The downside of the Upside of Down

June 10, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Photo taken by Kim in ThailandWell, here’s a book I probably shouldn’t have read. In fact, it was sitting in my To Read pile for many months as I cast a wary eye at it every now and then, knowing full well that if I succumbed, it would probably spark off feelings of despair about crises in society. It’s a study of crisis brought on by the many challenges facing industralised civilisation. Probably many of you have read this book – Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization. It was the subtitle that had me thinking this would be a depressing book about societal collapse and events that have shaken the world. But I’m glad I read it.

Contemporary society places blind faith in science and mankind’s knowledge to confront and solve increasingly complex problems – terrorist attacks, energy scarcity, environmental fragility – which tend to cascade as one problem or system after another weakens or is attacked. But our blind faith may be our downfall as we face what Homer-Dixon refers to as an array of tectonic stresses facing our civilisation and raising the risk of synchronous failure.

He identifies 5 tectonic stresses:

  • population stress – growing gap between rich and poor; and the rapid growth of megacities in developing countries;
  • energy stress – increasing scarcity of conventional oil resources;
  • environmental stress – ongoing damage to land, loss of species and habitats, forests, fisheries and so on;
  • climate stress – carbon emissions cooking up the atmosphere;
  • economic stress – resulting from instabilities in the global economic system and ever-widening income gaps between rich and poor.

Most of these stresses originate in our troubled relationship with nature but are compounded by two multipliers:

  • the rising speed of global connectivity, which wires up people, technologies and societies like never before;
  • the escalating power of small groups to destroy things and people.

Stresses + multipliers = one heck of a lethal mixture that heightens the prospect of the outright collapse of the political, social and economic order in individual countries and globally ie synchronous failure. Homer-Dixon refers to the ancient Roman Empire, which drew its energy supplies, in the form of food, mainly from its conquered territories. Eventually, Imperial Rome required 8,800 square kilometres of agricultural land to grow enough wheat to feed itself. It needed enormous flows of high-quality energy to sustain itself and remain far from thermodynamic equilibrium. He argues that the resilience of a complex society is dependent on its input of high-quality energy, which it must aggressively seek out. But a society’s return on its investments to produce energy (or EROI) starts to decline when a society exhausts its energy supplies and has no new technology to find alternate sources of energy. This is what happened to Ancient Rome – it exhausted the croplands of the Empire and incoming tributes dwindled. The complexity of the centre could not be maintained and collapse occured under Draconian rule.

What has Rome to do with our contemporary society? Well, no brainer really. Our vital energy sources – oil, natural gas and so on – are depleting. They are more complex than Ancient Rome’s, which means, as Homer-Dixon says, that the unravelling of our society “..would make Rome’s decline pale by comparison“.

We might think that greater connectivity and speed can result in increased resilience but Homer-Dixon’s anecdote (about a near-miss traffic accident involving high speeds and lots of whizzing cars) wonderfully illustrated how one element’s failure in a system that is tightly interwoven can make the system less able to tolerate disturbances.

Homer-Dixon uses historical events, like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and subsequent tragic fire, to show how a confluence of factors can result in cascading failure. The lesson here is that random networks with loosely connected nodes can better withstand onslaught, whereas scale-free networks like electrical grids (with many nodes linking into hubs) are more vulnerable.

Drawing on the work of ecologist, Crawford Holling, Homer-Dixon points out that there are natural cycles of growth, breakdown and renewal and the contemporary challenge is to find the middle ground between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse. The catastrophe of collapse allows for the birth of something new – just as trees burned in a bushfire regenerate and adapt to a changed environment – so he believes our society (headed as it is for collapse) can regenerate into a simpler and more creative form.

How? When business has a vested interest in maintaining our love affair with fossil fuels; when Governments are slow to act on climate change; and when our hedonistic society keeps us focused on money, brand-names, botox and Hollywood celebrities? How do we achieve this upside to catastrophe? Aside from loosening the connectivity so that our socioeconomic system is less vulnerable to disturbance, Homer-Dixon suggests four actions:

  • address the underlying tectonic stresses so that the risk of synchronous failure across geographic and societal boundaries is lowered;
  • we need to cultivate a “prospective mind” to cope better with surprise. A prospective mind, in his terms, looks for ways to prevent or forestall negative outcomes through managing things and by imagining and implementing more radical and far-reaching solutions;
  • boost the overall resilience of critical systems like our energy and food supply networks; and
  • we need to prepare to turn breakdown to advantage when the proverbial hits the fan.

The ‘downside’ of the book for me was I didn’t gain a real sense of how we (individuals, Governments and society) could pursue these four actions but a re-read of the book should make things clearer. It’s quite a rare read: historical accounts are examined for similarities with contemporary society, through the lens of the new sciences.

A few weeks back, I finished reading Steven Johnson’s, The Ghost Map, the last chapters of which focused on contemporary developing countries and the so-called shadow or squatter cities – these are truly becoming megacities as Homer-Dixon alludes to. These ecosystems are facing the same issues as Ancient Rome: unstable growth; inadequate energy supplies (ie water); densely-packed populations. The five tectonic stresses exist in the hothouse environment of megacities.

Shortly after reading both these books, I started to notice articles on the rise of megacities and other issues Homer-Dixon touches on. Sychronicity? Perhaps. But more likely evidence that our socioeconomic system resembles Ancient Rome – teetering on the edge of collapse. Here are some links to articles I found that support Homer-Dixon’s thesis:

  • May 23 2007: Transition Day: the day a major demographic shift occured and the world’s population became more urban than rural. By 2010, 51.3% of the world’s population will be urban, resulting in a tightly woven ecosystem of humanity;
  • Between 2007 and 2050, one billion people will be forced from their homes in a “migration crisis” due to conflict, natural disasters, and more particularly by large-scale development projects;
  • A European underclass of hardworking migrants are feeling increasingly marginalised. Homer-Dixon suggests that this underclass will be a source of increasing civil unrest and violence. We saw urban riots in France in 2005 led by immigrants living in the poorer suburbs of Paris and the UK has recently seen a protest by illegal migrants.
  • The notion of the nation state being under threat by the rise of super or megacities – some of which are larger than industrialised countries and suck rural workers into their vortex;
  • Although the world is getting richer, rapidly growing economies such as India and China are experiencing a widening gap between rich and poor, despite absolute poverty diminishing somewhat.

Entry filed under: Books, Complexity, Future trends, Reflections, Social problems, Society.

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