Smil.. ing through?

Long time no post…   but regularity resumes, with apologies for terrible pun above. Much stimulated by Vaclav Smil’s latest work, oddly titled Global Catastrophes and Trends – The Next Fifty Years. It has been widely and well reviewed, so no need to summarise. But, even for an inveterate synthesist like Smil, it is a broad synthesis – a synthesis of syntheses? The man’s work rate is pretty awesome, but quite a lot of the stuff here is familiar from previous works – something of a relief for one trying to keep up with his output. The new stuff is an expansion of two papers previously published as well. But pulling it all together in a single volume, along with his usual cautions about the futility of forecasting, is outstandingly useful for perspective, and thinking about priorities – e.g. worry about antibiotic resistance and bird flu, not terrorism …   Personally, I think all three are overrrated, but certainly not neglible threats.

Other small thoughts. Prof S. is getting more, and more entertainingly, curmudgeonly – disapproving of, inter alia, idle Japanese youth, obese Americans, Europeans who don’t understand where they are now in history, and much else. Lots of judgments, then, if no forecasts. And, in fact, even one who advises eschewing prediction cannot actually do without it. See, for instance, a discussion of climate change effects and heatwaves which says their effects may be worse due to “the fact that by 2050 at least two-thirds of humanity will live in cities”

Sounds like a prediction to me – I daresay a defensible one on current trends. Still, he does say plenty of times that trends can change unexpectedly, so one gets the message.

You have to admire him for the energy with which he roams across whichever disciplines may give him stuff which helps answer the questions he is pursuing. As there is quite a lot here about politics and culture, he also lets us know this time that he reads “all principal European languages” (including Russian) and has studied Chinese, Japanese and Arabic. And this monoglot Englishman’s unworthy reaction is that this is just showing off!

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