Of terrorist attacks…”Only a single conclusion can be reached with certainty, namely, that the oft-repeated post-2001 aspiration to eliminate terrorism (‘winning the war on terror’) is unachievable.” The risk to Americans from terrorist attacks and military responses to them, including all US military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq and related noncombatant deaths is, Smil estimates, about ten times less than the risk of dying from homicide and a thousand times less than the risk of fatal car accidents averaged between 1991 and 2005. “During the first five years of the twenty-first century, the US highway death toll exceeded the 9/11 fatalities every month.”
That’s the paragraph that grabbed myattention. It comes from Joel E. Cohen’s essay on Vaclav Smil’s book in the September 24 New York Review of Books.
Cohen continues, “Globally, between 1970 and 2005, fatalities caused by terrorist attacks averaged below a thousand a year, not much greater than airline accidents and volcanic eruptions, but far fewer than deaths from floods and earthquakes, which were in turn far fewer than fatalities from car accidents and medical errors, which Smil estimates as causing several hundred thousand deaths each year. He does not mention that tobacco use kills five to six million people a year globally, more than twice as many as HIV/AIDS, three times as many as tuberculosis, which accounts for about two million deaths a year, and five or six times as many as malaria, which causes some one million deaths a year. Doesn’t smoking tobacco pose a far greater threat than al-Qaeda?”
Terrorism is not Smil’s only topic. According to his publishers at MIT,
Smil first looks at rare but cataclysmic events, both natural and human-produced, then at trends of global importance: the transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources; demographic and political shifts in Europe, Japan, Russia, China, the United States, and Islamic nations; the battle for global primacy; and growing economic and social inequality. He also considers environmental change—in some ways an amalgam of sudden discontinuities and gradual change—and assesses the often misunderstood complexities of global warming. Global Catastrophes and Trends does not come down on the side of either doom-and-gloom scenarios or techno-euphoria. Instead, relying on long-term historical perspectives and a distaste for the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge, Smil argues that understanding change will help us reverse negative trends and minimize the risk of catastrophe.
Another review, originally written by Charles Perrow in Scientific American, notes,
I learned a lot from this sometimes cranky, often cryptic and very opinionated book… By enriching our understanding of the complexity of nature and society, he shows that we have much more to fear than accumulating carbon dioxide and drowning polar bears… This book helps prepare us to think seriously about the future.
You can see the table of contents online from MIT. I just ordered my copy over the weekend.