The Big Wakeup Call

Review of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon.

Michael Valpy1 May 2007

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization
By Thomas Homer-Dixon
Island Press, 2006; 416 pp.; $25.95 (cloth)

Seven years ago Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote The Ingenuity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future? It was intended as a wake-up call to the world from an eminent political theorist who had been a frequent visitor to the Clinton White House, an adviser to former vice-president Al Gore (indeed an adviser to governments on both sides of the Atlantic), and whose research had been the primary source for journalist Robert Kaplan’s alarming and controversial 1994 Atlantic Monthly article, “The Coming Anarchy.” The world faced, in Homer-Dixon’s view, a widening gap between the discovery of creative, ingenious solutions to our most serious problems and the arrival of the crippling results of those problems.

Homer-Dixon, director of the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, warned in The Ingenuity Gap that if a society is unable to deal with the multiplying stresses of population expansion, gaps between rich and poor, resource depletion, and, most of all, ecological degradation, it “will risk entering a downward and self-reinforcing spiral of crisis and decay.” He wrote that the world—particularly the rich world—must focus its attention, its energy, and its creative research on finding smart solutions, on closing the ingenuity gap, lest we “lose control of our destiny and become hapless, frenetic puppets.”

All of which sounds eminently reasonable, but it got him labeled by pundits as a doomsayer, a Jeremiah. The Economist called him “an extreme eco-pessimist.” He was accused of trend-speak and peddling a catchy Big Idea. The former editor of a journal of advanced research wrote only a few months ago that Homer-Dixon’s prognostications were wrong because, hah-hah, “we’re still here.” In the mean time, al-Qaeda flew passenger planes into buildings, and the Greenland ice cap melted at 200 cubic kilometers a year.

Now Homer-Dixon is back with a new book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, in which he takes a further exploratory step into the pit he sees potentially awaiting humankind. His Ingenuity Gap thesis was that humans had to get smarter and more creative to avoid catastrophe. His thesis in The Upside of Down is that the window of opportunity for relatively easy—in hindsight—clever fixes has been slammed shut. The planet’s problems have become so complex, so multifaceted, that humanity and its spaceship earth are now irrevocably heading toward some significant breakdown.

Ecologically? “We’re going to lose some coastline,” he says. Throw out the old maps. Think submerged cities. There’s no time left for a pre-emptive response to the impact of global warming. Geopolitically? He has in mind a possible crisis scenario that goes like this: al-Qaeda detonates a radioactive device in the Abqaiq oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia that takes five percent of world production off-line and triggers a domino cascade of political, social, and economic shocks owing to a too tightly interconnected global society: riots in poor countries; the assassination of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf by hard-line Islamic military officers; bank failures; an ugly Sino-Japanese conflict; and Western plans for a massive invasion of the Persian Gulf.

“Yes, there will be some form of breakdown,” he says in an interview. “I feel pretty confident of that. So in some sense you can say I’ve concluded that we can’t close the ingenuity gap, at least in some areas.”

What is happening are what Homer-Dixon identifies as five “tectonic stresses” on humanity and the planet: uneven population growth between rich and poor countries; the impending oil shortage; environmental degradation; global warming; and the growing economic instability and inequality generated by global capitalism.

It is not any one of these stresses that looms as overwhelming. It is rather their combined impact, their convergence that points to breakdown. It is a pattern, says Homer-Dixon, that history, biology, ecology, and economics are familiar with: all systems go through stages of growth, complexification, rigidification, and eventual breakdown. But here he comes to the thesis of his new book: after systemic breakdown there is a reorganization of the components and then regrowth. There is hope. There is “catagenesis”: rebirth and renewal through breakdown, creativity after catastrophe. “If,” he adds, “we’re lucky.” If, that is, breakdown scares the daylights out of us and stimulates truly radical thinking and problem-solving.

Thus what Homer-Dixon is offering is not what he calls a “whacko Doomsday scenario”—or a mirror of U.S. evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond’s 2005 portrait (in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) of game-over human ruin—but the vision of a door still open. Although getting over the threshold will be tough.

He cites examples of renewal in the wake of destruction, such as the forest that regrows—more healthy than before—after a savagely destructive fire, and the San Francisco earthquake that devastated U.S. financial institutions and led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System and a reformed and stronger American capitalism. He also cites harbingers of coming breakdowns: how quickly civil order disintegrated in the wake of Katrina’s assault on New Orleans; the lightning-speed swiftness with which SARS moved from China to North America; the instant, near-catastrophic impact of the 2003 blackout on North America’s most densely populated urban centers—all illustrative of a world too interconnected with too little built-in resilience and too little capacity for radically creative collective responses to new problems.

Much of what Homer-Dixon proposes for kick-starting creative renewal is pragmatic, which is why politicians are inclined to listen to him. As the journal New Scientist notes, the kites he flies are less prone to crashing than most. I would have liked more specific examples of where he wants to go—something along the lines of what is presented in George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, which Homer-Dixon thinks is brilliant. But he is reluctant to prescribe too precisely, he says, because it’s very difficult to predict precisely which shocks humanity is going to encounter. “All the same, we can prepare for the possibility of major disruptions in the future, even though we don’t know exactly what is going to take place.”

And so he offers an approach: find ways to make human systems more shock-resistant, and devise modes of thinking about problem-solving that will make it more likely humanity goes down the right path. To begin with, he argues that if the principal threat to humanity and the planet is the convergence of multiple stresses, then the principal responses must be multifaceted and not isolated in silos.

He calls on governments to find the courage to legislate rules for the common good—because if they don’t, no one else will. He urges the development of what he calls a “prospective mind” to engage with a new world of surprise, uncertainty, and risk. He wants an inquiry into spiritual values that relate, as he tells me, “to what our position is in the cosmos, what the meaning of life is. You’ll notice in my book that the issue of meaningfulness comes up over and over again.”

Homer-Dixon advocates building more resilience and self-reliance into human systems that have become too rigid, too centralized, and too tightly coupled to withstand shocks. In The Upside of Down, he explores why so many Roman edifices are more or less upright two thousand years after they were built, and concludes it’s in large part because the Romans factored in a risk of failure and therefore overbuilt to compensate. “They built in a lot of buffering capacity,” he says, “and that’s why we go around the Mediterranean and we see the remains of aqueducts and stadia. Because they were built so well, they withstood all the earthquakes. It was just part of their prudent approach to engineering.”

In contrast, much of what the contemporary world creates has had all the slack squeezed out in the interest of efficiency and profitability; thus, there’s far more underbuilding than overbuilding. To overcome these tendencies, he says, “We can introduce the concept of resilience into our technologies, into our social arrangements. It should be part of our common discourse when we think about how we’re going to design everything from buildings to institutions. What will this building or this institution do, how is it going to behave if it’s shocked in some way? That’s what resilience is about, the ability to maintain coherence in the event of some strong external shock.”

If, for example, the 2003 blackout had lasted longer than it did, he says, in apartment buildings without back-up generators to run air conditioners and elevators, elderly people trapped in summer heat on the upper floors of apartment buildings would have been carted out in body bags. That’s not resilience. Consumer cultures in the developed world depending on food trucked and flown in from hundreds and thousands of miles away rather than enhancing their own agricultural capabilities and eating according to the local season—that’s not resilience, says Homer-Dixon.

Our lack of resilience emerges from what we have chosen to value, “People have established as value priorities things that really don’t contribute much to our happiness,” he says, “and they have devalued other things that actually turn out to be very important to our happiness. I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of people in Canada and the United States, and to a certain extent in Europe. Time and time again in question period when we’re talking about this issue, it comes down to values. Questions about existential values are the most important starting point, but people have been told since they were ten that they shouldn’t be asking them. If you go to a religious institution, if you go in the door of your mosque or synagogue or church, you’re not given the space to think. You’re just told what to think; you’re given a creed. The muscle that questions and examines existential values is completely atrophied.”

In the end of his book, Homer-Dixon alludes to the need to strengthen that muscle through open dialogue and engagement with each other. “I see an open-source democratic environment,” he says, “as a way of providing a forum, a sort of an agora, in which we could begin that conversation. Because it’s really late and it’s really desperate.”

This open-source democratic environment—humanity’s “right path” of thinking, according to Homer-Dixon—is what I find perhaps most intriguing about his book. The institutional architecture of decision-making and problem-solving is critically important to what human beings do in the next few years. Existing democratic institutions that took centuries to evolve and worked well for a long time no longer work well, in Homer-Dixon’s view. But an open-source, group effort like Wikipedia—which Homer-Dixon thinks is one of the most interesting and profound social innovations we’ve seen in decades—holds out hope. “If somebody had said ten years ago that you’re going to have an encyclopedia generated by a volunteer process involving tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people, with four million entries in the English language, where any entry can be changed by anybody at any time, that’s going to produce an outcome with scientific entries that, according to the journal Nature, are as good as the Encyclopedia Britannica, people would have considered that ridiculous, impossible. We have been convinced by neoclassical economists that human beings are profoundly egocentric, individualistic, selfish—and what we’re finding in a Wikipedia environment is that lots of people will do the stuff without any name recognition at all. There’s the remarkable willingness of people not only to volunteer, but to collaborate in problem-solving.”

In the end, for Homer-Dixon, the upside of down seems to be that we may discover that we are actually able to work together to overcome the challenges we face. “I’m a fan of individualism,” he says. “I’m a fan of markets. Markets are problem-solving institutions that work very well in certain circumstances. But there’s obviously this other possibility that Wikipedia is demonstrating, something more collaborative and voluntaristic and less egocentric. And I would like to see what we can do with that, take it out for a spin and apply it to some really tough problems. Some of the really desperate ones we’ve got. Here in the world where we’re facing perhaps the biggest challenges the human species has ever faced, we suddenly have this technology, a worldwide-network technology, where we can basically all have a conversation together.”

Michael Valpy

Michael Valpy

Michael Valpy writes frequently on religion and ethics for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto.