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The Upside of Down

Coveramericansm Excellent book for concerned citizens, funders, or policy intellectuals who take a broad based systems-theoretical perspective:

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, sets out a theory of the growth, crisis, and renewal of societies. Today's converging energy, environmental, and political-economic stresses could cause a breakdown of national and global order. Yet there are things we can do now to keep such a breakdown from being catastrophic. And some kinds of breakdown could even open up extraordinary opportunities for creative, bold reform of our societies, if we're prepared to exploit these opportunities when they arise.

The author is Thomas Homer-Dixon who holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and is a Professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo.

Resilience is a key term in this book. Systems, Dixon argues, that are rationalized, systematized, routinized, and made ruthlessly effective and efficient, culling out or suppressing discordent elements, will become over-extended, rigid and brittle. When stressed, such optimized systems break down, and may have to become simpler, more basic, before they can rebuild themselves, often by revitalizing atavistic elements that had been suppressed as suboptimal in the era of rising growth. He sees such patterns in living systems and in cultural systems, such as the Roman Empire and our own. 

In some ways the book reminds me of  Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Situation Failed, by James C. Scott at Yale. Both show how bottom up, or local social systems and ecosystems are replaced by centralized, rational ordering - through surveyors censuses, fine grids, cost benefit analyses, reporting structures, currencies, spreadsheets - so that the subsidiaries, subordinates, provinces, forests, farms, and lakes are optimized from the standpoint of productivity and resource extraction, with the wealth and power flowing to those few who are in charge. 

Homer-Dixon is also quite good on energy. He sees civilizations through the lens of how they gather and harness energy, whether it be sunlight in a Roman field tilled by freemen and slaves or whether it is energy extracted from oil, in dwindling supplies. He sees that when a civilization finds its cost of energy rising, it will become more complex and more efficient, more ruthless, to manage that growing crisis, until in the end the rigid and optimized system breaks down.

Homer-Dixon is also quite fine on denial. I only wish someone would write the classic work on denial, how it is now managed by think tanks, on news shows, by politicians and pr firms.  We deny and actively promote denial because we are out of solutions. The global economic system is so rigid and so stressed, particularly around rising populations, dwindling natural and ecological resources, and terrorism,  that Homer-Dixon seems to half welcome collapse. A forest, he reminds us, even a well managed forest optimized for board feet of lumber per year, profit, and stock price, is healthiest if it burns to ashes every so often.  The book ends wonderfully with the world's largest building stone, the largest every quarried. It sits half out of the ground by the Temple of Baalbek, a Roman ruin. The worked stone bears witness to human greatness and human folly, left where it sits, outside a temple to now defunct gods, as our monuments will bear witness to our faith in the methods of managers.

Resilience? The jester, not the glowering courtier, the dancer not the man rigid with rage or denial, the child impersonating a king by walking majestically back and forth issuing orders to his little sister. We will find resilience not in social ventures run like mega-corporations, or not in those only, but in the arts, in foolishness, in play, and in the spontaneously self-organizing structures of civil society among the ruins. There is an old saying among friends, "Your money is no good here." When that time comes for real and on a grand scale, when the money really is no good, we will relearn an ancient currency of barter, gift, and mutual obligation. Meanwhile, some of us will try to keep those old ways alive, under the canopy of capitalism, with its desperately proliferating bottom lines (not one, not two, maybe three!). When the water and oil run out, and your money is no good, to whom will you turn but to those you have helped in their hour of need? The Dumpster, the manger, the crossroads where the pariah is burned, and where, among the smugglers and prostitutes and card sharps, the Trickster Hermes carries messages from the gods; there not Harvard Business School, is where I would seek the saving remnant at world's end, or at least good company for one last chorus.