Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Upside of Down

The Upside of Down. Thomas Homer-Dixon. Recommended.

This selection was on the short list for my Christmas break reading, and while I moved through it rather quickly, I'm not really sure where to begin in its review. I have begun to shy away from the near bottomless pit of doomsday books - there is only so much time in the day, and I see no need to continue tuning into an echo chamber. I will continue to seek out solutions, however, and this volume seemed to have an upbeat message, which was very intriguing. Could there really be an "upside to down"?

There are three main themes in The Upside of Down. First, the author highlights the many problems that we face. He then draws parallels on how similar problems have destroyed civilizations in the past, namely the Roman empire. Finally, he explores the ways that we might be able to deal with our problems, or position ourselves to rebound from the crash - the "upside", as it were.

The problems we face have been covered quite a bit in recent months, so I'll just summarize them here. The author uses an earthquake analogy, with five "tectonic stresses" building to a large catastrophic release.

  • energy stress, especially from increasing scarcity of conventional oil;
  • economic stress from greater global economic instability and widening income gaps between rich and poor;
  • demographic stress from differentials in population growth rates between rich and poor societies and from expansion of megacities in poor societies;
  • environmental stress from worsening damage to land, water forests, and fisheries; and,
  • climate stress from changes in the composition of Earth's atmosphere.
I've covered several of these stresses quite a bit, especially in the Global Trends 2025 post series. He makes an interesting argument about the collapse of Rome, which I found to be the most memorable portion of the book.

In the second chapter, the author describes the energy requirements of ancient Rome in great detail. There have been countless looks at the fall of Rome, but as far as I know, the supposition that energy concerns caused its downfall is a rather novel idea. The basis of the argument rests in the fact that Rome depended on a solar economy. Nearly all of the energy they used was derived from humans and animals, thus food. Perhaps the most interesting factoid of the book was the calculation of exactly how much energy (in grain and hay) it took to build the Colosseum.

The grain and hay were fed to the humans and oxen who, in turn, built the elaborate structures and the most impressive society the world had yet seen. As the empire spread further from the center, more and more energy was spent in retrieving the energy on the outskirts. This is a common concept in peak oil circles - Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). As the empire collected taxes from farther out, it took more resources to pacify/protect those people and then transport the remainder to Rome.

The city of Rome became dependent on these deliveries. The citizens and social structure were maintained by an elaborate system of food deliveries and taxation systems that kept everything running smoothly. According to the author, as time moved on, the good farmland was exhausted, all the rich neighbors were raided and exploited, the supply lines grew longer and the EROEI dropped to a level that could no longer support the society. The empire inevitably declined.

As for the "upside" of decline, I found the book less clear. After a several chapter diatribe on the evils of capitalism while giving no credible alternative, he gets to the payoff - catagenesis. Like a renewal of a forest after a fire, the author describes catagenesis as a rebirth, of sorts. So we must try to set ourselves up to be able to rebuild our society after the collapse - not exactly the uplifting message I was looking for.

Even still, the book seems to be lacking in concrete examples. The author puts limited faith in "managing solutions", which is no doubt what we will try to do. After it is clear that we must take some action, we will try to manage the problem while changing our way of life as little as possible. The danger of this approach, which I agree with, is that when we delay until the earthquake has happened, it is too late.

So what should we do? We must reduce the "tectonic stresses". As we review that list, however, we remember that they are some doozies. While managing solutions have their place, the author also suggests the "prospective mind". This is where he loses me a bit...I'm not 100% sure what he means, so I'll give you a summation paragraph:
The alternative approach I advocate requires us to adopt what I've termed a prospective mind. We need to be comfortable with constant change, radical surprise, and even breakdown, because these are now inevitable features of our world, and we must constantly anticipate a wide variety of futures. With a prospective mind we'll be better able to turn surprise and breakdown,when they happen, to our advantage. In other words, we'll be better able to achieve what I call catagenesis - the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions and societies in the aftermath of breakdown.
So basically we need to be flexible so we can quickly rebound when TSHTF. It is a really good idea, but I guess I was expecting a bit more...perhaps some more solid examples on what to do. I still see the only "upside to down" is if you really hate our society now and want to rebuild it more to your liking. As I said before, that's not exactly the uplifting story I was looking for, but hey, these are crazy times. Overall, I give the book a reserved recommendation.

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