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Dangerous World: Natural Disasters, Manmade Catastrophes, and the Future of Human Survival

by Marq de Villiers

In the wake of the 2004 Asian tsunami and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina comes Dangerous World, veteran author and journalist Marq de Villiers’ popular-science overview of Earth’s extreme events – and how they affect humanity.

Most of the book is as a kind of catastrophe catalogue of tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and the odd microbial scare. In short, it’s biophysical geography’s Greatest Hits (with a strong emphasis on physics, though the impact on biology is what ultimately concerns us most). De Villiers has an encyclopedic knowledge of both ancient and contemporary disasters. Even fans of the Weather Channel will be wowed by what he has managed to unearth.

By placing current threats to life and property within a historical context, we gain perspective that might lead to wiser future policies. Not mere victims, we are responsible for the extent of many disasters (e.g., the tsunami was exacerbated by mangrove clearing). So de Villiers concludes on a prescriptive note, urging governments and scientists to implement measures that prevent, or at least mitigate “Acts of God,” and coming down hard on unchecked human population growth, the source of most problems. Depite this cautionary note, de Villiers is surprisingly open to nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels, citing favourable accident statistics to make his case.

De Villiers bucks a current fashion among science writers by barely intruding upon the story, allowing the facts to impress on their own. However, trotting out one set of numbers after another – awe-inspiring or not – tends to grate. Also annoying are small but avoidable factual errors, such as calling smallpox a bacterium. (It’s actually a virus.) As a compendium of natural phenomena and their impacts on us, Dangerous World is impressive but ultimately unengaging.