Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down

Smart fella, Thomas Homer-Dixon. I finished the last page of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization as our plane was bumping onto the tarmac in Seattle yesterday, so naturally I wasn't entirely comfortable that we'd land successfully, but I was at least heartened by the idea that maybe someone'd find a lesson in our failure that'd move the species forward.

Maybe not, either, but that wouldn't be my problem (or fault, for that matter).

This book blends Roman architectural principles with the ecology of forest succession, the San Francisco earthquake with limestone deposits in aqueducts, to propose this quite radical concept of the "prospective mind," which to my small brain sounds very much like a kind of well-informed optimism.

Which leads naturally to a study I recently saw reported that a UVic environmental psychologist had run, surveying several hundred people. Historically research has shown that people tend to have positive views of themselves and their own abilities (75% of us think we're prettier or smarter or what-have-you than the average person - at least 25% of us are consistently wrong - actually no, I wasn't looking at you, why do you ask?); people think well of their own abilities and qualities, except, as it turns out, in relation to our ability to respond to or influence the environmental crisis. Very, very few of us think positively about our abilities in this respect, and the study's conclusion was to wonder what impact there might be on our responses over the coming decade if we weren't as pessimistic. It's been a truism that we're so persuaded of our doom that we're denying its approach, but what if instead, we weren't suffering from denial, but from a paralysis of will? Would this let us overcome this paralysis?

This isn't what Homer-Dixon asks, mind you, but it's what it reminded me of.

Most of The Upside of Down goes toward cataloguing all the ways in which we're doomed, and to suggest some specific ways in which this doom will come to pass very rapidly through catastrophic collapse. One possibility he suggests is that the US will be weakened by the bursting of the real estate bubble (uh oh) and hence unable to respond to coordinated serious attacks overseas, thus leading to a run against the US dollar that destabilizes related currencies enough that the markets enter a death spiral, thus stripping many countries of their ability to pay for necessary food imports. Cheerful stuff, but he does an excellent job of drawing links between what he calls "foreshocks" of catastrophe, events that may seem minor one by one but that later we'll recognize were the signs of the collapse's beginning.

At the end, though, he moves to this concept of "catagenesis," or renewal through rebirth. The prospective mind will be capable of finding an unexpected and unpredictable way of responding to crisis that will let us recover as a society: not that we'll get back to where we were before the catastrophe, but we'll evade total social meltdown and a new Dark Ages. The end of oil, if things don't change dramatically, could be a Dark Ages scenario, so Homer-Dixon's suggestions about cultivating this habit of mind are really exciting:
[I]f we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative. Some form of economic growth is absolutely essential for billions of people, but for the world as a whole, and even for individual societies, it must not be at the expense of the overarching principle of resilience, so needed for any coming transformation of human culture. (p.308)
Damn the man, in other words, to oversimplify just a wee bit.


Keith Talent said…
Bit late in the day to comment but saw this:

75% of us think we're prettier or smarter or what-have-you than the average person - at least 25% of us are consistently wrong.

Worth pointing out that the conclusion doesn't follow unless you take 'average' to mean (no pun intended) 'median', but I guess the most common interpretation is 'mean', in which case if there are some extremely ugly or extremely stupid people then it is possible for there to be any percentage less than 100 of people that are above average.

Pedantic at all?
richard said…
While you're right, Keith, I'm neither worried nor ashamed of my comment. With a large enough population to draw from, and with what I hypothesize to be a relatively consistent continuum from dumbkopf to smartie-pants, and from yum to yuck, things should work out close enough to my passing remark.

And really, THAT wee detail is what you choose to respond to?

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