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Global Catastrophes and Trends

Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years

Vaclav Smil
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Global Catastrophes and Trends
    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-28387-8
    Subjects: General Science, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface: What to Expect
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. 1 How (Not) to Look Ahead
    (pp. 1-8)

    Any one of us may indulge in speculations about global futures tailored to particular moods or biases, from Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) ahistorical “end of history,” forseeing the universal triumph of liberal democracy, to the Ehrlichs’ (2004) lament that the fate of liberal democracy will be similar to Nineveh’s. Fukuyama rightly complains that he has been misunderstood, that he did not suggest events’ coming to an end. Rather, he maintains, no matter how large and grave any future events will be, history itself (“as a single, coherent, evolutionary process”) is over because nothing else awaits but an eventual triumph of liberal...

  5. 2 Fatal Discontinuities
    (pp. 9-70)

    Bostrom (2002) classified existential risks—those that could annihilate intelligent life or permanently or drastically curtail its potential, in contrast to such “endurable” risks as moderate global warming or economic recessions—into bangs (extinctions due to sudden disasters), crunches (events that thwart future developments), shrieks (events resulting in very limited advances), and whimpers (changes that lead to the eventual demise of humanity). I divide them, less dramatically, into (1) known catastrophic risks, whose probabilities can be assessed owing to their recurrence; (2) plausible catastrophic risks, which have never taken place and whose probabilities of occurrence are thus much more difficult...

  6. 3 Unfolding Trends
    (pp. 71-170)

    Fundamental changes in human affairs come both as unpredictable discontinuities and as gradually unfolding trends. Discontinuities are more common than is generally realized, and chapter 2 addressed those natural and anthropogenic catastrophes that have the greatest potential to affect the course of global civilization. But another category of discontinuities deserves at least a brief acknowledgment, that of epoch-making technical developments. Incremental engineering progress (improvements in efficiency and reliability, reduction of unit costs) and gradual diffusion of new techniques (usually following fairly predictable logistic curves) are very much in evidence, but they are punctuated by surprising, sometimes stunning, discontinuities.

    By far...

  7. 4 Environmental Change
    (pp. 171-218)

    There is nothing new about large-scale impacts of human activities on the biosphere. Conversion of forests, grasslands, and wetlands to crop fields, and deforestation driven by the need for wood and charcoal to heat homes and smelt metals, and for lumber to construct cities and ships, changed natural ecosystems on a grand scale in preindustrial Europe and Asia. Even the pre-1492 American societies had a greater impact on their environment than previously surmised. An assumption has been that these changes transformed the environment only on a local or regional scale, deforestation in the Mediterranean countries or in North China being...

  8. 5 Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty
    (pp. 219-254)

    A number of potential catastrophes that could transform the world in a matter of months (extraordinarily virulent pandemics, a sequence of volcanic mega-eruptions) or even minutes (collision with a massive extraterrestrial object, accidental nuclear war), and a much longer array of worrisome trends (whose outcome can be a new world order or a historically unprecedented global environmental change) add up, even when approached with a robust belief in the problem-solving capacity of our sapient species, to an enormous challenge. Any other attitude leads to responses that differ in form but agree in their dismal substance.

    Fundamentally, there is little difference...

  9. Appendix A: Units and Abbreviations, Prefixes
    (pp. 255-256)
  10. Appendix B: Acronyms
    (pp. 257-258)
  11. References
    (pp. 259-296)
  12. Name Index
    (pp. 297-298)
  13. Subject Index
    (pp. 299-308)