Dealing with the unknowns of catastrophe

In Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years, Vaclav Smil considers a number of scenarios. What danger, damage, and destruction can we expect over the next 50 years? Will the biggest threat to human civilization come from volcanic eruption, economic collapse, climate change, terrorism, or extraterrestrial objects? The use of the word “trend” in title of the book hints at the approach Smil seeks to take in discussing this. His story is not about catastrophes that have occurred, although he references many to support his analysis. He’s also not interested in raising the level of fear by making any wild (or calculated) predictions about where the next catastrophe is likely to take place or what this catastrophe might involve. He is more interested in exploring the gap between our obsession with catastrophic events and the likelihood that those we fear most will ever happen in our lifetimes.

The book is dense with statistics and calculated rates of probability. This attention to detail adds weight to Smil’s insistence that we need to adopt a more rational and scientific approach to our thinking and worrying about catastrophe. Instead of relying on stories of doom and gloom, or on prophetic claims of the end of the world, he demands we think logically about what the real threats are to our ways of living in the first half of this century. Once we know and work with the facts, we can better assess the risks and prepare for events that are most likely to occur and most likely to prove catastrophic.

The overall conclusion that Smil makes is that much of our current concern about devastation to our world and cultures is unfounded. He insists that our current fears of economic meltdown and terrorism are overstated. He argues that climate change and poverty may cause us harm during the next few decades. Importantly, however, he encourages more attention to uncertainty. We currently spend a lot of resources trying to predict and to prepare us for a catastrophic event which may never occur. This may well be the practice of a human species that desires to be seen as and to act as rational. We so desperately want to be in control of it all, and by trying to predict and prepare for anything that might happen, this may convince us that we are. In reality, however, our emotions and fears drive much of this work; and this results in a lot of our time and money being put into issues that are extremely unlikely to affect us.

“But perhaps nothing is more important for the exercise of rational attitudes than always trying to consider events within longer historical perspectives and trying to avoid the chronic affliction of modern opinion makers who tend to favor extreme positions. The product of these ephemerally framed opinions is a range of attitudes and conclusions that resemble the cogitations of an unstable manic-depressive mind. Unrealistic optimism and vastly exaggerated expectations contrast with portrayals of irretrievable doom and indefensibly defeatist prospects.” (p.235)

While others write about the certainty of the rise of China as the next economic superpower or the certainty of Islamic fundamentalism, Smil draws on historical evidence to show how the future is rarely what we are certain it will be. How will the global economy shift and change? What will the impacts of climate change be on human cultures? When will the earth next be hit by a meteorite and how big will it be? There are too many factors to take into account and too many scenarios to consider to provide certain answers, Smil suggests. A catastrophe may happen. It is, according to Smil, unlikely to happen in the way we imagine it will. But we can never predict fully what will happen. And so we can only ever prepare ourselves for the unknown.

(Review by Dr. Dean Laplonge)


Myke Hawke speaks out on “being prepared…”
Here are a few statistics we can add to help us evaluate a need for readiness and to what degree readiness should be developed to mitigate exigencies.

  1. We know for a fact that in the 1960s there were 3 billion human beings on the planet.
  2. We know for a fact that today there are more than 7 billion.
  3. We can assume, at the current growth rate, there will be around 9 billion by the 2030s.

STATEMENT # 1: It took 10,000 years to get to 3 billion people and less than 100 years to get to 9 billion.
ASSUMPTION # 1: The human population that took all of mankind’s history to get to by the 1960s will triple in the course of one standard 80-year life span.

STATEMENT # 2: Almost all wars have been fought over resources.
ASSUMPTION # 2: Resources will become strained regardless of technological advances.

STATEMENT # 3: There have always been natural disasters.
ASSUMPTION # 3: The impacts of those disasters will affect more people simple because there are more people. It will also require more resources to recover since more people will experience losses.

A) PREPARE FOR DISASTERS. No one has ever accurately predicted exactly how things were to occur, regardless of man-made or natural disasters. Too many factors in human endeavors and within nature are unpredictable, but one thing is certain, wars and storms will happen.
B) TRAIN. No one can ever be fully ready for battle, but they can be better prepared than doing nothing, by training and becoming familiarized with what to expect and how better to react.
C) SUPPLY. Nothing manmade can withstand the full force of nature and manmade weapons can destroy everything we know. Having supplies and back-ups can ameliorate the circumstances.


Smil, V. (2012). Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.

(Thank you to The MIT Press for providing a review copy. We hope to include an interview with Professor Smil in a future blog post.)

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