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Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years [Kindle Edition]

Vaclav Smil
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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. Smil first
looks at rare but cataclysmic events, both natural and human-produced, then at trends of global
importance, including the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources 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, Smil argues that understanding change will
help us reverse negative trends and minimize the risk of catastrophe.

Editorial Reviews


"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

"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 risk analysis, along with globalization, will find this a 'must' book."--Bruce Mazlish, Professor of History Emeritus, MIT

About the Author

Vaclav Smil is the author of more than thirty books on energy, the environment, food, and the history of technical advances, including Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, published by the MIT Press. He is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba. In 2010 he was named by Foreign Policy as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers.

Product Details

  • File Size: 4864 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press (July 11, 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004GEC5LS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #195,188 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very balanced and insightful thinking on the topic September 3, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Contrary to what the title suggests, this is not about over-hyping any apocalyptic scenarios. To the contrary, Smil thinks through issues in an insightful and detached way. From the book, you develop critical thinking skills to vaccinate your mind against Media hype. You also develop a healthy skepticism towards any forecasts as they always miss the boat.

Smil classifies changes that could affect our civilization into two categories. First, the abrupt ones are unpredictable and potentially devastating. They include natural phenomena such as asteroids, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, and influenza pandemics. They also include man-caused wars, genocides, and terrorism. The second type of changes occur over half a century or more. Those include the energy transition away from fossil fuel, and the slow changes in balance of geopolitical powers.

Smil states we are notoriously bad at forecasting risks or anything else. He mentions numerous Peak Oil forecasts that were invariably wrong. Smil mentions how in the 1970s, we were concerned a next ice age was upon us. Geopolitic, economic, and demographic forecasts have been wrong too. The rapid economic ascent of China and rapid retreat of Japan since 1990 were unforeseen by everyone. The sudden break up of the USSR was also unexpected.

Smil states we are even bad at explaining what already happened. As an example, Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed mentioned only deforestation as a cause of the devastation of the Easter Island community. But, he missed out on rats infestation, infectious diseases, and enslavement.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Careful Thought January 21, 2009
There is something arrogant about an author who in the same book covers economics, history, and physical science. He questions the peak oil calculations, instructs us on which will be the leading civilization of the future, and criticizes the global warming scenario among a multitude of other expectations for the future. Here are some examples of his trends for the next fifty years.

He questions the estimate that peak oil production will be reached between 2012 and 2020 because (1) estimation models are simplistic, (2) many past estimates have failed, and (3) published reserve estimates are not complete or to be trusted. He carefully considers the probability of Europe, Japan, Islam, Russia, and China or the United States as the leading civilization of the future. Europe is too heterogenous, Japan too old, Islam too backward, Russia too primitive, China still has a long way to go, and we all know the retreating fortunes of the United States.

His discussion of global warming stresses the limitations of our knowledge. Especially the computer models we use to project future warming rely on "highly uncertain assumptions" (p.178). He stresses that IPCC forecasts consider a 21st century global temperature increase of less than 1.5 C unlikely, but also an increase of more than 5 C as equally unlikely. Thus the most probable global warming in the 21st century will be in the range 2.5 to 3 C (p. 180). Most societies will have to adapt to this gradual temperature increase, but will be able to do so.

The book is thoroughly footnoted, and the author provides 37 pages of references. Vaclav Smil is a careful thinker, who despite the broad spread of his discussion has mastered the subject matter and carefully considers his words.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
This is a highly informative and stimulating book for those who care about where we humans and our biosphere are heading. Vaclav Smil claims to have a superior approach to illuminating the next fifty years that offers "the best way" for us to imagine and plan for new circumstances. No comprehensive solutions are offered, only a small number of scattered suggestions. For example, Smil writes that water and nitrogen management are just as important as global warming, but offers no solutions on how these might be addressed. Smil does advise a very commendable "no-regrets" approach: that the benefits of counter-measures often warrant their execution, regardless of whether the perceived risk being addressed turns out to be well-founded (his example: global warming). The book is at its best when describing individual potential catastrophes, giving numbers and comparisons, pointing out important facts and fallacies and calling for rational, systematic risk reduction. The approach is a mix of quantitative statistics and estimations as well as qualitative analysis of trends. The latter is at times highly subjective and, at least in one case, incorrect. The book contradicts itself in a substantial way regarding whether we should accelerate the transition to renewable energy. The contradictions and numerous typographical errors show that the author should invest more time to improve the text quality of his publications.

From the Introduction: "Above all this is not a book of forecasts... Nor is this a volume of scenarios.... A close, critical, interdisciplinary look ... can be beneficial in reminding us... to pay adequate attention to the consequences of unpredictable... catastrophic events and to the clearly discernible outcomes of worrisome long-term trends. ....
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Kind of a thick read
A lot of numbers and stats make you lose track of what is being conveyed. It could do with less.
Published 8 months ago by AAHC
5.0 out of 5 stars Whew! Read this and think about the world your ...
Whew! Read this and think about the world your children will inherit. Then, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.
Published 8 months ago by DUSA
5.0 out of 5 stars Vlaclav Smil for Secretary of State
Vaclav Smil is the only clear economic voice with data and analysis to back up his position. And with 30+ books behind him, one hears very little argument against his hard... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Steve Anderson
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive, authoritative and thoughtful
The three adjectives above say it all. Impressive work. He never resorts to alarmism even when the scenarios he paints seem dire. Read more
Published 9 months ago by L. Nery
5.0 out of 5 stars to bad the average American won't read it
Very bad the average American won't read it...
Published 10 months ago by tm7devils
5.0 out of 5 stars Astounding
If you want to gorge yourself on contemporary trends, and a heavily fact-based analysis thereof, I have read nothing better. Read more
Published 13 months ago by Paul Gibbons
5.0 out of 5 stars Great survey
A must read for risk analysis by a true interdisciplinary thinker. I recommend any one with an interest in forecasting read this.
Published 13 months ago by Mighty whig
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant but with a couple glaring omissions
I decided to catch up on Vaclav Smil last week. I had kept running into his name. That's not too surprising given how many books he has written. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Patrick L. Boyle
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting and carefully reasoned
Smil's work is always impressive. His breadth and depth are astonishing. He doesn't take shortcuts and never goes into easy doomsday prediction or "everything will be... Read more
Published 16 months ago by Mr G.
5.0 out of 5 stars Critique of Global Catastrophes and Trends
Excellent book of facts and figures and arguments, without reaching predictive conclusions. It was a bit difficult for casual reading. Read more
Published on April 20, 2013 by ron kock
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More About the Author

Vaclav Smil is currently a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He completed his graduate studies at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of Carolinum University in Prague and at the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences of the Pennsylvania State University. His interdisciplinary research interests encompass a broad area of energy, environmental, food, population, economic, historical and public policy studies, and he had also applied these approaches to energy, food and environmental affairs of China.

He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (Science Academy) and the first non-American to receive the American Association for the Advancement of Science Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology. He has been an invited speaker in more than 250 conferences and workshops in the USA, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa, has lectured at many universities in North America, Europe and East Asia and has worked as a consultant for many US, EU and international institutions. His wife Eva is a physician and his son David is an organic synthetic chemist.

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