater than airline accidents and volcanic eruptions, but far fewer than deaths from floods and earthquakes, which were in turn far fewer than fatalities from car accidents and medical errors, which Smil estimates as causing several hundred thousand deaths each year. He does not mention that tobacco use kills five to six million people a year globally, more than twice as many as HIV/AIDS, three times as many as tuberculosis, which accounts for about two million deaths a year, and five or six times as many as malaria, which causes some one million deaths a year. Doesn’t smoking tobacco pose a far greater threat than al-Qaeda?

Smil’s recommendations for dealing with terrorism are puzzling: “Anti-terrorism strategy should be framed not as a war but as a repressive action against a cellular, secretive, networked, violent organization.” While I agree that anti-terrorism strategy should not be framed as a war, the target is not a single organization, as he suggests, but a shifting array of shadowy organizations that emerge and disappear.

Turning from bumps to grinds, Smil focuses on unfolding trends in energy and what he calls the new world order. In 2005, the world’s total power consumption was about fifteen terawatts. (A terawatt is a million million watts.) Of this total, nearly 87 percent, or about thirteen terawatts, originated from fossil fuels. For comparison, an average person generates roughly the same amount of power as a 100-watt bulb, so the 6.5 billion people alive in 2005 generated about 0.65 terawatt. On average, in 2005 each person’s power was amplified twentyfold by fossil fuels and another threefold by power from other sources.

The transition to nonfossil energy will be difficult, Smil argues, because of the enormous scale of the change required, the lower power of the replacement fuels compared to oil, and the intermittence and uneven spatial distribution of renewable energy sources. Among the renewable sources of energy, only solar energy could conceivably be converted to a flow of electricity that is considerably larger than the current total primary energy supply. Whether such conversion would be practical is intensely debated. The technically feasible maximum energy that could be derived globally from ocean currents, tides, geothermal sources, stream runoff, and wind, Smil estimates, is less than ten terawatts. Of these, the largest potential supplier is wind energy.

Today, a return to dependence on plant matter—such as burning wood, charcoal, and dried manure—that dominated human energy consumption until the end of the nineteenth century is not in the cards: “Recent proposals of massive biomass energy schemes are among the most regrettable examples of wishful thinking and ignorance.” For instance, if the United States transportation sector were to run on ethanol produced from corn at 2005 rates, it would require roughly three quarters of the country’s farmland.

Among alternative energy sources, Smil favors “aggressively pushing nuclear electricity generation.” He concedes that nuclear power lacks both public acceptance and a way to dispose of the spent fuel durably and safely. He gives little attention to the risk of exploiting nuclear plants as terrorist targets or as sources of weapons-grade nuclear materials.

The adoption of new forms of energy will differ, Smil argues, from the earlier transition from plant matter to fossil fuels, which was driven by the disappearance of forests, the advantages of fossil fuels in energy density, storage, and flexibility of use, and the lower costs of hydrocarbons and coal. For the future, while oil is getting more expensive, coal remains abundant and cheap, and the new energy sources are unlikely to be either cheaper or easier to use, though they may produce far smaller quantities of greenhouse gases.

About climate change, Smil is equivocal. He acknowledges the potentially far-reaching consequences of global warming, and warns that “continued large-scale combustion of fossil fuels could increase atmospheric CO2 to levels unseen since large herds of horses and camels grazed on grassy plains of America.” He also writes that “no country will be immune to global climate change, and no military capability, economic productivity, or orthodox religiosity can provide protection against its varied consequences.” But he suggests that “this preoccupation with CO2 misses nearly half of the problem,” because other kinds of greenhouse gases, such as methane (which is emitted by livestock, natural gas, and organic decay), have more potent greenhouse effects, even if they are less abundant. And he is critical of predictions about global warming derived from complex models of climate behavior, which he considers “elaborate speculations”:

In order to forecast the additional warming that might take place by the year 2050 we must rely on a set of highly uncertain assumptions. We do not know…the future rates of fossil fuel combustion, land use changes, fertilizer use, and meat production. They will depend on the continuing increases of energy use, the extent of discoveries of new hydrocarbon deposits, the rates of penetration of nonfossil energy conversions, national land use policies, disposable incomes, and the overall vitality of the global economy.

Perhaps as a consequence, Smil sees climate change as one of “many other worrisome large-scale environmental changes,” and does not discuss the possible catastrophes about which some climate scientists have warned.1

In addition to climate change, Smil’s two big unknowns are how much the influence of Islam will continue to grow and how far inequality in income and wealth within and between nations will increase. I will consider here only the influence of Islam. Smil argues against the plausibility of a centrally governed Islamic caliphate from Morocco to Pakistan:

Because the Muslim world is too heterogeneous (in sectarian, economic, cultural, and political ways), the chances of seeing such an extensive, coherent, and globally powerful political and economic entity before 2050 are vanishingly small…. The problem is not Islam, a religion with tenets as contradictory, as open to diverse interpretation, and as confusing in its totality as are its two great monotheistic inspirations, Judaism and Christianity. The problem is political or politicized Islam, Islam tendentiously interpreted, or not interpreted at all and hence stubbornly anchored in its medieval origins.

Smil thinks the Muslim world is barred from greater global influence by its late and insufficient demographic transition from high birth rates and death rates to low birth rates and low death rates. This problem, he suggests, has led in many Muslim countries to rapidly growing populations with a high proportion of young people to educate and employ. On the other hand Smil also thinks Europe as a whole is barred from being a great power by its early and overextended demographic transition to low birth and death rates. Does greatness require a demographic transition like porridge for the three bears, not too cold and not too hot?

  1. 1

    See Bill McKibben’s review of Nicholas Stern’s The Global Deal, The New York Review, June 11, 2009.

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