The Upside of Down
I just finished reading Thomas Homer-Dixon’s The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. This after watching, back-to-back, two brilliantly startling documentaries about peak oil – Crude Impact and A Crude Awakening – and, earlier in the year, reading James Howard Kunstler’s heavy The Long Emergency, among others. Self-punishment, you say? Truly, I don’t recommend this intellectual cocktail to the faint of heart. And yet it is essential reading. It’s important for us to consider human civilization at a macro level – the big picture burden.
The Upside of Down is Homer-Dixon’s follow-up to his excellent 2000 book The Ingenuity Gap (CG review here). Like The Ingenuity Gap, the new book considers the various ways in which human innovation and inventiveness both creates and solves problems – but this time with a greater focus, and with more historical context, on the challenges.
The book centres on the convergence of five major “tectonic stresses” – population size and imbalance, energy shortages, environmental damage, climate change, and income gaps – and reinforces just how serious and urgent the situation is. The concept of EROI (energy returned on energy invested) carries throughout, as is the critical notion of feedback loops within complex nonlinear systems, and ancient Rome is cited significantly as an example of how success, growth, and increased complexity – not unlike present times – contributed to a widespread collapse. The underlying message is that for us to come up with creative solutions, we must quickly move beyond denying that there is a problem. This excerpt summarizes this better than anything else I’ve read on the topic:
We [humans] don’t relinquish our core assumptions until the contrary evidence – what philosophers of science call “anomalous data” – is overwhelmingly abundant and relentlessly obvious. (211)
We ignore or downplay such evidence in many ways. First, we sometimes arrange our lives so we don’t see it. We don’t watch the news or read newspapers, we don’t engage in conversations about dispiriting issues, we avoid going to places where we see unpleasant things, and we allow ourselves to be diverted by consumerism and infotainment. Sometimes such avoidance strategies are easy. For instance, in rich countries we’ve created in our cities a physical space that is largely divorced from the natural environment – a self-referential human-scale bubble of artificial reality. This bubble allows us to ignore evidence that the climate is changing – that our winters are getting progressively shorter and our summers hotter – because we live in a largely climate-controlled environment. Other changes, however, will be harder to avoid. If oil shortages become serious, we’ll see the evidence every time we fill up our gas tank or pay our heating bill.
When avoidance doesn’t work, because the anomalous data are simply too intrusive, we can try the strategies of “existential” and “consequential” denial… Astronomers wedded to the Ptolemaic view of the universe up to Galileo’s time were engaged in aggressive existential denial: they were denying the existence of a heliocentric order – the reality that Earth orbits the sun. And the inevitable result was that they made their theory relentlessly more complex as they tried to explain away anomalous bits of data – evidence that they could see with their very eyes when they looked at the sky – by adding further epicycles to their explanation of the cosmos.
So existential denial eventually entails big costs: the dominant theory of reality can become so convoluted and arbitrary that it’s almost unintelligible. Then, if someone proposes a theory that explains the things we observe more completely and simply (as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler did), the old theory can suddenly look patently absurd in comparison. Almost overnight, it can be discarded and replaced by the new… When one cosmological view replaces another, everything around us suddenly looks strangely different. One moment the sun is moving across the sky – it obviously does, because we can see it move – the next we’re told that the sun is stationary and that, absurdly, we’re flying around it.
This kind of shift may be psychologically wrenching, and it may create upheaval in institutions that are wedded to a particular cosmological worldview. In this instance, though, it’s ultimately just a matter of cosmology. The shift’s practical, real-world implications are limited: we have to alter our view of our place in the universe, but that’s about all. Yet the situation is very different when it comes to shifts in our view of today’s pressing problems. Once me move beyond existential denial – once we recognize, for instance, that higher temperatures aren’t just the result of the normal cycles of climate but are, instead, strong evidence of global warming and that our lifestyles are making the problem worse – we have to decide what, if anything, we’re going to do about it.
And this is where consequential denial kicks in: we don’t have to do anything if we can convince ourselves that our problems won’t have serious consequences. We can, for example, assume that someone will solve our problems. So, rather than worrying about high gasoline prices due to oil shortage, we can insist that our political leaders keep gasoline prices low. To get the job done, they can do just about anything they want – they can risk our national security by allowing us to become too dependent on foreign oil supplies, they can make deals with corrupt regimes, they can go to war to protect supplies, and they can lie to us about how their policies are succeeding. There’s just one rock-bottom stipulation: they shouldn’t ask us to change our lifestyles or our core values.
We can also deny the consequences of our problems by convincing ourselves that we can deal with them once they get really bad. Yes, we’re facing energy shortages, wealth gaps, terrorism and the like, but necessity is the mother of invention, and we’re the most inventive species ever, so it will all work out. Also, science and free markets allow modern capitalist democracies to do a better job of creating the right incentives, generating the right knowledge, and implementing the right solutions than any societies in history.
Such arguments are sometimes exactly right. Sometimes it does make sense for us to wait until problems get serious before addressing them; and it’s always risky to underestimate human inventiveness and adaptability. But other times these arguments are exactly wrong – they’re no more than glib self-gratifying rationalizations that give us license to delay and deny. They exploit the fact that everyone, quite naturally, wants to hear that they don’t have to make disruptive changes in their lives. (212-213)
The Upside of Down really isn’t a pessimistic “sky is falling” book. But it is arresting, and one gets the impression that the “and the renewal of civilization” part of the subtitle was added by the publisher to keep some sort of optimistic edge to it. Homer-Dixon, who is Chair at the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, champions the notion of fostering a “prospective mind,” basically an open-mindedness and proactive acceptance of surprise and change as a way of building up resilience. Resilience, he claims, is the most important thing we can design into our systems, societies, and lifestyles.
The book is incredibly well supported by research, with pages and pages of endnotes. It occurred to me while reading this book that if anyone can be called a futurist it is a generalist like Homer-Dixon. His capacity to learn and understand so widely, to draw insights from such disparate sources, and to wrap his head around – as much as is humanly possible – the complexity inherent with non-linear systems seems to extend his outlook down the path society is heading. This book, as well as The Ingenuity Gap, are remarkable for just how expertly they synthesize a whole load of varied research and opinion and accessibly unfold it for the general reader. There’s a satisfying feeling reading Homer-Dixon’s books that many loose threads of thought are being woven together in that “but of course!” sort of way. Probably the best book you could buy to learn more about where we’re at in the world right now.
Some other noteworthy and CG-relevant passages:
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 big picture. But when several stresses come together at the same time, they can produce an impact far greater than their individual impacts. (17)
We need, instead, to adopt an attitude toward the world, ourselves within it, and our future that’s grounded in the knowledge that constant change and surprise are now inevitable. The new attitude – which involves having a prospective mind – aggressively engages with this new world of uncertainty and risk. A prospective mind recognizes how little we understand, and how we control even less. (29)
There’s no delusional optimism here. The prospective mind knows that severe pressures are building around the planet. But neither is that viewpoint relentlessly pessimistic. The coming decades will be perilous, but we shouldn’t enter them with fear. Human beings are first and foremost problem solvers, and the prospective mind tries to anticipate harmful outcomes in the future by better understanding the pressures affecting our world and how they might act, singly or together, to cause our undoing. It also knows, though, that the future is opaque. We can’t really see beyond the white wall because as prognosticators we come up against two formidable obstacles: the highly nonlinear systems that surround us and the biases of our temperament. (29)
Greater connectivity often boosts economic productivity by creating larger markets that allow companies to reap the benefits of economies of scale and that encourage people and companies to specialize. Also, when people are connected they can usefully combine their diverse ideas, skills, and resources. (113)
The new links we create can connect previously separate systems or components, so failures or accidents that would before have been isolated from each other now combine in unexpected and harmful ways. This is the best explanation for the terrible Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear-reactor accidents and the Challenger and Columbia space-shuttle disasters. In each case, while the designers and managers may have understood the system’s bits and pieces, they didn’t fully understand what could happen when all the bits and pieces combined – in other words, they didn’t really understand the system as a whole. The systems became so complex and interconnected that they exhibited emergent properties – the whole became more than the sum of its parts. So those in charge didn’t anticipate all possible combinations of component failures or possible negative synergies of combined failures, and tragedy was the result. (116)
An ecosystem, for example, will have a certain number of “keystone species” – species that provide vital services, like pollination, to a wide range of other species – and these keystone species are essentially hubs in the ecosystem’s larger network of species. If enough of these hubs are lost, the ecosystem can collapse. (118)
…[B]y modern standards, almost everything happened far more slowly in Roman times. The very slowness of Rome’s crisis underscores a lesson for us today. If social breakdown occurs now – whether it encompasses one country, many countries, or the world, and whether the consequences are moderate or severe – we can be sure it won’t unfold at the same leisurely pace as seventeen hundred years ago. The underlying mechanisms may be the same – a combination of accumulated stresses, weakened resilience, and multiple shocks. But today our global social, technological, and ecological systems are so tightly linked together, and they now operate at such velocity, that the duration of any future breakdown or collapse is likely to be dramatically compressed. (125)
Most important, collapse also liberates the ecosystem’s enormous potential for creativity and allows for novel and unpredictable recombinations of its elements. (228)
“The adaptive cycle,” Holling writes, “embraces two opposites: growth and stability on one hand, change and variety on the other.” It’s at once conserving and creative – a characteristic of all highly adaptive systems. (228)
Capitalism’s constant pressure on companies to maximize efficiency tightens links between producers and suppliers; reduces slack, buffering, and redundancy; and so makes cascading failures more likely and damaging. As well, capitalism’s pressure on people to be more productive and efficient drives them to acquire hyperspecialized skills and knowledge, which means they become less autonomous, more dependent on other specialized people and technologies, and ultimately more vulnerable to shocks. (252)
Because it takes energy to create and maintain complexity and order, and because energy will become steadily more expensive, we’ll find it steadily harder to implement complex solutions to our complex problems. (253)
[T]he current wisdom is that we should pander to denial. Don’t depress yourself or other people, we’re told, with negative and scary messages. But there’s one big problem: we’re not going to crack through the hard shell of chronic denial by downplaying the dangers we face. (266)
Experts of all types have generated a considerable quantity of good ideas about how we can reduce the force of the tectonic stresses I’ve identified in this book – population imbalances, energy shortages, environmental damage, climate change, and income gaps. Yet too often the experts operate only within the silos of their disciplines and professional communities. Demographers don’t talk to energy specialists, agronomists don’t speak to economists, and climate scientists don’t talk to epidemiologists. Instead, experts usually target the problem they understand, and because they don’t think much about how to integrate their ideas with the ideas of experts focusing on related problems, the policies they propose are too narrowly focused. …
The highly compartmentalized approach doesn’t work in a world of converging and synergistic stresses. We must bring experts together across disciplinary barriers, just as we bring governments together across cultural, ideological, and political barriers. And we also need to realize that there’s no magic bullet: there’s no single technical solution, institutional response, or policy that will neatly resolve all our challenges in one fell swoop. More than ever in humanity’s history, we have to be aggressively proactive on multiple fronts at the same time. (281)
Regarding the “prospective mind”: We can’t possibly flourish in a future filled with sharp nonlinearities and threshold effects – and, somewhat paradoxically, we can’t hope to preserve at least some of what we hold dear – unless we’re comfortable with change, surprise, and the essential transience of things, and unless we’re open to radically new ways of thinking about our world and about the way we should lead our lives. We need to exercise our imaginations so that we can challenge the unchallengeable and conceive the inconceivable. Hunkering down, denying what’s happening around us, and refusing to countenance anything more than incremental adjustments to our course are just about the worst things we can do. (282)