Book review: The Upside of Down

Albert Einstein once said In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity. I suppose it is this observation that lies at the heart of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, a book by Thomas Homer-Dixon. I was really looking forward to reading this book, having read an interview that New Scientist did with its author a while ago. So interested was I to read it, that I sent the author an e-mail asking him if it would be published in Australia, and if so, when. To my surprise, not only did I get an immediate reply from Homer-Dixon telling me that he was in negotiations with an Australian publishing company, he was kind enough to send me another e-mail months later when the book was finally launched in this country. I bought myself a copy immediately.

The Upside of Down identifies five “tectonic” stresses that our world is facing. These stresses relate to population, energy, environment, climate and economics, and they can combine with multipliers – the major ones being the rising connectivity of our world and the increasingly disproportionate power of small groups of people who may wish to do horrible things – to cause synchronous failure, or the kind of catastrophic collapse of our civilisation from which it would be hard or impossible to recover.

Homer-Dixon also espouses an interesting theory about the role played by energy return on investment (EROI) in the sustainability of a civilisation, and illustrates this theory using the Roman Empire as an example. In brief, civilisations become harder to sustain as the ratio between the energy expended to generate energy and the generated energy itself grows smaller. The Romans were dependent on food-based energy sources: man- and animal-power drove the Roman economy, and these fuelled by grain and so forth. The Romans exhausted large swathes of agricultural land, and as it did so, its EROI became smaller and smaller. Our civilisation is, of course, locked into an oil-based economy, and it’s not clear how far away we are from serious oil shortages.

The book also discusses panarchy as it relates to systems theory. Panarchy essentially describes the adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal of any complex system. There comes a time in the system when restructuring or collapse is inevitable. In naturally occuring systems the collapse is followed by a period of adaptation and creativity in which the system slowly regains its complexity. Homer-Dixon feels that in human systems, however, the growth phase may be artificially prolonged, resulting in a much more devastating collapse.

Overall, the book is a thoroughly interesting read. Unfortunately, though, its penultimate and concluding chapters let it down badly. The reasons for this are numerous. For starters, Homer-Dixon fails to offer any serious solutions. We don’t know what the breakdown of our societies will look like, he says, but we can still figure out how we might respond. And how might we do this?

In vigorous, wide-ranging, yet disciplined conversation among ourselves, we can develop scenarios of what kinds of breakdown could occur. In this conversation, we shouldn’t be afraid to think “outside the box” – try to imagine the unimaginable – because in a non-linear world under great pressure, we’re certain to make wrong predictions if we just extrapolate from current trends.

Although I don’t disagree with this per se, it is hardly the kind of visionary advice I was expecting from this policy wonk, whom, apparently, politicians around the world take quite seriously.

But it wasn’t just the lack of any real conclusions that left me cold. It was also the existence of several contradictions and a misunderstanding of some of the key scientific and economic theories underpinning the book.

First, Homer-Dixon seems to give more weight to the likelihood of targeted attacks as opposed to random failures, and therefore argues we ought to avoid scale-free networks as far as possible. Scale-free networks are prevalent thoughout nature and our societies, and they exhibit the property that their link distribution adheres to a power-law (i.e., a few nodes are highly connected whilst most others have only a small number of connections). This means that when a random node or link fails, the probability of major disruptions to the overall network is small. But if a few hubs (highly connected nodes) fail or are deliberately targeted, the effects can be disastrous. Yet there is little evidence to suggest targeted attacks are more likely than random failures, and he provides no indication that this is the case.

Second, the concluding chapters level serious criticisms at capitalism and markets, pointing the finger at the growth imperative and the widening gap between the richest and poorest people. While the latter is clearly true, it is also clear that capitalism is responsible for rescuing more people from poverty than any other system or sustained effort to date. As for the growth imperative, Homer-Dixon seems automatically to assume that growth comes only as a result of plundering the Earth’s resources, when in fact modern economic theory suggests growth actually comes from increases in efficiency and productivity. He also ascribes to capitalism the failures and poor choices of governments. Because western economies are well managed in the short term, they provide less opportunity for small collapses and the innovation that follows these collapses, which he acknowledges. But what would happen if governments had less to do with economic management? This is not a problem with free markets and capitalism but of its manifestation in the presence of governments who must optimise their policies to the short term in order to be re-elected.

As for the contradictions, while with one stroke of his pen he berates scale-free networks, in the next he praises the adaptivity of the World Wide Web, which, of course, is scale-free. The web, he says, is unstable enough to create unexpected innovations but orderly enough to learn from its failures and successes, and provides a shining example upon which other structures should be modelled. In addition, while he makes his opposition to modern capitalism abundantly clear, he praises market systems for their remarkable adaptivity! And while arguing for more bottom-up adaptive processes, he simultaneously calls for larger governments and more intervention on their part.

I conclude this review with a quote from the book which, to my mind, highlights the muddle-headed conclusions the author draws from his voyage through Roman history, panarchy, and the interesting theory of energy return on investment, and seems completely contrary to the bottom-up adaptive systems he argues we should strive for:

Any kind of new democracy must encompass not only communities, towns, cities, and societies, but humankind as a whole. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how we’ll prosper together on this tiny planet if we don’t eventually have some kind of democratic world government.