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)
"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 .
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 . 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 UpThere 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].
 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.
 Looking forward to the next major earthquake in San Francisco.
TAGS: BOOKS, POLITICS, SCIENCE AND SOCIETY