Environmental disasters. Terrorist wars. Energy scarcity. Economic failure. Is this the world's inevitable fate, a downward spiral that ultimately spells the collapse of societies? Perhaps, says acclaimed author Thomas Homer-Dixon - or perhaps these crises can actually lead to renewal for ourselves and planet earth.
The Upside of Down takes the reader on a mind-stretching tour of societies' management, or mismanagement, of disasters over time. From the demise of ancient Rome to contemporary climate change, this spellbinding book analyzes what happens when multiple crises compound to cause what the author calls "synchronous failure." But, crisis doesn't have to mean total global calamity. Through catagenesis, or creative, bold reform in the wake of breakdown, it is possible to reinvent our future.
Drawing on the worlds of archeology, poetry, politics, science, and economics, The Upside of Down is certain to provoke controversy and stir imaginations across the globe. The author's wide-ranging expertise makes his insights and proposals particularly acute, as people of all nations try to grapple with how we can survive tomorrow's inevitable shocks to our global system. There is no guarantee of success, but there are ways to begin thinking about a better world, and The Upside of Down is the ideal place to start thinking.
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About the Author
Thomas Homer-Dixon is Director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is author of the acclaimed books The Ingenuity Gap (Knopf, 2001) and Environment, Scarcity, and Violence (Princeton University Press, 1999).
Read an Excerpt
From Chapter 1
All this turbulence makes it seem as if nothing is dependable. Shocks and surprises seem to rush toward us faster than ever before. As I sat among the Forum’s scattered ruins, trying to imagine what the place must have looked like two thousand years ago, I asked myself, Did the Romans ever have the same feelings? Were their certainties ever challenged, and did events ever seem out of control? I wondered whether the pressured, chaotic circumstances of today’s world are in any way like those that existed when the western Roman empire crumbled in the fifth century. How could anything that seemed so permanent and consequential, as Rome must have seemed in its heyday, be reduced to these scraps of rubble? Of course in the centuries since Rome’s fall, countless others have asked the same kind of questions, but I suspected we’d learn something new by asking them again now, in light of new studies of why societies sometimes collapse.
Isn’t everyone intrigued by the idea of the fall of Rome? As a boy, I was fascinated by it. I marveled at Rome’s feats of conquest and engineering. They were the stuff of wonder. Rome’s legions subjugated Europe and North Africa and reached deep into western Asia, while its engineers built roads, aqueducts, temples, baths, and amphitheaters across the empire’s landscape. But what really drew me to the story was what it revealed about our human frailty. There was something both spectacular and eerie about this civilization that so dominated much of the world–and then almost completely disappeared. Rome’s vast influence on Western cultures endures, but we can see todayonly scattered fragments of its incalculable physical effort. For a ten-year-old on the cusp of adolescence, this tale was mysterious and subtly frightening. It hinted that–in the sweep of time–all our striving and building and all our passion about issues of the day are almost wholly inconsequential; that when viewed across thousands of years, even our most prodigious achievements will seem ephemeral.
At the very least, Rome’s story reveals that civilizations, including our own, can change catastrophically. It also suggests the dark possibility that our human projects are so evanescent that they’re essentially meaningless.
Most sensible adults avoid such thoughts. Instead, we invest enormous energy in our families, friends, jobs, and day-to-day activities. And we yearn to leave some enduring evidence of our brief moment on Earth, some lasting sign of our individual or collective being. So we construct a building, perhaps, or found a company, write a book, or raise a family.
We seldom acknowledge this deep desire for meaning and longevity, but it’s surely one source of our endless fascination with Rome’s fall: if we could just understand Rome’s fatal weakness, maybe our societies could avoid a similar fate and preserve their accomplishments forever.
Of course, an infinite number of factors–most of them unknown and some unknowable – affect how our societies develop, and we can only rarely influence even those few factors we know about. So rather than resisting change, our societies must learn to adapt to the twists and turns of circumstance. This means we must sometimes give up our accomplishments. If we try to keep things largely the way they are, our societies will become progressively more complex and rigid and, in turn, progressively less creative and able to cope with sudden rises and shocks. Their collapse–when it eventually does happen–could then be so destructive that there would be little of the prior order left behind. And there would be little left to seed the vital process of renewal that should follow.
Here we have ancient Rome’s real lesson. Most of us who recall a bit of history think that constant barbarian invasions caused the western empire to disintegrate, but actually these invasions were only the most immediate cause. In the background were more powerful long-term forces, especially the rising complexity of all parts of Roman society – including its bureaucracy, military forces, cities, economy, and laws – as the empire tried to maintain itself. To support this greater complexity, the empire needed more and more energy, and eventually it couldn’t find enough. Indeed, its increasingly desperate efforts to get energy only made its bureaucracies and laws more elaborate and sclerotic and its taxes more onerous. In time, the burden on the empire’s peasants became too great, while rising complexity strangled the empire’s ability to renew itself. The collapse that followed was dramatic: populations of cities and towns fell sharply, interregional trade dwindled, banditry and piracy soared, construction of monumental buildings and large-scale infrastructure stopped, and virtually all institutions – from governments to armies–became vastly simpler in their operation and organization.
In this book I’ll argue that our circumstances today are surprisingly like Rome’s in key ways. Our societies are also becoming steadily more complex and often more rigid. This is happening partly because we’re trying to manage–often with limited success–stresses building inside our societies, including stresses arising from our gargantuan appetite for energy to run our factories, heat our homes, and fuel our cars. Eventually, as occurred in Rome, the stresses may become too extreme, and our societies too inflexible to respond, and some kind of economic or political breakdown will occur.
I’m not alone in this view. These days, lots of people have the intuition that the world is going haywire and an extraordinary crisis is coming. Some people, particularly those of a religious disposition, think we’re entering end times. Parallels between ancient Rome and the modern world are common; and fiction, religious preaching, and even scientific analyses abound with apocalyptic images of doom. Much of this stuff is nonsensical, which makes it easy for our “experts” to dismiss it with a patronizing wave of the hand. But I think that non-experts’ intuition is actually largely right. Some kind of real trouble does lie ahead.
That trouble doesn’t have to be calamitous in its ultimate results, though. If we’re smart and a bit lucky, we have a good chance of avoiding a terrible outcome. In fact, just as happened after the great San Francisco fire – when a new and more resiliant city rose from the ashes and America’s banking system was made far more resiliant too – catastrophe could create a space for creativity that helps us build a better world for our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves.
From the Hardcover edition.
Table of ContentsPrologue: Firestorm 1
San Francisco, Thursday, April 19, 1906
Rome, Tuesday, May 13, 2003
The White Wall
Tectonic Stresses 9
From Crash to Creativity
The Prospective Mind
A Keystone in Time 31
The Thermodynamics of Empire
A Stone's Journey
Energy Return on Investment
The Exigencies of Energy
We Are like Running Water 57
No Land Is an Island
So Long, Cheap Slaves 77
From Geopolitics to Geoscarcity
Where Are the Giants?
"The World Economy Has No Plan B"
Connectivity and Speed
A Clausewitz of Complexity
Flesh of the Land 129
Stages of Denial
Beyond the Horizon
Squeezed in a Vise
Closing the Windows 153
Momentum and Feedback
Walking toward a Cliff
No Equilibrium 177
Heading for the Exits
The Dirty Little Secret of Development Economics
The Growth Imperative
Cycles within Cycles 207
Why Don't We Face Reality?
Overextending the Growth Phase
Holland Times Ten
Motivation, Opportunity, and Framing
A Shattered Sphere
A Watch List
Moments of Contingency
Ballbek: The Last Rock 297
Illustration Credits 405
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great overview of challenges to the world based on the fact that we live in a complex, connected world (this is explained in the book, including why this is a bad thing). Discusses the normal cycles of systems and potential hot spots to watch in the future
The author is an expert on energy resources and its relationship to society. He writes about complex systems and their eventual failure being a time of danger and renewal. He compares todays global interconnected civilization to Rome in detail. Well thought out and written though at times too detailed. Definitely thought provoking.
Put aside denial, read this book and face reality squarely--it isn't fun but it is vital.