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= " an understanding of natural cycles of growth, breakdown and renewal" [1]

See the book: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization‎


The Thermodynamics of Empire


"The thermodynamics of empire is an underlying theme in Homer-Dixon’s discourse, particularly in relation to ancient Rome, although parallels are drawn with the present day. Homer-Dixon has a talent for vividly illustrating his descriptions of Rome’s dominance and subsequent decline with examples from his own travels and experiences – from calculating the land required to support the building of the colosseum to observing the deteriorating quality of the limestone deposits lining a Roman aqueduct in southern Gaul, to discussing the large error margins built into Roman engineering and their consequences for resilience.

Rome’s success depended on its ability to extract energy surpluses, in the form of food, from the imperial territories and concentrate them at the centre, where they enabled the development of a tremendous degree of organizational complexity. However, the EROI of imperial energy tributes declined over time to the point where the complexity of the centre could no longer be maintained without drastic action being taken. That action – an elaborate, highly intrusive and draconian regime of taxation in kind - was taken during the rule of the emperor Diocletian, but its rejuvenation of the empire’s fortunes proved to be temporary as stressors continued to build against an empire declining in resilience as it burned through its own capital – productive farmland and peasantry. Eventually, “the empire could no longer afford the problem of its own existence”. Homer-Dixon argues that industrial civilization may be approaching the exhaustion of its means of supporting its current level of complexity, and that we too may be faced with making adjustments comparable to those made in the fourth century. However, these measures could represent merely a temporary reprieve unless we conceive of different organizational principles addressing our own stressors." (

Sources in Panarchy


"Homer-Dixon’s catagenesis – collapse and renewal – builds on the panarchy theory of ecologist Crawford Holling, who was also interviewed extensively for The Upside of Down. Panarchy - named after Pan, the Greek god of nature – describes adaptive cycles of growth, collapse, regeneration and growth again observed by Holling in his work on forest ecosystems. During the growth phase natural capital is accumulated and growing connectedness helps to maintain stability.

This growth phase can’t go on indefinitely. Holling implies – very much as Tainter argues in his theory – that the forest’s ever-greater connectedness and efficiency eventually produce diminishing returns by reducing its capacity to cope with severe outside shocks. Essentially, the ecosystem becomes less resilient. The forest’s interdependent trees, worms, beetles and the like become so well adapted to a specific range of circumstances – and so well organized as an efficient and productive system - that when a shock pushes the forest far outside that range, it can’t cope. Also, the forest’s high interconnectedness helps any shock travel faster across the ecosystem. And finally, the forest’s high efficiency makes it harder for it to realize its rising potential for novelty. For instance, the extra nutrients that the forest system has accumulated aren’t easily available to new species and ecosystem processes because they’re fully expropriated and controlled by existing plants and animals. Overall, then, the forest ecosystem becomes rigid and brittle. It becomes, as Holling says, “an accident waiting to happen.”

The parallels with social systems are obvious. James Kunstler has described efficiency as “the straightest path to hell” precisely because when resources are used as efficiently as possible, there is no spare capacity to absorb shocks to the system.

Somehow we have to find the middle ground between between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse. In our organizations, social and political systems, and individual lives, we need to create the possibility for what computer programmers and disaster planners call ‘graceful failure’. When a system fails gracefully, damage is limited, and options for recovery are preserved. Also, the part of the system that has been damaged recovers by drawing resources and information from undamaged parts.

According to Holling, adaptive cycles occur at different scales temporally and spatially – from the stream to the forest to the region – and interact each other hierarchically. If cycles at different scales are in different phases, they are able to compensate for each other to some extent and prevent collapse becoming catastrophic. Higher level, slower moving cycles provide stability and resources that can buffer the forest and allow it to recover from collapse more rapidly, while lower level, faster cycles represent a source of novelty and experimentation. The long-term effect of localized collapse – part of the normal process of adaptation and evolution - can be positive as new ecological solutions may evolve and thrive.

Put simply, the catastrophe of collapse allows for the birth of something new. And this cycle of growth, collapse, reorganization, and rebirth allows the forest to adapt over the long term to a constantly changing environment. “The adaptive cycle,” Holling writes, “embraces two opposites: growth and stability on one hand, change and variety on the other.” It’s at once conserving and creative – a characteristic of all highly adaptive systems.

However, where adaptive cycles have become tightly coupled, they can become synchronized – trapped in an extended growth phase together for longer than normal, so that they all peak together and reinforce each other’s eventual collapse. Recovery from the resulting deep collapse can take much longer, or may not be possible at all. The concept is reminiscent of Tainter’s description of group polities evolving together, which effectively enable each other to grow in synchrony for longer than would normally be possible, then collapse simultaneously. Tainter, in his classic work The Collapse of Complex Societies, wrote that the globalized economy of nation states potentially represented just such a system."

Hope for Catagenesis


Although acknowledging the possibility of deep collapse, Homer-Dixon holds out hope for catagenesis – renewal through breakdown to a simpler form, followed by the emergence of a novel form of society. He argues that in order to achieve this, we much act to attenuate the tectonic stresses we face in advance so that they will be less likely to result in synchronous failure. We must also loosen the connectivity that binds us into a tightly coupled system in order to build resilience of critical systems like food and energy. There is however, a sharp contrast between resilient systems and efficient systems, in that resilient systems maintain safety margins that look like inefficiency, an example being power grids as they used to be run by engineers as compared with deregulated power grids run by accountants anxious to eliminate all unnecessary spending. Homer-Dixon makes a strong case for the reintroduction of relative self-sufficiency – an important aspect of resilience which has been comprehensively replaced as a guiding philosophy by comparative advantage. However, he expects resistance from vested interests.

Then there are social causes of denial. Probably the most important is the self-interest of powerful groups – corporations, government agencies, lobbyists, religious institutions, unions, non-governmental organizations, and the like – that have vested interests in a particular way of doing things or viewing the world. If outside evidence doesn’t fit their worldview, these groups can cajole, co-opt, or coerce other people to deny this evidence. Some groups, of course, will be much more effective in the effort than others, owing to their enormous political and economic power.

The difficulty is that resilience represents an additional cost, which no one appears prepared to bear, especially as it would place them at a disadvantage in relation to others who took no action. In essence, the problem becomes a tragedy of the commons where resilience - a long-term public good - cannot be maintained in the face of shortterm self interest in the exploitation of resources at the maximum rate, whether at the level of the individual, the corporation or the nation state.

And because our leaders hardly ever think about resilience, we keep doing things that make our lives progressively less resilient – we pile on more debt, build tract housing over our finest crop land, develop addictions to distant sources of energy, become so specialized that we can’t take care of ourselves when everyday technologies fail, and fill every nook and cranny of our days with so much junk information and pointless running around that we don’t have time to reflect on what we’re doing or where we’re going." (