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From the author of the #1 bestselling and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning The Ingenuity Gap – an essential addition to the bookshelf of every thinking person with a stake in our world and our civilization.

This is a groundbreaking, essential book for our times. Thomas Homer-Dixon brings to bear his formidable understanding of the urgent problems that confront our world to clarify their scope and deep causes. The Upside of Down provides a vivid picture of the immense stresses that are simultaneously converging on our societies and threatening a breakdown that would profoundly shake civilization. It shows, too, how we can choose a better route into the future.

With the immediacy that characterized his award-winning international bestseller, The Ingenuity Gap, Homer-Dixon takes us on a remarkable journey – from the fall of the Roman empire to the devastation of the 9/11 attacks in New York, from Toronto in the 2003 blackout to the ancient temples of Lebanon and the wildfires of California. Incorporating the newest findings from an astonishing array of disciplines, he argues that the great stresses our world is experiencing – global warming, energy scarcity, population imbalances, and widening gaps between rich and poor – can’t be looked at independently. As these stresses combine and converge, the risk of breakdown rises. The first signs are appearing in the wastelands of the Arctic, the mud-clogged streets of Gonaïves, Haiti, and the volatile regions of the Middle East and Asia. But while the consequences of denial in our more perilous world are dire, Homer-Dixon makes clear that we can use our emerging understanding of the complex systems in which we live to avoid catastrophic collapse in a way the Roman empire could not.

This vitally important new book shows how, in the face of breakdown, we can still provide for the renewal of our global civilization. We are creating the conditions for catastrophe, but by understanding the underlying principles that make human and natural systems resilient – and by working together to put those principles into effect – we can still limit the severity of collapse and foster regeneration, innovation, and renewal.


From the Hardcover edition.
Published: Random House Publishing Group on
ISBN: 9780307375872
List price: $24.95
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For me this is an important book at an important time. The author uses the analogy of the Roman empire's collapse to show the warning signs facing global civilisation by explaining how, like an ecological system, a complex civilisation is dependent on energy flows. And the more complex it becomes, the more energy it requires to maintain that complexity, but with diminishing returns. He uses Buzz Holling's "adaptive cycle" model, developed through study of forest ecology, to explain how a system increases its complexity and potential over time and eventually loses its resilience, its ability to withstand shocks. At this phase in the cycle the system is vulnerable and either catastrophically collapses into lower states of complexity - like the Roman empire - or deliberately does so in a more controlled manner in order to increase resilience. The latter path is the author's advice to us.He lists the following "tectonic stresses" that he believes are building inexorably below the foundations of our societies: 1) population stress - not only growth but differing rates of growth between rich and poor societies; 2) energy stress - above all "peak oil" which seems to be almost upon us now; 3) environmental stress; 4) climate stress; and 5) economic stress resulting from instabilities in the global economic system and ever-widening wealth disparities within and between societies. Homer-Dixon's argument is that our global societies, tightly coupled and interdependent as they are and testing the limits of the ecosphere as they are, are vulnerable to synchronous shocks along any of the five fault lines outlined above.The last chapters' posture is optimistic, but the project to restore resilience that he proposes is daunting, requiring global co-operation on an unprecedented level. Example: "...a value system that makes endless growth the primary source of our social stability and spiritual well-being will destroy us", but "growth, even in already obscenely rich societies, is sacrosanct." Can you envisage our political and economic elites willingly leading our societies into a different paradigm? I can't.more
The author is an expert on energy resources and its relationship to society. He writes about complex systems and their eventual failure being a time of danger and renewal. He compares todays global interconnected civilization to Rome in detail. Well thought out and written though at times too detailed. Definitely thought provoking.more
I'm not sure what it says about me to reveal that there wasn't much of the gloom and doom in the early part of the book that I didn't already know about. And having attended a great talk by Homer-Dixon about 8 years ago based on his last book, I had a pretty good idea of his 'take' on things. I'd heard much about the optimistic bent of this book, though (contrasting with Wright's Brief History of Progress, for example, with nary an optimistic note in sight), and so it might have been because of this that I was surprised that the optimistic message that we can see collapse as an opportunity for renewal as a kind of a tack-on. Sure, it's possible that we will come out of the next century in better shape than we are now, but it just doesn't seem likely to me. Still, I liked the book quite a lot. I liked some of the cleverer examples and points of comparison between our civilization and Ancient Rome. And it will be etched in my mind forever that a single tank of gas has the energy equivalent of 2 years of human labour. Kind of puts a new cast on that 20 mile drive for a can of coke that I used to find reasonable years ago when I lived far in the country.more
Great overview of challenges to the world based on the fact that we live in a complex, connected world (this is explained in the book, including why this is a bad thing). Discusses the normal cycles of systems and potential hot spots to watch in the futuremore
I liked the ideas about resiliency - we need to build much less fragile systems and societies. In particular, distributed power would be much better than just building more nuclear plants. In a way, taking on huge debt is also a massive reduction in resiliency. Although Homer-Dixon never put it this way, systems should be able to "fail gracefully" - this is a fundamental principle of computer system design.I do wish there had been more thinking about solutions though. The book is mostly a catalogue of our impending doom, which has already been done a lot in other recent books. I would have liked more of Homer-Dixon's insights on how to better deal with our impended catastrophe. He seems to have given up hope to some extent - he's gone from promoting the idea that we can use our ingenuity to the fall-back position that maybe we can manage to only partially collapse, and then start again from that point.I'm of two minds about the idea that the Internet will help us to collaborate and find solutions. While it is true that the Internet enables communities, it also enables you to feel like you're doing something by participating solely in virtual activities, without actually doing anything real in the real world.more
Read all 5 reviews

Reviews

For me this is an important book at an important time. The author uses the analogy of the Roman empire's collapse to show the warning signs facing global civilisation by explaining how, like an ecological system, a complex civilisation is dependent on energy flows. And the more complex it becomes, the more energy it requires to maintain that complexity, but with diminishing returns. He uses Buzz Holling's "adaptive cycle" model, developed through study of forest ecology, to explain how a system increases its complexity and potential over time and eventually loses its resilience, its ability to withstand shocks. At this phase in the cycle the system is vulnerable and either catastrophically collapses into lower states of complexity - like the Roman empire - or deliberately does so in a more controlled manner in order to increase resilience. The latter path is the author's advice to us.He lists the following "tectonic stresses" that he believes are building inexorably below the foundations of our societies: 1) population stress - not only growth but differing rates of growth between rich and poor societies; 2) energy stress - above all "peak oil" which seems to be almost upon us now; 3) environmental stress; 4) climate stress; and 5) economic stress resulting from instabilities in the global economic system and ever-widening wealth disparities within and between societies. Homer-Dixon's argument is that our global societies, tightly coupled and interdependent as they are and testing the limits of the ecosphere as they are, are vulnerable to synchronous shocks along any of the five fault lines outlined above.The last chapters' posture is optimistic, but the project to restore resilience that he proposes is daunting, requiring global co-operation on an unprecedented level. Example: "...a value system that makes endless growth the primary source of our social stability and spiritual well-being will destroy us", but "growth, even in already obscenely rich societies, is sacrosanct." Can you envisage our political and economic elites willingly leading our societies into a different paradigm? I can't.more
The author is an expert on energy resources and its relationship to society. He writes about complex systems and their eventual failure being a time of danger and renewal. He compares todays global interconnected civilization to Rome in detail. Well thought out and written though at times too detailed. Definitely thought provoking.more
I'm not sure what it says about me to reveal that there wasn't much of the gloom and doom in the early part of the book that I didn't already know about. And having attended a great talk by Homer-Dixon about 8 years ago based on his last book, I had a pretty good idea of his 'take' on things. I'd heard much about the optimistic bent of this book, though (contrasting with Wright's Brief History of Progress, for example, with nary an optimistic note in sight), and so it might have been because of this that I was surprised that the optimistic message that we can see collapse as an opportunity for renewal as a kind of a tack-on. Sure, it's possible that we will come out of the next century in better shape than we are now, but it just doesn't seem likely to me. Still, I liked the book quite a lot. I liked some of the cleverer examples and points of comparison between our civilization and Ancient Rome. And it will be etched in my mind forever that a single tank of gas has the energy equivalent of 2 years of human labour. Kind of puts a new cast on that 20 mile drive for a can of coke that I used to find reasonable years ago when I lived far in the country.more
Great overview of challenges to the world based on the fact that we live in a complex, connected world (this is explained in the book, including why this is a bad thing). Discusses the normal cycles of systems and potential hot spots to watch in the futuremore
I liked the ideas about resiliency - we need to build much less fragile systems and societies. In particular, distributed power would be much better than just building more nuclear plants. In a way, taking on huge debt is also a massive reduction in resiliency. Although Homer-Dixon never put it this way, systems should be able to "fail gracefully" - this is a fundamental principle of computer system design.I do wish there had been more thinking about solutions though. The book is mostly a catalogue of our impending doom, which has already been done a lot in other recent books. I would have liked more of Homer-Dixon's insights on how to better deal with our impended catastrophe. He seems to have given up hope to some extent - he's gone from promoting the idea that we can use our ingenuity to the fall-back position that maybe we can manage to only partially collapse, and then start again from that point.I'm of two minds about the idea that the Internet will help us to collaborate and find solutions. While it is true that the Internet enables communities, it also enables you to feel like you're doing something by participating solely in virtual activities, without actually doing anything real in the real world.more
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