Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/November 25, 2008/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years"
AUTHOR: Vaclav Smil
PUBLISHED: September 2008, hard cover, 320 pp, £19.95

“What is the likelihood that Islamic terrorism will develop into a massive, determined quest to destroy the West?” “What is the likelihood that a massive wave of global Islamic terrorism will accelerate the Western transition to non-fossil fuel energies?” Two questions, plucked from a late chapter, exemplify both the style and the substance of Vaclav Smil’s impressive and important review of the factors that will shape our global future over the next half century. Firstly there’s that word “likelihood”, which for Smil is a quantitative concept, something we must try to measure to the best of our ability while not kidding ourselves about how good our answers are. Secondly, the questions seek to relate two separate disciplines, politics and energy usage. Smil’s answer to both questions is that we don’t know and that our best guesses provide “at best some constraining guidelines but do not offer any reliable basis for relative comparisons of diverse events or their interrelations”.

Smil is not a proponent of any grand theory about how the world works, but neither is he a passive agnostic wallowing in history-as-a-torrent-of-accidents, nor yet just a smug empiricist. He believes we have a duty to extract all the information we can from past events using the methods of science (particularly statistics intelligently applied), and that even where we can’t know for sure we can often put a figure on the extent of our ignorance. But he’s acutely aware that risk assessments based only on figures fail to capture the psychological dimension: how unsafe we feel is as important politically as how unsafe we actually are. 
Global Catastrophes and Trends is a review and interpretation of nearly 800 recent papers in economics, demographics, environmental and political science, but Smil’s book goes well beyond mere collection or even distillation. Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba and himself an acclaimed expert on the energetics of complex systems (those ~800 papers include 15 of his own), largely succeeds in imposing on this mass of technical material a uniform and rational framework for thinking about risks and challenges. We are currently living through a period of doom and gloom in which we face not only a variety of real threats – economic recession, terrorism, climate change, political instability – but also a constant bombardment of sensationalized predictions from our attention- and sales-seeking mass media that make it very difficult to think straight about such threats. Smil is determined not to join this babble and so eschews forecasts and scenarios: you will find no predictions here that “X will happen by year Y” or that “trend X will peak in year Y”.

Instead Smil starts by drawing a basic distinction between fatal discontinuities, that is low-probability events that could “change everything” like a huge volcanic eruption or collision with an asteroid, and persistent, gradually unfolding trends that might have equally profound effects over the long term, like global warming. He establishes common units for assessing and comparing the probabilities of such threats and for quantifying the damage they would cause. Chapter 2 attempts to compute the probabilities of various fatal discontinuities, concluding that the least unlikely – and the ones we can do something about – remain nuclear war (accidental or deliberate) and virulent influenza pandemic. It is worth spending money on vaccines and antiviral drugs, and also on astronomical surveys of asteroid orbits, but otherwise resources are better spent to avert more gradual threats like global warming. Chapter 3 discusses gradual trends, which covers both the transition to an economy based on non-fossil fuels and the rise and decline of the most prominent nations over the next 50 years. He is skeptical about the prospects for alternative energy sources – on scientific grounds based on energy density which he explains with great clarity – and for carbon sequestration, concluding that our best hope of slowing global warming is to reduce overall energy consumption through more efficient usage and serious lifestyle changes. Smil’s approach to environmental degradation avoids moralizing and ideology, usefully pointing out that the carbon cycle is not the only one with whose operation we are interfering, and that the nitrogen cycle is even harder to mend.

His summary of the prospects of each competitor for global supremacy is equally devastating: Europe and Japan are doomed to runner-up status by ageing populations; Islam is too divided to achieve the New Caliphate despite high fertility; US power is already waning (here Smil preempts and confirms the recent National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2005) thanks to its decline of manufacturing relative to China and colossal trade deficit; China itself has insuperable environmental problems and lacks “soft power” thanks to language and restricted intellectual freedom. He expects a turbulent next 50 years without a single hegemonic power, and with many conflicts over resources and dominance.  

Smil writes prose that is mercifully jargon-free, though unavoidably rich in technical terms: he makes judicious use of well-chosen graphs, but I should warn non-mathematical readers that familiarity with logarithmic scales, in particular log/log graphs, will help in following some of his arguments. He quantifies risk starting from the central fact of human life, general mortality (we all die eventually) which he assigns a value of 10­-6 deaths/person-exposure-hour: in the West, one person in a million dies every hour on average. Other risks are compared to this baseline value on a log/log scale, which chillingly suggests that death in hospital from preventable medical error is a greater danger than smoking, terrorism or car crash, and that young black male citizens of Philadelphia actually reduce their chance of gunshot death by serving in Iraq rather than staying home. For me the book’s most significant omission is that Smil doesn’t quantify the risk of not living in the affluent West…

Any bookie will tell you that we’re pretty poor at estimating risk, but our behavior suggests we have an innate grasp of general mortality because we only accept risks within around one order of magnitude of it in everyday life – say when we travel by car (10­-7 d/peh) rather than safer train or plane (10-8), or smoke cigarettes (2x10-6, about the same as hang gliding). Only a handful of thrill-seeking extreme sport nuts will embrace a 10-2 risk like BASE Jumping for fun. However such figures only tell part of the story: psychological factors like Understanding, Exposure and Dread are equally important. A citizen of Baghdad faces the same statistical risk of death from bomb or kidnap that a New Yorker does from car crash, but risks we understand like car driving are better accepted than inexplicable acts of random violence; the Baghdadi is exposed 24 hours a day while the New Yorker only 1-2 hours; and the idea of being blown to bits is peculiarly horrible. Politicians pay more attention to this psychological dimension than to the underlying physical risks, leading to the paradox (also remarked in David Runciman’s recent book Good Intentions) that the more responsible the politician, the more rather than less likely they are to over-react to crises like terrorist attacks.

I found this book an enormously refreshing, if demanding, read. In place of the untestable scenarios presented by most “futurologists”, Smil offers hard facts where they are available and sensible cautions where they are not. He offers few concrete policy proposals but rather a rational method of assessment that ought to constrain and guide thinking about policy. Smil ends on this note: “There is so much we do not know, and pretending otherwise is not going to make our choices clearer or easier. None of us knows which threats and concerns will soon be forgotten and which will become tragic realities. That is why we repeatedly spend enormous resources in the pursuit of uncertain (even dubious) causes and are repeatedly unprepared for real threats and unexpected events”. I think Smil should probably be set as homework for every member of parliament, and there will be a test later…

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