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
The Upside of Down
Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization
By Thomas Homer-Dixon
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2006 Resource & Conflict Analysis Inc.
All rights reserved.
Tens of thousands of people are walking toward me.
It is 6 p.m. on Thursday, August 14, 2003—three months, almost to the day, after my tranquil afternoon in Rome's Forum. I'm standing on Yonge Street, Toronto's central artery, looking down a slight grade to the skyscrapers at the city's center. For several kilometers, as far as I can see down the road, the sidewalks are choked with people trudging north.
Two hours earlier, the power failed across an immense wedge of eastern North America extending from New York to Detroit to Toronto. It's the biggest blackout ever on the continent. Subway trains shuddered to a halt, traffic lights went dead, and all surface transport was snarled in gridlock. Unable to get home the usual way, people are leaving the urban centre on foot.
I talk to a few of them. Some are frustrated and annoyed, but none seems angry. Some find the whole thing a novelty—a fun interruption of a hot summer afternoon's routine. Others generously pitch in to direct traffic or guide pedestrians across chaotic streets.
But everyone seems puzzled and at least a little disconcerted. What happened? Was it terrorism? How long will it last? And how will we get home?
The view down Yonge Street reminds me of something I'd already seen, but at first I'm not sure what. Then I realize that it resembles a grim day only two years before, when the world had gaped in horror as people fled on foot from southern Manhattan, the smoke of the collapsed Twin Towers billowing into the sky behind them. Unlike 9/11, the great 2003 blackout didn't claim thousands of lives or trigger a war. But it echoed that earlier catastrophe. Both events were complete surprises that materialized suddenly out of a complex world we only remotely understand. Both had effects that were greatly amplified by the intricate networks that tightly connect us together and that move people, money, information, materials, and energy. And both starkly reminded us how vulnerable we've become to the abrupt failure of critical technological, economic, and social systems.
When the power went off in August 2003, all air conditioners, elevators, subways, and traffic signals failed—but that wasn't surprising. What did surprise many people, though, was the simultaneous failure of portable phones, automatic tellers, debit card machines, electronic hotel- room doors, electric garage doors, and almost all clocks. Most disconcerting of all was the loss of the constant flow of information that's become a drug in our lives, as people were cut off from television, e-mail, and—worst of all—the Web. No one could tell what was going on. It was as if darkness had fallen in mid-afternoon. People clustered around cars that boomed out reports from radio stations running on backup power. In the sudden gridlock downtown, cars weren't much good for getting around, but at least they had batteries, so their radios worked.
Most of us in cities are now so specialized in our skills and so utterly dependent on complex technologies that we're quickly in desperate straits when things really go wrong. When we can't drive, catch a cab, or take the subway, we have to fall back on such age-old methods as walking to meet our immediate needs.
When, next, will we see people walking out of our cities—in the darkness of a mid-afternoon?
Maybe not long from now, because the possibility of abrupt breakdown in our vital social and technological systems is rising, and perhaps rising fast. Breakdown is often like an earthquake: it's caused by the slow accumulation of deep and largely unseen pressures beneath the surface of our day-to-day affairs. At some point these pressures release their accumulated energy with catastrophic effect, creating shock waves that pulverize our habitual and often rigid ways of doing things. Events like last century's Great Depression and two World Wars were good examples of this kind of buildup and sudden release of pressure.
Five tectonic stresses are accumulating deep underneath the surface of our societies, as I'll show in the next chapters. They are
population stress arising from differences in the population growth rates between rich and poor societies, and from the spiraling growth of megacities in poor countries;
energy stress—above all from the increasing scarcity of conventional oil;
environmental stress from worsening damage to our land, water, forests, and fisheries;
climate stress from changes in the makeup of our atmosphere;
and, finally, economic stress resulting from instabilities in the global economic system and ever-widening income gaps between rich and poor people.
Of the five, energy stress plays a particularly central role. I discovered in investigating the story of ancient Rome that energy is society's critical master resource: when it's scarce and costly, everything we try to do, including growing our food, obtaining other resources like fresh water, transmitting and processing information, and defending ourselves, becomes far harder.
Most of the five stresses spring from our troubled relationship with nature. Indeed, one of my most important points in this book is that we can't ignore nature any longer, because it affects every aspect of our well-being and even determines our survival. Yet today, despite a growing intuitive public awareness of this fact, most politicians, corporate leaders, social scientists, and commentators in Western societies give nature little attention. They push it to the sidelines of public discussion, focusing instead on the headline issues that regularly hijack social, economic, and political debate. And they tend to dismiss people who concern themselves with nature as, at best, softheaded do-gooders or, at worst, eco-freak fanatics.
Most such opinion leaders imply we don't need to worry because we human beings are biologically exceptional, unlike any other species on Earth, with brains that endow us with immense ingenuity to solve our problems. And they imply that modern Western societies are historically exceptional, because no other societies in the past had our science, markets, and democracy. Today, our science gives us the knowledge, our markets give us the incentives, and our democracy gives us the social resources to solve any demographic, health, energy, or environmental crisis that might come our way.
Yes, we do have exceptional brains, and Western societies are certainly among the most creative and adaptive in human history. But there are times when our problems are too hard for our brains, or when science, markets, and democracy can't generate solutions when and where they're needed. And such opinion leaders conveniently overlook the fact that every great civilization believes itself to be exceptional—right up to the time it collapses. Instead, unrealistically optimistic, they promote their Panglossian view almost as if it were a religion—an absolutist creed that leaves no room for uncertainty and that we're supposed to accept as a matter of faith.
Sure enough, this creed now permeates our common language and thought, and many of us truly believe we can free ourselves of the physical constraints that have otherwise governed human beings throughout history. Our recent experience has also encouraged this complacency. For a few remarkable decades—decades when energy seemed in endless supply, when our antibiotics seemed to have conquered infectious disease, when we traveled to the moon, and when the productivity of capitalist economies appeared to know no bounds—we could fool ourselves that the physical facts of life no longer applied.
But now Earth's glaciers and icecaps are disappearing, while mammoth hurricanes pound the United States, Australia, and Japan—signs that nature is reasserting its authority. The twenty-first century will, in fact, be the Age of Nature. We'll learn, probably the hard way, that nature matters: we're not separate from it, we're dependent on it, and when there's trouble in nature, there's trouble in society.
These stresses are of concern enough. But two other factors are likely to give them extra force. I call these multipliers, because they combine with the five stresses to make breakdown more likely, widespread, and severe. The first multiplier is the rising speed and global connectivity of our activities, technologies, and societies. The second is the escalating power of small groups to destroy things and people.
Humankind has been crisscrossing the globe for millennia, and we've been trading large quantities of raw materials and manufactured goods around the world for many centuries. But only in the past hundred years or so, while our population has quadrupled, have we created tightly interlinked economic, technological, and social systems—from industrial agriculture to financial markets—that penetrate virtually every corner of the planet. The kiwifruit on your breakfast plate comes from New Zealand, the plate itself comes from Malaysia, while the tantalum metal in the cell phone beside your plate comes from the jungles of eastern Congo. The globe, says the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm, is now "a single operational unit." And only in the past few decades has our impact on the natural environment become truly planetary: we're now a physical force on the scale of nature itself, disrupting the deepest processes of natural systems like Earth's climate, and massively changing global cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur.
This is the real face of globalization—a phenomenon that many people talk about but few really understand. It's not just a process of growing economic interdependence among countries. That's something that's been underway for hundreds of years. Globalization is really a much broader and, in many ways, more recent phenomenon: an almost vertical rise in the scope, connectedness, and speed of all humankind's activities and impacts. It's as much about the spread of new diseases like AIDS and avian flu from one continent to another, the infestation of the Great Lakes by foreign mollusks, and the arrival of shiploads of poor migrants on our shores as it is about trade negotiations, farm subsidies, and currency convertibility.
The change has brought huge benefits. More trade in goods and services often boosts wealth for all involved: better movement of capital can aid investment and development, and mobilized global opinion brings attention to distant human-rights and environmental problems. Greater connectivity between people and a higher speed of interaction—caused mainly by lightning-fast information technology—let people far and wide combine their ideas, talents, and resources in ways that may expand everyone's prosperity.
But globalization has also created huge challenges. Greater connectivity and speed, for instance, allow what would once have been merely local shocks and disruptions to cascade outward as never before, sometimes affecting the whole planet. Just as the 2003 blackout ramified across eastern North America from its starting point in Ohio, so, earlier that year, did severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) emerge in southern China and explode into dozens of countries from Vietnam to Canada.
Greater connectivity and speed are especially worrisome in light of the spread of "lethal technologies" that have sharply raised the destructive power of angry and violent people. In a globalized world, an attack in one place can have instant repercussions everywhere. Lethal technologies don't have to be exotic or rare, like biochemical, nuclear, or radiological weapons. Technologies that provide impressive killing power to fanatics, insurgents, and criminal gangs are already widely available: conventional assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and plastic explosives—staggeringly abundant and traded in vast quantities legally and illegally around the planet—are contributing to havoc from Chechnya to Congo and Iraq. Violent groups have also been learning how to convert civilian technologies into appalling weapons—as the Al Qaeda terrorists did so horrifically when they used passenger airliners as guided missiles.
But it's the exotic technologies—the weapons of mass destruction—that keep experts awake at night. If terrorists obtained barely one hundred kilograms of highly enriched uranium—less than one ten-thousandth of the world's stockpile, much of which is stored in insecure facilities in the former Soviet Union—they could easily build an atomic bomb that could flatten the core of any of our great cities. London or New York, Paris or Washington, Moscow or Delhi, Tel Aviv or Riyadh—these metropolises are all in countries whose policies evoke hatred from fanatically violent groups, and any could be obliterated in an instant. Never before has it been possible for small groups to destroy entire cities, and this one fact by itself will ensure that our future is entirely different from our past.
The stresses and multipliers are a lethal mixture that sharply boosts the risk of collapse of the political, social, and economic order in individual countries and globally—an outcome I call synchronous failure. This would be destructive—not creative—catastrophe. It would affect large regions and even sweep around the globe, in the process deeply damaging the human prospect. Recovery and renewal would be slow, perhaps even impossible.
It's the convergence of stresses that's especially treacherous and makes synchronous failure a possibility as never before. In coming years, our societies won't face one or two major challenges at once, as usually happened in the past. Instead, they'll face an alarming variety of problems—likely including oil shortages, climate change, economic instability, and mega-terrorism—all at the same time.
Scholars have found that bloody social revolutions occur only when many pressures simultaneously batter a society that has weak political, economic, and civic institutions. These were the conditions in France in the late eighteenth century, Russia in the early twentieth century, and Iran in the late 1970s. And in many ways the same conditions are developing today for societies around the world and even for global order as a whole.
We don't usually think in terms of convergence, because we tend to "silo" our problems. We look at our challenges in isolation, so we don't see the whole picture. But when several stresses come together at the same time, they can produce an impact far greater than their individual impacts. When sparks combined with fuel immediately after the great 1906 earthquake, San Francisco exploded in flames. Today, around the world, we see similar explosive combinations of factors. For instance, just as shrinking global oil supplies are becoming ever more concentrated in some of the planet's most dangerous and politically unstable regions, more countries desperately need cheap energy to maintain their consumption-driven growth—a situation that raises the likelihood of wars over oil in places like the Persian Gulf. And just as gaps between rich and poor people are widening fast within and among our societies, new technology has put staggeringly destructive power in the hands of people who could be enraged by those gaps.
Convergence is treacherous, too, because it could lead directly to synchronous failure, if several stresses were to climax together in a way that overloads our societies' ability to cope. What happens, for example, if together or in quick succession the world has to deal with a sudden shift in climate that sharply cuts food production in Europe and Asia, a severe oil price increase that sends economies tumbling around the world, and a string of major terrorist attacks on several Western capital cities? Such a convergence would be a body blow to global order, and might even send reeling the world's richest and most powerful societies. Global financial institutions and political stability could begin to break down.
We can't estimate the exact likelihood of any one of these events, but we can say with reasonable confidence that their individual probabilities are rising. The probability that they'll happen together is, of course, much lower, but it's surely rising too. And I've described only one scenario of converging stresses. If some form of synchronous failure does occur, it's likely to be in a way that we've never anticipated, because the range of permutations is almost infinite. We shouldn't be surprised by surprise.
Excerpted from The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon. Copyright © 2006 Resource & Conflict Analysis Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ONE Tectonic Stresses,
TWO A Keystone in Time,
THREE We Are like Running Water,
FOUR So Long, Cheap Slaves,
SIX Flesh of the Land,
SEVEN Closing the Windows,
EIGHT No Equilibrium,
NINE Cycles within Cycles,
TWELVE Baalbek: The Last Rock,