When a book is subtitled “Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization” then you get the feeling the author isn’t going to be cracking any jokes. When you see that a book is 430 pages long, of which 120 pages are notes and references, then you know it’s going to be a slog. A worthwhile slog? We’ll see.
The author, Thomas Homer-Dixon has a number of alter-egos. He is a world authority on conflict studies and the analysis of complex human systems; he is a regular columnist for some of the world’s top broadsheets; he lectures to the World Bank and the World Economic Forum; he advises the CIA and the NSA. Not the kind of CV of a person you would expect to be saying something like:
“Consumerism helps anesthetize us against the dread produced by empty lives — lives that modern capitalism and consumerism have themselves helped empty of meaning.”
“Then there are the social causes of denial. Probably the most important is the self-interest of powerful groups — corporations, government agencies, lobbyists, religious institutions, unions…If outside evidence doesn’t fit their worldview, these groups can cajole, co-opt, or coerce other people to deny this evidence.”
These are two of the very many good things about this book. To me, a lot of what Homer-Dixon says is obvious, but sometimes he says something that makes you think, “Yes! Of course!” For instance, he talks about the Growth Imperative — the need, apparently innate to Western governments, that the economy must grow in order for collapse to be prevented — as something that is the result of the continual rise of automation leading to job losses; “The American economy must expand 3 to 5 percent annually just to keep unemployment from rising. And to get this growth our leaders and corporations [actually, our true leaders - KF] relentlessly encourage us to be hyper-consumers.” This is great, vivid analysis.
The book revolves around the idea that the collapse of a civilization is actually inevitable. There are too many different factors involved to summarise them here, but to take the example that he repeats throughout the book, and which occupies the whole of Chapter Two; the Roman Empire became so dependent on imported energy, in the form of materials, food, labour — especially labour — that it just couldn’t sustain a growing empire with such a high energy intensity, while at the same time maintaining civil authority. The author implies in no uncertain terms that the current Western civilization that has been built on similar principles (economic growth, consumption, the import of resources, hard-edged civil control) is headed the same way as the Roman Empire, and could head that way far quicker.
As a primer for climate change and its impacts, you could do far worse than read pages 160-165, which manage to include all of the salient points, as well as having a good pop at the sceptics, whom he takes apart with the ease of a person at the top of his game. The analysis in other areas, such as complex systems and connectivity is also extremely well carried out, but be warned: this is a technical book for technical readers, and as such is not something the average reader will necessarily find rewarding without considerable effort.
On to the criticisms. I do have quite a few, but don’t intend to do a hatchet job on what is essentially a fine work, so will just highlight my main issues:
- Firstly, the “Upside of Down” in the title is relegated to just a few pages. Homer-Dixon makes a fair case for the need to allow societies to rejuvenate, and take advantage of the opportunities presented, but fails to square that with preventing the continued environmental catastrophe that is imminent. Instead, he seems to put his faith in making existing systems more resilient, thus preventing the collapse which would seem to be what Western civilization deserves. Once civilization has been “rescued” then he doesn’t offer any real ways of moving forward in a sustainable way, beyond exploring the opportunities of open source.
- Second, although he damns our current behaviour and preaches flexibility within systems, he lapses into cliche and supporting the status quo too many times for comfort:
“If human beings hadn’t had access to ever-larger supplies of high-quality energy, we would still be hunter-gatherers, surviving on grubs, roots and local game.” (Hunter-gatherers had/have a far better quality of life than most modern authors would acknowledge)
“a virtuous circle (such as a stock market boom) is a positive feedback that takes us in a direction we do like.” (Stock market booms result in greater consumption, and thus greater environmental damage)
“For the roughly 5 billion people living in coutries with an annual GDP of less than $13,000, economic growth definitely boosts happiness.” (This is a very limited case argument, where survival is at stake, but beyond that there is far more evidence that economic growth causes dissatisfaction.)
“Some extreme forms of fundamentalism even encourage their followers to look forward with joy to the wholesale obliteration of both society and nature. For these fanatics…” (I have not come across any that espouse the destruction of nature, unless you include certain heads of business – in which case the ruling class are a bunch of fundamentalist fanatics. Actually, that sounds about right.)
- Third, a few paragraphs in Chapter Eleven are straight of the the US Government propaganda textbook. The Weapons of Mass Destruction are wheeled out; the closing down of the “free” press; the promise of civil pandemonium — all as the result of “the established order start[ing] to crack and crumble.” I feel uncomfortable with this section. Even if the author was just trying to paint a worst case scenario, a more judicious choice of words could have made things more realistic, and far more balanced.
Nevertheless, I still recommend this book for its extremely clever and well-managed use of the latest research available on some of the most pressing issues today; it is most definitely a work of importance, but should be read perhaps with Derrick Jensen’s seminal work, “Endgame” in the other hand, just for the sake of balance.
There is more information and a short video about the book at http://www.theupsideofdown.com/.