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

4.4 out of 5 stars 20 customer reviews
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: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #115,456 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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. So I ordered this book and his book on 'China's Environmental Crisis'. I am also going to read his book on Prime Movers and possibly some others. Now for some observations about this book.

When I got this book in the mail I panicked. I had recently watched one of those 'Top Ten' countdown TVs shows on world disasters. I had chosen this particular book almost at random. I was interested in reading anything by Smil. I at first thought that this was the book that that idiotic TV show was based on. But I was wrong. The topic was roughly the same but the approach was different.

Smil is a serious scholar, He is quantitative and he is even handed. He is very far away from the mass media sensationalists who also write on these same topics. He has the courage to be optimistic in the face of a lot of seemingly bad news. He does however skip or skimp on a few questions and problems. He also is a bit disappointing in his lightweight and superficial approach to a couple problems.

For example he routinely criticizes American education in the same fashion we have come to expect in the popular mass press. He tells us that American kids don't do well on the many standardized tests now administered internationally. That's of course true enough if you only consider averages but is not true at all if you disaggregate the numbers by race. The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese do very well on these kind of tests and so do the East Asian kids who live in the US. In fact our American Chinese, Japanese, and Korean kids do better than they do in their native countries. This fact seems to argue that American schools are just fine.
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