- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: Knopf Canada; 1 edition (Oct. 31 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0676977227
- ISBN-13: 978-0676977226
- Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 3.4 x 24.2 cm
- Shipping Weight: 930 g
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #214,118 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization Hardcover – Oct 31 2006
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Here's a wonky but serviceable analogy for getting a handle on the sweeping, fact-jammed, exhaustively footnoted social critique that is Thomas Homer-Dixon's book, The Upside of Down. Think of Homer-Dixon as the psychiatrist and the world as his patient, reclining uneasily on a sofa and reciting a list of devastating woes including, but not limited to, environmental degradation, economic imbalance, and energy scarcity. If you were the world, you'd be stressed out, too and in dire need of assistance. As Homer-Dixon--a noted academic and the bestselling author of The Ingenuity Gap--neatly demonstrates in this riveting book that our world needs much more than the proverbial aspirin and good night's sleep to regain an even keel (that is, assuming it ever had one). Homer-Dixon offers some solutions.
In clear, accessible language, Homer-Dixon fingers the "five tectonic stresses accumulating deep underneath the surface of our societies" that, if left unchecked, "boosts the probability of major social breakdown." The tectonic stresses in question are the familiar thugs of overpopulation, dearth of fossil fuel energy, global warming, myriad environmental catastrophes (depleted forests, oceans etc) and, last but not least, that odious bastard, monetary inequality or the chasm between rich and poor.
Thanks to Al Gore and his ilk, the facts on offer aren't ground-breaking but they're shocking to revisit just the same. "Some of the most troubling news comes from Greenland," Homer-Dixon writes. "The island is covered by an enormous ice sheet that's about the size of Mexico and in some places about three kilometers thick--after Antarctica, it's the world's second largest body of ice. Scientists have recently found that the sheet's rate of ice loss has more than doubled in the past ten years, from 90 to 220 cubic kilometers annually. This year the ice sheet will dump into the ocean about 225 times the amount of fresh water that Los Angeles consumes." Or this: "According to a recent report from the World Bank, about 1.1 billion people, or one-fifth of the population of the world's poorest countries, live on less than what $1 a day would buy in the United States. About 2.7 billion people, or over half the developed world's population, live on less than $2 a day." This kind of puts that flat tire or missed aerobics class into perspective.
Homer-Dixon might catch some flak for casting his net too wide--each of these tectonic stresses is massive and almost too perplexing to comprehend much less fix. But there is no faulting the author's ambition or the coherent, persuasive way he presents his arguments. We'd all do well to listen. --Kim Hughes
“Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon is the giant-killer of overwhelming issues.”
“[Thomas Homer-Dixon] is just the man for the job. . . . The book introduces general readers to a number of key concepts pursued by Homer-Dixon in his academic studies on the links between population growth, environmental degradation and global security. It is his ability to delineate those links that makes The Upside of Down such a sobering and stimulating read.”
“Homer-Dixon [is] a magpie of knowledge.”
–Times Colonist (Victoria)
“Thomas Homer-Dixon . . . has taken off the gloves with humanity. No more talk of what might occur. . . . A crash is inevitable.”
–The Globe and Mail
“This is an ambitious book. . . . Those familiar with Homer-Dixon’s earlier work . . . will not be surprised by the wide-ranging scope and technical virtuosity of his writing. By any measure, this book is an impressive achievement. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. . . . for those who want a clear and accessible overview of this catastrophist debate, and one with a Canadian flavour . . . this is a useful place to start.”
–The Globe and Mail
"For over a decade, Thomas Homer-Dixon has provided that rare thing: a bridge between leading-edge research and the lay reader. Now, addressing the great problems of our time, he points us towards a path forward."
–Robert D. Kaplan, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, author of Imperial Grunts and The Coming Anarchy
"Anyone who doubts the seriousness of the human predicament should read Thomas Homer-Dixon’s brilliant The Upside of Down. Anyone who understands the seriousness should also read it for Homer-Dixon’s insightful ideas about how to make society more resilient in the face of near-inevitable environmental and social catastrophes."
–Paul Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb
Praise for Thomas Homer-Dixon:
"Thomas Homer-Dixon is a sort of Bruce Chatwin of ideas. [His writing is] addictive."
"The greatest strength of The Ingenuity Gap is in Homer-Dixon’s ability to illustrate the thin line between order and chaos, prosperity and starvation, or compassion and carelessness in today’s world. The book is a wake-up call to all citizens to take notice of our collective deterioration and therefore . . . it has the potential to be one of the most important and revolutionary books of recent years."
"Thomas Homer-Dixon is one of the few people on the planet who could have tackled what he defines as the world’s overriding issue: the yawning ‘ingenuity’ gap between the need for practical solutions to complex problems, from global warming to Third World poverty, and the actual supply of workable ideas."
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The Upside of Down covers the same themes as Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" - the gathering global threats to modern civilization (e.g. peak oil, global warming, the instability of global capitalism). It also shares the conclusion that we will likely see a global societal collapse.
However, Upside contains a lot more evidence and careful thought. Homer-Dixon is an academic with policy credibility. He has been brought in to advise governments, and speak to distinguished audiences. He is far from being a rabble rouser, and we need to take what he says very seriously.
And while Homer-Dixon feels we will see a societal collapse, he is somewhat more optimistic than the most hard-core "doomers." He argues that we can avoid the worst consequences of collapse, mainly by (1) mitigating our most significant global threats now, and (2) cultivating prospective and adaptive manners of thought and action that will see us through the worst of the collapse.
While these are essential changes to make, unfortunately there is little reason to share his stated optimism. It seems that the threats to civilization are virtually locked in place by the weatlhy elites that profit from them (as was the case in previous failed civilizations). Also it seems that mere thinking - let alone prospective and adaptive thinking - has been on the decline in the United States since the 1980s.
The Obama presidency is a glimmer of hope for change in both areas, but it's a small glimmer. I expect Homer-Dixon's stated optimism is an effort to increase the likelihood that his audience will be spurred to action instead of being depressed into quietism.
Apart from being optimistic, the solutions side of Upside is a bit short and underdeveloped. Hopefully Homer-Dixon will expand on it in a future offering.
Nevertheless, the description of where we are headed is strong and compelling. As a society we need to come to grips with that direction. Homer-Dixon's credibility and wide-ranging research are vital to informing both elites and ordinary people about the urgent need for change.
The book is a call for preparation. Resilience is what our outlook and our policies should undertake to prevent disasters that we cannot handle. Having observed and reflected on these issues for several years, Homer-Dixon concludes that major difficulties lie ahead. We cannot avoid them - they're already here or loom in the near future. He lists some of the obvious ones: terrorism is now a part of life, climate change beyond our experience is already with us, and economic and social disruption causes have already been pinpointed. His model used as the basis of assessment is the Roman Empire. He cites three examples of what the Empire accomplished, the Colosseum, the road and aqueduct networks and the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek, Lebanon. All these enterprises required immense amounts of energy, yet a society without engineering schools achieved them all successfully. It worked only so long as the energy was available and applied efficiently. Our schools taught us that the Romans built their imperium on slavery, but Homer-Dixon shows that concept to be false. Oxen pulled the 256 carts of material required by the Colosseum and free peasant farmers supplied the basic energy needs. The Empire collapsed only when the energy required failed. We need to understand what can be learned from that Empire offer, and Homer-Dixon demonstrates how pertinent the lessons are today.
The author's formula for assessment is EROI - Energy Return On Investment. We've been profligate in energy use, and it's future availability is a major concern of the his. "Peak oil" has been the topic of so many books and articles, it should be old news. The author notes how the petroleum industry and those dependent on it keep up a continuous barrage of denial propaganda to discourage us from believing that evident fact. The "globalised" economy was supposed to reduce the distinction between rich and poor. Not only is it having the opposite effect, but it's increasing the consumption of energy in the process. While a number of recent books stress the threats posed by environmental change, Homer-Dixon sees that as but one element in a far larger picture. He deals with a full range of pressures building up to threaten society. He likens them to tectonic stresses likely to snap unexpectedly at any time.
Unlike some books making forecasts or offering timetables of potential catastrophe, Homer-Dixon's more circumspect. He's more concerned with demonstrating that the kinds of "growth" we've experienced cannot endure. What and when surprise setbacks occur is of less importance to him than how we adjust to them. He's not addressing a small coterie of "movers and shakers" with this work His prose style is just short of that of a story-telling narrative. He means for all of us, taxpayers, policy-makers and even academics and scientists, to participate in the development and preparation of new sets of options for survival. We will all be effected by the unfolding events. While this may seem that the author's "Down" is inevitable and final, he prefixed it with "Upside" for a reason. His opening depicts the destruction of a city - San Francisco in the 1906 earthquake and fire. The city didn't collapse and die, but recovery meant a new approach to disaster planning. We must follow that example, or our collapse will be more severe. It will be global and possibly all-consuming. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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