The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation Thomas Homer-Dixon Souvenir Press, UK, 2007, £15.00
BEING AN OPTIMIST, I picked up this book because of its title, hoping to find out what the “upside of down” could be and expecting to find solutions to our global predicament. Alas, three-quarters of the way through, I began to wonder where the ‘Upside’ was. I flicked through the final quarter of the book to find it mostly taken up with footnotes!
Despite this focus on ‘Down’, the book is a fascinating read. According to Thomas Homer-Dixon, five tectonic stresses are accumulating beneath the surface of our societies. They are population stress, energy stress, environmental stress, climate stress and economic stress. There are also two ‘multipliers’ that give extra force to these stresses: speed, and global connectivity, whereby damage or shock in one part of the system can cascade to all other parts of the system. It is the convergence of these stresses that’s especially treacherous and makes synchronous failure of global systems a real possibility.
We don’t usually think in terms of convergence, as we tend to see our problems in isolation, but what happens when several stresses come together at the same time? What happens if the world has to deal with a sudden shift in climate that sharply cuts food production in Europe and Asia, a severe oil price increase that sends economies tumbling around the world, and a string of major terrorist attacks on several Western capital cities? It would be a body-blow to world order. Social breakdown will become steadily more likely as our world’s accumulating tectonic stresses combine simultaneously and their synergistic impact is magnified.
Homer-Dixon examines in concise detail each one of these tectonic stresses and how it is likely that simultaneous breakdown will actually happen. He draws on the collapse of ancient Rome to clarify many of his points, but as a global society we haven’t learned the lessons of the Roman empire. When we’re in denial, as Homer-Dixon believes we are about our parlous state, we can’t think about the various paths that we might take into the future.
He discusses how forests have long been an indicator of the health of society. When forests are destroyed, civilisations are destroyed, as in ancient Rome. Yet forests have another trait we could learn from: all healthy forests have an adaptive cycle of growth, collapse, regeneration and, again, growth. Collapse liberates the ecosystem’s enormous potential for creativity and allows for novel and unpredictable recombination, and because the system is less interconnected and rigid, it’s far more resilient to sudden shock. A salient point for economists is that the longer we sustain a social, economic or ecological system in its growth phase, the sharper, harder and more destructive its ultimate breakdown will be.
The immense destruction that collapse triggers is both frightening and creative. Homer-Dixon argues that we need to develop a “prospective mind” where we are comfortable with constant change, radical surprise and even breakdown. We have to achieve what he calls “catagenesis”: the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions, and societies. As imaginative as we are asked to be in envisioning the future, Homer-Dixon has been with his possible breakdown scenarios, should we stick with the ‘business-as-usual’ paradigm. But he is adamant that events don’t have to turn out as he envisages. If we’re going to have the best chance of following a different and positive path, we must take four actions: we must reduce the force of the underlying tectonic stresses to lower the risk of synchronous failure; we need to cultivate a prospective mind to cope better with change; we must boost the resilience of critical systems like energy and food supply networks and prepare to turn breakdown to our advantage.
The author believes our one big saviour is the World Wide Web. Just when humanity faces some of the biggest challenges in its history, it has developed a technology that could be the foundation for extremely rapid problem-solving on a planetary scale, for radically new forms of democratic decision-making and, most fundamentally, for the conversation we must have to prepare for breakdown. So far, we’ve barely tapped this potential, but recently we’ve seen an explosion of distributed and collaborative problem-solving on the web using various ‘open-source’ approaches. Most importantly, the media in all its forms needs to focus on imagining positive change.
Homer-Dixon suggests that humankind is on the cusp of a new ‘Axial Age’ – a transformation, simultaneously around the world, of the deepest principles guiding humankind’s diverse civilisations – but our values must be compatible with the exigencies of the natural world we live in and depend on. They must implicitly recognise the laws of thermodynamics, energy’s role in our survival, the dangers of certain kinds of connectivity, and the non-
linear behaviour of natural systems like the climate. The endless material growth of our economies is fundamentally inconsistent with these physical facts of life.
It is our imagination that has created the world we live in and it is only by thinking imaginatively that we will resolve our critical situation; but
Homer-Dixon ultimately leaves it up to us to re-imagine our world.