The Upside of Down – Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006)

The Upside of Down

New book that is not exactly cheery about our global situation. Thomas Homer-Dixon does a nice job in “The Upside of Down” of synthesizing quite a lot of information, both current and historical, about change and crisis. He sees five “tectonic stresses” that we face today, including climate change, energy scarcity in oil, population pressure, and income gaps. His argument is that our overly complex and ‘brittle’ systems cannot withstand the pressures that will come to bear from these stresses.

His argument in part uses the Panarchy model, which describes cycles of growth, collapse and re-growth in ecosystems, and talks about how mature systems start to become so ‘efficient’ that they lose resilience and become liable to collapse. Homer-Dixon argues that we are getting to the same situation, where our long reliance on growth and efficiency are making our society less resilient to change, setting the stage for serious problems. His path out is probably a difficult one, but it involves making attempts to build resilience back into the system, through more localized and redundant capacity.

The historical parallels with Rome are interesting, as he paints a picture of a civilization that sucked resources from vast areas to feed the central system, and it ran into a decreasing return on investment for its efforts at getting food and fuel, until things broke down. He acknowledges that there are plenty of explanations for the decline of Rome, his being just one of them.

His book provides one of the few analyses of the downside of ‘economic growth’ that I’ve come across, and it does appear to be a vicious circle that we really have no viable alternative to at this point – a real surge of imagination is needed to point to a new model.

I’ll give Homer-Dixon the final words:  “We know that static, brittle systems don’t survive.  We also understand that in any complex adaptive system, breakdown, if limited, can be a key part of that system’s long-term resilience and renewal.”

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