Review (Guest): Global Catastrophes and Trends – The Next Fifty Years

5 Star, Complexity & Catastrophe, Complexity & Resilience
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Vaclav Smil

5.0 out of 5 stars Very balanced and insightful thinking on the topic, September 3, 2010

Gaetan Lion

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. We invariably miss out on tons of variables when explaining past events.

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