Global Catastrophes

Influenza Pandemics

Modern hygiene, nationwide and worldwide inoculation, constant monitoring of infectious outbreaks, and emergency vaccinations have either completely eliminated or drastically reduced a number of previously lethal, deeply injurious, or widely discomforting epidemic diseases, including cholera, diphtheria, pertussis, polio, smallpox, tuberculosis, and typhoid. I hasten to add that these have been battles with no assured permanence. Pertussis (whooping cough) is coming back among children too...

Encounters with Extraterrestrial Objects

What Extraterrestrial Disaster

The Earth constantly passes through a widely dispersed but in aggregate quite massive amount of universal debris McSween 1999 . Common sizes of these mete-oroids range from microscopic particles to bodies with diameters lt 10 m. As a result, the planet is constantly showered with microscopic dust, and even the bits with diameter 1 mm, large enough to leave behind a light path as they self-destruct in the atmosphere meteors , come every 30 s. This constant infall about 5 t per day poses...

Loss of Biodiversity and Invasive Species

The loss of biodiversity usually evokes the demise of such charismatic mega-fauna as Indian tigers, Chinese pandas, and Kenyan cheetahs. All these species are greatly endangered, but in terms of irreplaceable ecosystemic services their loss would not even remotely compare with the loss of economically important invertebrates. Both Europe and North America have seen a gradual decline of pollinators, including domesticated honeybees and wild insects. Pollination by bees is an irreplaceable...

Japans Decline

Japan's rise, more phenomenal than Europe's recovery after WW II, lasted less than two generations, between 1955, when the country finally surpassed its prewar GDP, and the late 1980s, when it was widely seen as an unbeatable economic Titan. This surge was all the more remarkable considering its near-total dependence on imported energy and the OPEC-driven oil price shocks of 1973-1974 and 1979-1980. At that time its admirable dynamism and enviable economic performance earned it widespread...

Islams Choice

The question regarding the establishment of a new centrally governed Muslim caliphate extending from Spain to Pakistan that I posed in the preceding section is easy to answer. Because the Muslim world is too heterogeneous (in sectarian, economic, cultural, and political ways), the chances of seeing such an extensive, coherent, and globally powerful political and economic entity before 2050 are vanishingly small. That leaves us with questions that are much harder to answer. Why is the current...

Chinas Rise

Historians of dynastic China would say that return would be a more accurate description than rise. For about two millennia China was the preindustrial world's largest economy. Maddison (2001) credited it with some three-quarters of the global economic output at the beginning of the Common Era, two-thirds by the year 1000, and still nearly 60 by 1820. There is little doubt that under Qianlong (17361795), the longest reigning of all Qing dynasty emperors, it was on average more prosperous in per...

Globalization and Inequality

In addition to this complex assortment of national factors, we must consider globalization, a supranational trend that makes a single nation's claiming an undisputed place on top even less likely. Globalization has profound personal implications for each of us because it affects our place along the ever-shifting continuum of individual and familial well-being. Perhaps its most personally relevant impact is the increasing frequency and range of income and social inequality. Globalization was...

Changing Water and Nitrogen Cycles

Concerns about global warming led to a widespread belief that no other biospheric cycle is subject to so much human interference as the global carbon cycle. This conclusion is doubly wrong. Human interference in the global water cycle is a source of more imminent problems and already a major cause of large-scale premature mortality. And human actions have already changed the global nitrogen cycle much more than carbon cycling, and the ultimate consequences of this multifaceted change may be...

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibacterial drugs, originally derived from spore-forming microbes and commercially available since the 1940s, were one of the most consequential innovations of the twentieth century. They have been a major cause of extended life expectancy and saved millions of lives that would have been lost to previously untreatable diseases. Less dramatically, they have shortened the course of common infections, lessened patient discomfort, and speeded up recovery. But their spreading use led inevitably to...

Energy Transitions

Energy Transition Smil

Energy flows and conversions sustain and delimit the lives of all organisms, and hence also of such superorganisms as societies and civilizations. No human action can take place without harnessing and transforming energies. From a fundamental biophysical (thermodynamic) perspective, the fortunes of nations are not determined primarily by strategic designs or economic performance but by the magnitude and efficiency of their energy conversions (Smil 2008). Global consumption of coal (supplemented...

Oceans Rise Dynamics and Composition

Ocean covers roughly 70 of the Earth's surface. It is the key regulator of global climate and the dominant source of the planet's precipitation. It also provides a convenient medium for inexpensive, long-distance transportation and supplies nearly 10 of the world's food protein. An increasing share of humanity lives along or near its shores. Clearly, any significant changes to ocean's properties and to its mean level are bound to have a major impact on the fortunes of modern civilization. A...

Biospheres Integrity

Some forms of life have been on the Earth for well over 3 billion years. Complex organisms began diffusing about half a billion years ago, mammals became abundant 50 millions year ago, our hominid ancestors date to more than 5 million years ago, and our species has been evolving increasingly complex modes of existence (though not necessarily a greater sapience) during the past 100,000 years. On the civilizational time scale 103 years, with less than 10,000 years elapsing from the tentative...

Dealing with Risk and Uncertainty

Quam multa fieri non posse prius quam sunt facta iudicantur (How many things are judged impossible before they actually occur ) Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), Naturalis Historia, Vll.i, 6 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...

Ecosystems and Economies

Temperature is a key determinant of the extent of life on the Earth, and of its intensity, because temperature highly correlates with the metabolic rates of decomposers, photosynthetic rates and zonal ranges of plants, and stocks, growth rates, habitat ranges, and migration patterns of heterotrophs ranging from zooplankton to top predators as well as with the diffusion rates of pathogens and disease resistance of hosts (Stenseth et al. 2002 Harvell et al. 2002). Biota will react to rising...

Dominant Fuels Enduring Prime Movers

Many comments on energy futures (ranging from catastrophic predictions of an imminent oil drought to unrealistic forecasts of future biomass energy uses) betray the fundamental lack of understanding of the nature and dynamics of the global energy system. The three key facts for this understanding are these We are an overwhelmingly fossil-fueled civilization given the slow pace of major resource substitutions, there are no practical ways to change this reality for decades to come high prices...

Transformational Wars

There is no canonical list of transformational wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Historians agree on the major conflicts that belong in this category but differ as to others. My own list is fairly restrictive a more liberal definition of worldwide impacts could extend the list. A long-lasting transformational effect on the course of world history is a key criterion. And most of the conflicts I have called transformational share another characteristic they are mega-wars, claiming...

Russias

Counting Russia out would be historic amnesia. There is nothing new about Russia's leaving the great power game and then reentering it vigorously decades, even generations, later. The country was out of the contest for great power status in 1805 as Napoleon was installing his relatives as rulers of Europe. But less than a decade later, as Czar Alexander I rode on his light-grey thoroughbred horse through defeated Paris, followed by thousands of his Imperial Guard, Bashkirs, Cossack, and Tartar...

Terrorist Attacks

I should start by emphasizing that this discussion is not about state-operated terror aimed at a ruling regime's domestic enemies, a bloody ingredient of modern history that was elevated to governmental policy in revolutionary France (Wright 1990) and perfected during the twentith century in many countries on four continents, but surely to the greatest extent and with the most ruthless reach in Stalinist Russia (Conquest 1990). My focus is on global transformations that can be effected by...

The United States Retreat

The United States is a superpower in gradual retreat. Its slide from global dominance has been under way for some time, but in the first years of the twenty-first century many components of this complex process have become much more prominent, coalescing into a new amalgam of worrisome indicators that point unequivocally toward a gradual decline. I emphasize gradual. Unless the country sustains a massive unanswered nuclear attack (an event of negligibly low probability its nuclear triad...

How Not to Look Ahead

Inusitatis atque incognitis rebus magis confidamus vehementiusque exterreamur. (The unusual and the unknown make us either overconfident or overly fearful.) Gaius Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili, II. 4 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...

Environmental Change

Mihi contuenti semper suasit rerum natura nihil incredibile existimare de ea. (When I have observed nature, she has always induced me to deem no statement about her Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), Naturalis Historia, XI.ii, 6 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...

Dominance and Decline

Falling from a position of power, dominance, and affluence (in absolute terms or relative to other contenders at a given time in history) is always a painful process, but the rate of decline makes a great difference. Think of Germany's accelerated rise and demise, as the Thousand Year Reich was compressed between 1933 and 1945 or of the USSR's demise and Russia's ensuing pitiful economic and social position during most of the 1990s. As already noted, barring an unanswered (and hence extremely...

Natural Catastrophes

Natural catastrophes range from relatively common events such as cyclones, floods, and landslides to less frequent violent releases of energies associated with geotec-tonic processes (earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, both capable of generating Exposed layers of Deccan flood basalt, more than 1 km thick, at Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra, India. Photo courtesy of Hetu Sheth, Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai. Exposed layers of Deccan flood basalt, more than 1 km thick, at Mahabaleshwar,...

Quantifying the Odds

The unavoidable yardstick for comparing the quantifiable odds of catastrophic events is general mortality, the crude death rate of a population measured annually per 1,000 people. Mortality figures have the advantage of being fairly accurate only during war or famine is their accuracy questionable. During the first five years of the twenty-first century, the crude death rate in affluent countries ranged from 7.2 in Canada (thanks to its relatively young population) to 10.4 in Sweden, and the...

Other Global Changes

Concerns about global warming have hijacked most of the attention devoted to environmental problems, but there are other important trends that predate these concerns, and their continuation and intensification can have major (but difficult-to-forecast) global impacts. Loss of arable land to nonagricultural uses and flooding by new large reservoirs are continuing problems, particularly in densely populated Asian countries. An even more common problem is excessive soil erosion on farmland, but we...

Europes Place

Several recent publications have been quite euphoric about Europe's prospects, leaving little room for doubts about the continent's future trajectory. The director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform predicts, astonishingly, that Europe will economically dominate the twenty-first century (Leonard 2004). The former London bureau chief of the Washington Post maintains that the rise of the United States of Europe will end U.S. supremacy (Reid 2004). And Rifkin (2004) is impressed...