Review: The Upside of Down

Finally finished reading “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilisation” by Thomas Homer-Dixon. It’s a troubling book.

Mostly troubling in a good way; thought-provoking and full of new and uncomfortable ideas. It’s written clearly, accessibly, and persuasively. It outlines five “tectonic stresses” threatening global society. These are population growth, energy shortages, environmental degradation, climate change, and economic stress from a defective growth-oriented capitalist system. They reinforce each other, and are further influenced by ‘multipliers’ such as the speed of modern communications, and the ease with which small groups of people can cause widespread death and destruction. Homer-Dixon argues that together, these stresses could cause a widespread social breakdown as part of an underlying theory of collapse and renewal.

The theory states that an ecological or social system inevitably becomes more complex and connected as it develops. Beyond a certain point, this connectedness and complexity makes the system less resilient to external shocks (or “tectonic stresses”) and it eventually collapses and reverts to a simpler pattern. As far as I can tell, the “upside” is that the coming apocalypse provides us with the opportunity to set a new pattern which may be better for society and the environment in the long run. And if we can make our systems more resilient, then maybe the process of breakdown won’t be too destructive when it finally happens.

These are small crumbs of comfort which do little to soften the overall feeling of fatalism that follows the final page. Perhaps a better title might have been “The Downside of Up”.

That said, this is an important book and I would recommend it to everyone interested in this kind of thing (which should be, well, everyone). There’s a great case-study running through the narrative: the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The fate of Rome is convincingly laid out in terms of energy use (‘energy return on investment’) and unsustainable complexity, rather than a traditional “Emperor X lost battle Y and was assassinated by General Z”-type historical analysis. This is the first time I’ve been introduced to this kind of explanation, although I suspect it isn’t new (as the product of a fairly narrow, focussed education, I wouldn’t really know).

I was recommended the book as background reading after being introduced to the concept of social-ecological resilience, and although ‘resilience’ does play an important part in his argument, it isn’t the main focus. Here, resilience is part of a more general theory, which is in turn used to make a point about where we’re heading as a society. There are introductions to related ideas such as ‘adaptive management’ and Homer-Dixon does a great job of making these- and some other difficult ideas- clear and understandable. It was well worth reading for this reason, if nothing else.

As far as the argument goes, though, I wasn’t entirely persuaded. I’m going to cheat here, because I haven’t yet digested everything, and don’t yet feel capable of coherent criticism. So I’ll point to someone else’s. There’s a critique on the book’s website, which I found myself nodding along to, and somehow Homer-Dixon’s response manages to address much of the detail of this critique without adequately tackling some of the general charges, such as the murkiness of the proposed local and creative ‘non-management’ responses to society’s problems. Having written a great book which clearly spells out the severity and global reach of the threats to modern civilisation, it seems like a cop out to just say “the solutions will come from regular people working together at the local level”.

I’ll admit it- I’m also resistant to some of the gloomy catastrophism earlier in the book, even if it doesn’t alter the overall thrust of the argument. Although the tone is restrained and far from hyperbolic, some of the examples are over-egged. For example: in the opening chapters there’s a description that could leave the reader with the impression that Western Europe’s cities are a seething mass of discontented, marginalised immigrants threatening open revolution. Well, the deprived European urban community with a high immigrant population I was working in last Thursday seemed just fine. Just some minor discontent from one first-generation immigrant whose upper respiratory tract symptoms were lasting longer than a week.

While that’s more than a little unfair- Homer-Dixon was probably referencing the 2005 Paris riots- I wonder whether all of the tectonic stresses and their multipliers are quite as bad as he makes out. If there’s an advantage to being three years late in this review, perhaps it’s in seeing that the early part of the book is unduly coloured by a post-9/11 focus on terrorism and global unrest. For that matter the global recession, while disastrous, hasn’t been the overwhelmingly catastrophic economic earthquake that Homer-Dixon might have predicted- although perhaps it’s only the foreshock of something worse to come. And the sections on energy shortages/peak oil and climate change are clearly still very relevant. Perhaps these two factors on their own might be enough to initiate collapse at some point in the future. If this proves to be the case, I just hope that the ‘upside’ of that breakdown ends up being a little more ‘up’ than this book suggests.

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