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Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years First Edition Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0262195867
ISBN-10: 0262195860
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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, environment, food, and history of technical advances, including Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines and Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Nature, both 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.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: The MIT Press; First Edition edition (July 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0262195860
  • ISBN-13: 978-0262195867
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #551,973 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.

Official Website: www.vaslavsmil.com

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Gaetan Lion on 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 By Wolf Roder on January 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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 By Marc Riese on July 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
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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