Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Book Review: The Upside of Down

The Upside of Down
Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization

By Thomas Homer-Dixon

Published by: Knopf Canada (Oct 31 2006) , Island Press (Nov 1, 2006)

The Downside

"So far, so good" said then men who fell off the roof when he passed the 3rd floor. Threshold effects are quite common in everyday life. They are characterized by a sudden change in a system's properties, like e.g. the ability of a medium to emit laser light, our your brain hitting concrete. In real life, the existence of a threshold is often obvious, but our inability to predict exactly when and how it will be reached fools us into pleasant ignorance, and permanent postponement. After all, tomorrow is another day.

In reality, there is nothing truly infinite, and nothing lasts forever. You won't survive an arbitrary blood alcohol level, no matter how cool you are. Your cat won't live forever, and your boss is not infinitely patient. Warnings to mind these constraints of reality are common knowledge, it's the drop that makes a vase overflow, and the last straw that breaks the camel's back [1].

Yet we are living in a society that disregards its limits. There is no doubt growth can't proceed forever, energy resources are not infinite, and more is not always better. Sure, one can debate exactly when and how a change will set in, but there is no way disregarding the fact that we have to address these problems, and we should do so rather sooner than later.

In his latest book "The Upside of Down" Thomas Homer-Dixon addresses the question of how crucial energy resources are for our societies to maintain their complexity. In a nutshell the argument is that it takes energy to keep our systems running at high performance. We are not prepared to cope with less energy, and our societies' networks lack resilience. Should energy supply dwindle, and one or two unfortunate events hit at the wrong time, the effect can be disastrous. The book is a warning, a call for caution and for action.

Just consider how much you have come to rely on the omnipresent availability of electricity and the internet in your daily life. Now knock out some of the DNS servers, Google, and a couple of telecommunication switches [2]. You think you can cope with that? Sure, but how much of your grocery store's shipment and organization will be affected, your airport's flight schedules, public transportation, traffic reports, online banking, library access, the stock market, how much does your local government rely on email, BlackBerries, WLAN, cellphones? How much of that could suddenly become dysfunctional?

How much can a system take before it breaks down?

"The Upside of Down" is a very clearly written book that lays down all the arguments in a well structured, and accessible manner. One fourth of the book is an extensive list of references and footnotes where the interested reader can check on the details. It is a summary of a large number of works that have been made during the last decades. Homer-Dixon addresses all the obvious objections that people would raise, like e.g. the common optimist objection: things will work out because they have always worked out, people must have believed their situation equally unstable all along. This objection fails to acknowledge that the recent technological developments occur so rapidly that we reach the limits of how we can fix problems in a timely manner:

"Some skeptics might respond that people have always perceived they lived on the cusp of chaos, but in the end they’ve usually managed well by marshaling their ingenuity and courage. But today’s world is fundamentally different from the past. The complexity and speed of our social and technological systems are unlike anything we’ve seen before, and these factors are now pushing against the upper limits of the human brain’s abilities. Ecologically, for the first time in history, we are moving materials, producing energy, and generating waste on a scale that rivals nature itself."
[Thomas Homer-Dixon, 'A world that turns too fast', Financial Times, London, Jan 2001]

Of Up

There are various minor points in which I disagree with the author's conclusions, but overall seen the book expresses my unqualified opinion on these issues much clearer and better founded than I could ever have done. Like my feeling that the present organization of our so-called civilized society is an accident waiting to happen. Fortunately, Homer-Dixon doesn't make excessive use of complicated words which often leads me to throw away books about political and social theories. In fact, he uses a lot of explanations from natural sciences that - for obvious reasons - immediately appeal to me. He writes nicely, though the literary style is not exactly terribly good or original. Some of the explanations are rather lengthy, like endless pages on how the Romans build aqueducts or whatever. (Sorry, I've never been a huge fan of the Roman history.)

In the last some chapters he turns towards the question how the laid-out problems can be addressed, and he argues that we need more awareness for the instability of our present systems:
"So somehow we have to find the middle ground between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse. In our organizations, social and political systems, and individual lives, we need to create the possibility for what computer programmers and disaster planers call 'graceful' failure. When a system fails gracefully, damage is limited, and options for recovery are preserved." [p. 291]

And he mentions the obvious questions that have to be answered:
"In countries that are already very rich, we especially need to figure out if there are feasible alternatives to our hidebound commitment to economic growth, because it's becoming increasingly clear that endless material growth is incompatible with the long-term viability of Earth's environment. What might a 'steady-state' economy - an economy that maintains a roughly constant output of goods and services - look like? What economic and ethical values might it be based on? Could it incorporate some (albeit radically transformed version) of market-based capitalism, and would it be compatibility with political and personal liberty? And how would we deal with the political and social conflicts that would inevitably arise if there were no growth?"[p. 293]

And points out that we need to look for alternatives how to organize our societies, possibly with the help of new technologies
"Alternative values might also promote a broader, fairer, and more vigorous democracy, maybe using some kind of open-source approach. New forms of democracy are essential, because we need as many heads as possible working together to solve our common problems, and because the larger the number of people involved in making crucial decisions that affect everyone, the less likely that narrow elite interest will dominate." [p. 306]
(I disagree on the last point about the large number of people, just so you know.) However, I have to say that all this is well and good, but it doesn't strike me as very practical. I mean, telling people to think usually isn't sufficient.

I am not an expert in this field, so it is not clear to me how much of what he says is actually new, or result of his own research. But nevertheless, it is one of these books where upon reading I can only ask myself: what does it say about our society that all these problems are known, have been known since decades, have been well researched, published, pointed out, again and again. But nobody listens. After all, tomorrow is another day. Three more floors to go. So far, so good.

Overall, the book is very recommendable. If this was an amazon review I'd give five stars.

Related: See also my opinion on Global Warming

About the author: Thomas Homer-Dixon was born in Victoria, British Columbia and received his B.A. in political science from Carleton University in 1980 and his Ph.D. from MIT in international relations and defense and arms control policy in 1989. He then moved to the University of Toronto to lead several research projects studying the links between environmental stress and violence in developing countries. Recently, his research has focused on threats to global security in the 21st century and on how societies adapt to complex economic, ecological, and technological change. Thomas Homer-Dixon holds the George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at University College, University of Toronto. [Info from this website].

[1] The respective German sayings are: Der Tropfen, der das Faß zum Überlaufen bringt, und der Krug der so lange zum Brunnen geht, bis er bricht.
[2] Looking forward to the next major earthquake in San Francisco.

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  1. Thanks, looks interesting - I'll see if I can find the book in my library or bookstore.

    Meanwhile, one could always just say , hey, all's well, just balance the budget! (but I won't).


  2. Dear Bee,

    that sounds like a very intereting, and provocative book. I have thought a few times, when sitting in the train commuting to work, that our 21st century lifestyle, at least in the bigger cities, depends so crucially on a constant supply of energy to maintain transport, distribution of food, health care, and so on...

    There was an article in a German newpaper not so laong ago (maybe I can find it again) about what would would happen if the supply of fossil energy would stop abruptly - it was very scary. Usually we seem not to be aware of how much we depend on this constant flow of energy, but it is so esssential.

    Best, Stefan

  3. Dear Bee,

    Looks very interesting. Have thought all the thoughts that you have in italics, but don't have any good answers.

    We telco workers are painfully aware of [2] - the possible effects of a telecomm outage. I think the current approach tries to put in place redundancy and self-healing intelligence in the network and disaster recovery procedures. Dunno if they are adequate.

    In countries like India, some few people are painfully aware that aspiring to consume at the rate of the West would be fatal. Yet there is no model of sustainable development, instead globalization attempts to make American consumers of everyone.

    The Human Development Index which attempts to measure outcomes like health care and nutrition, education, civil liberties and so on rather than GNP is another attempt to make quality of life rather consumption the measure of development.

    A world where economic output does not grow will be, if past history is a guide, a world of great inequality and of wars. If human horsepower becomes necessary again, we will see even the return of slavery.

    There are only two possible good-outcome scenarios for humanity, as far as I can see - the first is that technological innovation makes us able to work around our problems (e.g., engineered grass in your lawn generates electricity, and our useful outputs use less energy). The second is a total revolution in human ethics. We would individually have rather spartan possessions, but lots of shared public goods.

    I am not optimistic on either count. E.g., for the last 6 years we have seen an exhibition of the US govt's inability to act ethically when faced with what is really, in the scale of things, a minor crisis (I mean 9/11).

  4. I think it's obvious what's going to happen --- Uncle Darwin will take care of it. Societies that are well-organized and regimented and tough will be able to endure. They will have invested in weaponry so that if they really need to take something from their neighbours, they will be able to do it. There *wiil* be a sharp change in ethical views, but not in the direction we might like: basically we will have to become more hard-hearted towards strangers. "Too bad we had to wipe Tehran off the map, but the alternative was to let our own people suffer", said the French foreign minister, explaining, to rapturous applause from the crowd in the Place de la Concorde, the first use of French nuclear weapons on 14 July 2014......

  5. Dear Bee & Stefan

    sorry for the offtopic but I recommended a friend to become a regular reader of this blog. Yesterday he told me he does not feel comfortable with weblogs where it is explained the

    Nonlocal Effects of Chemical Substances on the Brain
    Produced through Quantum Entanglement

    I was a little bit surprised. Later on we found out the mistake. He browsed instead of

    We both learned there's a thing called NeuroQuantology. I don't know what it is. But sounds like a more and interesting title than the "upside of down". :-)


  6. Dear Stefan:

    That sounds really interesting, if you find the reference let me know! Yes, as you know I am not a fan of big cities, and last week when I was in NYC, looking down on the sheer endless see of buildings with all their flashing lights from the 40st floor I couldn't avoid playing the scenario what happens to this city without electricity. Who brings in all the necessary supplies to keep this place alive, what happens to water, food, heating, transportation.

    I like to think of myself as an optimist by nature - believe it or not - so I think after a couple of weeks we would find ways to rearrange ourselves - but the question is what are the losses until then. How many people will not be able to leave the cities soon enough, will not be able to realize potatoes don't grow on concrete, water doesn't fly voluntarily to the 40th floor, electric can openers have their drawbacks, and freezers as well as microwaves take an enormous amount of energy.

    Of course I'd think it's quite unrealistic it would happen from one day to the next, but on the longer run the whole western throw-away society just won't be able to longer maintain itself. And imho the USA is especially vulnerable to it, because its functionality crucially relies on this easy accessibility of energy. Take the chronically bad insulation of houses, crappy windows that either don't close or don't open (metal frames?!), which is balanced by air conditioning and heating. Take all the low quality products and constructions that need to be fixed all the time, may that be plumbing, pavement, the subway, bridges, buildings, or electrical devices (though who really fixes the latter, hey, just buy a new one). I really hate to sound so German, but the US quality standards on all this are just *significantly* lower than in Germany - and this is balanced by a constant 'service' (which ironically the Germans praise so much about the US) - 'service' being proportional to 'waste of energy'.

    It is sad because I actually like the American's huge potential for innovation, and their courage to try new things. But if I look at their country it's on a downhill slope, faking to be a high technology nation, but actually nothing but a huge make-believe. Surprisingly, most of the world seems to believe it. I have more than once talked to people who moved from Germany to the US, and they all say more or less the same. That they felt like moving to a third world country, and they couldn't believe that people living there actually believe they live in a well functioning society.

    On the other hand, if there is a potential for a change, I think it will come from North America rather than from Europe.



  7. Dear Arun:

    Well, I don't have answers to these questions either, but I have always been good with the meta-approaches. That is to say, if you don't know how to solve a problem, find out how to find somebody who can do it. So I've put some thoughts into how to answer these questions and, more importantly (and this is the part I find missing in the book discussed above) how to realize possible insights - this is essentially what this is about, I will have to write something about it at some point (argh, seems I have said that repeatedly...) I am not sure that it really requires as you say "a total revolution in human ethics" - I think we know and have the right ethics, it is just badly realized. The current mode of thinking that naively trusts in the wisdom of capitalism is just inappropriate and needs to be readjusted. What we really need is a political balance to the already existing global economy, a well functioning feedback control, and we need that rather than sooner than later.



  8. Hi Rafa:

    :-) Yes, I know that is taken. However, as I mentioned previously, we will probably be moving the blog anyhow, which will also go with a change of name. The new domain (dot com, dot org), is already registered, I 'just' have to figure out how to set up wordpress etc. I hope we don't loose too many readers this way, but blogger is kind of annoying on the long run, especially the comments section.

    Regarding NeuroQuants... well, I actually have to say that I find the book discussed in my post above considerably more interesting. Quantum entanglement is an extremely fragile construct, decoherence being its worst enemy. If there was any chance that quantum entanglement had a significant impact on processes in a 300 K water bath (i.e. your brain) then I wonder why people take so much pain constructing a quantum computer? That is to say, imho the idea that consciousness is a manifestation of quantum effects is esoteric bullshit, though psychologically and socially interestingly so. Best,


  9. Hi Bee, ps. let me steal your description of my brain as a "300K water bath". lol! Good luck with the new domain. You will not loose readers, that's for sure. best.

  10. "We would individually have rather spartan possessions, but lots of shared public goods."

    Good point Arun - that's why in my earlier post I wrote "library" first and then bookstore". I did this on purpose.

    "though who really fixes the latter, hey, just buy a new one". Sadly, the economics in the US make this behavior very prevalent; that's how it is in the US.

    "the idea that consciousness is a manifestation of quantum effects is esoteric bullshit, though psychologically and socially interestingly so."

    Well, R. Penrose thinks this way; I have no idea!



  11. Hi Changcho, Hi Arun,

    "We would individually have rather spartan possessions, but lots of shared public goods."

    The concept of possession is a fake anyhow. It's not about what you own, it's about what you can do. It's not about what you have, but what your possibilities are. It's not about owning some 'thing' it's about the safety this 'owning' suggests - which is pretty much vacuous without aedequate property rights and executive organs to defend them.

    People like possessions because they suggest safety and continuity. Possesion works better in economics than public goods because responsibilites are clearly assigned. One can't just throw this out of the window, and I see no reason why this should be the case - in addition it probably wouldn't work because people are just what people are.

    If one takes politics and sociology seriously, drops our current trial and error approach and makes an attempt to deal with the problems we face in a scientific manner, then all these distinctions become meaningless anyhow. The question is who makes decisions, and how. The question is not who owns, but who has the power, and how is this power executed.



  12. Bee,

    Based on my admittedly not especially current experience in Europe and more recent experience in real third world countries, I don't think the US is there yet, despite the efforts of the current crop of villains and idiots running the place.

    I do think that measures like living more humbly are merely stopgaps - the real problem is the growing world population. We could all enjoy a very high standard of living with much more benign impact on resources if there were about 500 million of us.

    I say a bit more about the subject on my blog

  13. Sorry, but this sounds like another, "this time, it's the crisis for sure", books that come out from time to time. Whenever things get rough, we start getting these "we're at the precipice" books. The author appeals to whatever trendy methodology they think will work ranging from the Book of Revelations to the Book of Chaos Theory. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, but we're still here somehow.

    For a bit of historical perspective, I'll recommend Fischer's The Great Wave. It's an economic history contrasting eras of economic stability with eras of inflation. Societies can shrug off catastrophic events in stable eras, but be devastated in others.

    Where are we now? That's tough to say. Remember, there has been general progress in Europe at handling disasters. Compare the 14th century plagues, the 17th century plagues, and the 20th century plagues in terms of percentage of the population killed. There is a definite trend.

    P.S. Don't count NYC out. There were mule driven elevators down near Wall Street as late as 1939, and the water flows down from the Catskills, so it can rise hundreds of feet under system pressure.

  14. Dear Bee,

    You lost me. It seems clear to me that having public parks and public transportation is more energy efficient than having private acres of lawn and private transportation (a necessity given that the density is too low for public transport and that to walk to the nearby convenience store to get a bottle of milk takes too long).

    and so on.


  15. Dear Arun:

    Sorry, it seems we were using the word 'public' in a different meaning. I was referring to ownership, whereas you are apparently referring to use. E.g. you can have a public transportation system owned by private companies etc. But then I don't get your referral to 'possession'. Best,


  16. Hi CIP:

    Apologies. The 3rd world comparison is a crude exaggeration and was meant as a joke, not to be taken seriously. Of course the USA is far from getting there. It is however true that I have heard this very same statement repeatedly and independently from several people, so it kind of stuck.

    What I meant to express is the typical response I have noticed from Germans who travel to the USA the first time. Well, they find themselves in a hotel room somewhere and realize the windows don't open, the sink is made of plastic, it takes forever for the water to get warm, the lights flicker each time the fridge turns on, half of the switches are broken, the toilet flush has no stop button, when it rains water runs into the room etc. I am not talking about a cheap hotel, and most of these issues, when pointed out to staff or so, just cause a shoulder shrug, because for them its entirely normal. Then these German tourists go into the next grocery store, try to buy anything (like my husband tried to get razor blades since he forgot his) and have to find out 50% of the products one just can't use because they are total crap, or they find themselves unable to eat what they can buy there, or they do and get sick. These are *not* stories I have made up (could add several names to each, and then you can add friends who reported from friends etc), these stories come in abundance and Americans usually find them hard to believe.

    Gets worse if one moves there. There is the guy who moved to NYC and said he paid more than 1000 bucks for an apartment, but the heating was so bad that during the winter he turned on the stove and slept in the kitchen. I was told that story before I moved to the the US and of course didn't believe it! Now I do. I was looking for a new apartment and asked the landlord whether they have any plumbing problems. He said "Of course! All the time!" as if that was something to be proud of.

    In all the years that I lived in Germany I recall exactly one incident of a plumbing emergency, that was when a pipe broke in front of the house. It happened on a Sunday morning at 4 am. At 5 the service people came, and began to open the pavement. At 9 they had fixed the pipe and water was back up. (It took one more week to fix the pavement though - good ol Germany, working on Sunday is still close to taboo). This event made me think a lot at this time. Me being German, I am a big complainer about my own country. If you forget your keys and lock yourself out on a Sunday, good luck, and better prepare to stay with a fried because you'll have a hard time finding a locksmith. But if you really have a problem, you can usually rely on somebody to help you fast and efficiently - whether or not you are important, rich, or live in a big city. The whole infrastructure is just better maintained. This might of course be related to the population density that is considerably higher than in the USA.

    Either way, I hope I clarified that. Best,


  17. Anyone who advocates population reduction should be the first to be sterilized and have all of his living descendents sterilized as well, even the ones who have yet to reproduce. Don't just talk the talk. Walk the walk.

  18. Hi RaeAnn:

    Who advocated population reduction? I wasn't advocating it, I was saying if we are not very careful its likely to be happening on its own *puzzled*. Best,


  19. Goodness, Bee.. sounds like a population density infrastructure thing, and with better landlords in Frankfurt than my experience! I had a basement, sub-ground level, Bammental (village near Heidelberg) apartment with one little window, with a broken pipe somewhere in the walls of the flat, that apparently existed for many months or perhaps during the whole 2.3 years that I lived there. Mold was slowly growing, creeping up the walls during those years, near the end, I even found mold on my shoes. My complaints to the owners in the first month, led them to give me a dehumidifier machine that pumped one liter of water/day through the system. The owners claimed that my books were causing the problem, even though the problem existed from the beginning before my household and books arrived.

    This was a very messy problem that led to my introduction to the German legal system in the middle of writing my PhD dissertation because I refused to pay the full renovation costs when I moved. One helpful fact, which I unfortunately learned too late, is that I was well protected by local health laws, and I could have had the German health department investigate and help me in that situation, and I had a legal route to stop paying my rent, as well, if I followed a particular procedure. There exists some of that, dependent on which US state, but I believe the social support would have been more comprehensive (if I had known in time).

  20. Hi Kaleberg:

    You say:
    Sorry, but this sounds like another, "this time, it's the crisis for sure", books that come out from time to time. [...] Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they get it wrong, but we're still here somehow.

    There have without doubt been crisis in human history. A lot of people had to suffer. Yes, humankind survived, we are still here, but if possible at least I would like to avoid unnecessary suffering. You have completely missed the point I was trying to make. Throughout the history of mankind, we have proceeded more or less in a trial an error process, and we were able to fix problems in time. Great, humans are so ingenious! Now consider that the human brain hasn't changed all that much in the last centuries, but our possibilities to cause problems have grown tremendously. We are able to change our world extremely fast and efficiently. There are two timescales in this game. Time we need to create problems, which is getting smaller and smaller. And time we need to solve problems, which is not getting smaller. If we aren't careful we will reach the point were we just don't have sufficient time or resources to solve all of our problems. Looks like the camel can take it until it breaks down? The result won't be the end of mankind, and nobody said that. But still it's in my opinion a very real problem, and one that is avoidable. Best,


  21. Hi Amara: It wasn't in Frankfurt. But yeah sure. I am of course totally biased here. It depends probably a lot on personal experiences. Well. as I've said earlier somewhere, there are a lot of things I like better in the US than in Germany, and also a lot of things I like better in Germany than in the US. On the side of the environment, energy conservation and quality I find Germany does botter, but overall seen I think both could learn a lot from each other. Best,


  22. Dear Bee, my standard answer when someone asks me to compare US and Europe (or why I prefer living in Europe) is: 'Americans live to work, while Europeans work to live'.

    And for learning from the other, I usually say: 'Americans can learn from the Europeans how to respect differences' and 'Europeans (in their different cultures) can learn from the Americans how to work together better'.

    Soundbites, but enough to encourage bus conversation.

  23. Dear Bee,

    Somehow this post reminds me that SimCity used to be fun to play.


  24. Hey Arun,

    I recall playing the first version of that game, long time ago :-) Now that I think about it, embarrassingly I used to build cities in nice regular lattices with some more or less equal distribution of structures, just that I didn't know then this is basically what most US cities look like (and that I don't like it). Had there been a possibility to do it in a sensible way, I would probably have preferred concentric circles. Also, I would have liked the city center to be pedestrian only with traffic and parking underground, etc. Well. This is roughly spoken the reason why I don't find computer games all that compelling: I always wish for options that just don't exist. Do you know whether this would have been possible in the later versions? Best,


  25. Dear Bee,
    I'll find out, haven't kept up with SimCity myself either, though I kept meaning to do it.

    Regarding a revolution in ethics - a random thought that popped in my head is that one of the contributory reasons to the Soviet Union's collapse was its agricultural production. Though it produced enough grain to feed an India twice over, it could not produce enough meat; and to you vegetarian and me vegetarian, that would seem mightily strange. How does that tie in with a revolution in ethics, don't ask me this morning, but some other day :)



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