Global Catastrophes and Trends: The next fifty Years by Vaclav Smil is a mathematically inclined author with a historical bent. He is concerned as everyone should be with the current trends of humanity. He states right in the title that he is limiting this book to the next fifty years which is reasonable and fair but it is hoped he will soon follow it up with one which has a much longer time boundary. When discussing the entirety of humanities existential problem in the abstract, as he does, it seems more reasonable to have a much longer view. He briefly mentions humanity as existing as agriculturalists for 10,000 years and as civilizations for 5,000 years so he does have an extended historical view. This is emphasized by the concluding pages of the book which discuss a beautiful Roman basilica, Santa Sabina built in 422 CE just a dozen years after the Visigoth Alaric sack of Rome in 410. His point was that the collapse of the Roman Empire wasn’t the end of the world even for the city of Rome. To emphasize the point he mentions a second church Santo Stefano Rotondo which was completed seven years after the usual date for the end of the Western Roman Empire.
These were obviously expensive buildings to construct and they certainly were not built by a totally destroyed people. It remains here as a reminder of the greatness that was Rome even in its dying years. But the question arises why does Smil end this book about doom and gloom with this emphasis on a positive note?
The book is solid factually and more reasonable than the other doomsday scenarios which I have blogged about on this subject and he attempts to paint a reasonable forecast for the future of humanity using his mathematical expertise as much as possible. There are long sections on all the usual humanity wide problems of global warming, resource depletion, terrorism, pandemic diseases, and major war. In the preface, page xi, he mentions two papers about the next 50 years he published in Population and Development Review, a few years ago, which was the launching point for this book. Because of that population based starting point I was hoping for and expecting a more thorough handling of the population problem. But, there was very little. He apparently seems to think that problem will take care of itself. I don’t think it will take care of itself in a pleasant way and that it will make all of the problems which he successfully smooths over much worse. Resource depletion, like soil erosion, is clearly worsened by greater population. Water supply being compromised is worsened by greater population, Food supply in a world with a billion people already on semi-starvation standards is worsened by greater population. Essentially every one of the subjects which he discusses with considerable clarity is worsened by greater population. But he barely mentions that in his future scenarios.
The problem is that the population which presently exists will consume some critical single use resources to the exhaustion within the lifetimes of children now born and perhaps some may come to short supply within the lifetimes of older adults. That it may not happen this year may be the reason he sub-titles his book with a fifty year time boundary. By limiting his book in that way the problems, which he smooths over, may not reach the catastrophic tipping-point within his life. However, if he had put the sub-title of his book at one hundred years, the life expectancy of some babies now alive, the premise of his whole book would become obviously unworkable. There are lots of things which will fail totally in that time frame if the population keeps exploding and even if it remains static at the seven billion it will hit any day now. It is obvious that the bigger the population the quicker these one time use resources will be gone. But, he and everyone else it seems, refuse to acknowledge that simple fact.
Just saying the creative people will find answers for the problems and the more people the better doesn’t mean it will happen and just because he says politicians are reasonable people doesn’t mean some of them won’t crack at some point and start an atomic war. And just calling people cranks because they think the world is rushing headlong towards a doomsday doesn’t prevent the disaster from crashing down upon us. And just because Alaric and a bunch of Goths with arrows and clubs didn’t totally destroy Rome and left it with the potential to build some really nice churches doesn’t mean that we with our present arsenal of 30,000 H-bombs wouldn’t bring our civilization to a total end. It is difficult to understand why his optimism that everything will work itself out in a pleasant way suffuses his book on global catastrophes.
I enjoyed reading the book and would recommend it above the others I have read on this subject but I think that if one comes back in a hundred years (or perhaps it will be a thousand years from now) that the future reader of Global Catastrophes would break down in tears. This obviously very intelligent and well-informed person didn’t see the obvious problems and shout the warnings from the roof tops in a way that would change what people are doing and prevent the obviously impending disaster. This book and the others of this genera are counter productive because they make the problem seem solvable by business as usual methods.
I am reminded of the much more obvious case of shortsightedness of intelligent, well-informed, rich people living in a Berkeley mansion perched directly on the deadly Hayward earthquake fault. It is also in a zone of frequent and repeated fire storms, where there are known mud slides and on a certain H-bomb target in any future major war. If intelligent people with unlimited options don’t have enough foresight to protect their own lives and their families lives what hope is there for them to avoid a much more abstract one like world catastrophe. This was the same neighborhood where Oppenheimer, Teller and Cunningham lived and they were fine examples of superior human intelligence and sanity. If they are possessed of such future blindness what hope is there for the rest of us. That is why we need a back up plan for our planet.
The Antarctic EarthArk would salvage some of our modern life after Doomsday.