Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization

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* Book: Thomas Homer-Dixon. The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization.




"The Upside of Down is an essential read for anyone interested in understanding the converging stresses of the twenty-first century and the potential implications for our current way of life. Homer-Dixon possesses a rare ability to connect disparate fields of enquiry in a clear, concise and profound manner, and to bring the resulting discussion to life. There are too few books which take a truly interdisciplinary approach and place current issues in their complex context – this is one of the best available." (


"In The Upside of Down, political scientist and award-winning author Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that converging stresses could cause a catastrophic breakdown of national and global order — a social earthquake that could hurt billions of people. But he shows that this outcome isn't inevitable; there's much we can do to prevent it. And after setting out a general theory of the growth, breakdown, and renewal of societies, he shows that less severe types of breakdown could open up extraordinary opportunities for creative, bold reform of our societies.

Homer-Dixon contends that five "tectonic stresses" are accumulating deep underneath the surface of today's global order:

  • energy stress, especially from increasing scarcity of conventional oil;
  • economic stress from greater global economic instability and widening income gaps between rich and poor;
  • demographic stress from differentials in population growth rates between rich and poor societies and from expansion of megacities in poor societies;
  • environmental stress from worsening damage to land, water forests, and fisheries; and,
  • climate stress from changes in the composition of Earth's atmosphere.

Of the five, energy stress plays a particularly important role, because energy is humankind's master resource. When energy is scarce and costly, everything a society tries to do — including growing its food, obtaining enough fresh water, transmitting and processing information, and defending itself — becomes far harder.

The effect of the five stresses is multiplied by the rising connectivity and speed of our societies and by the escalating power of small groups to destroy things and people, including, potentially, whole cities.

Drawing parallels between the challenges we face today and the crisis faced by the Roman empire almost two thousand years ago, Homer-Dixon argues that these stresses and multipliers are potentially a lethal mixture. Together, they greatly increase the risk of a cascading collapse of systems vital to our wellbeing — a phenomenon he calls "synchronous failure." Societies must do everything they can to avoid such an outcome.

On the other hand, if people are well-prepared, they may be able to exploit less extreme forms of breakdown to achieve deep reform and renewal of institutions, social relations, technologies, and entrenched habits of behavior. This is likely our best hope for a prosperous and humane future." (


Fencer ( [1]:

What Happened to Ancient Rome?

"Homer-Dixon’s touchstone for the understanding of what happens to civilizations is ancient Rome and its empire.

The book opens with a meditation on the incredible sophistication of Roman building techniques and what sustained the Roman way of life.

The Roman empire’s extensive networks of roads and aqueducts allowed the generation and collection of the energy that sustained it: the transmutation of the sun’s energy into food and agricultural products.

As the empire became more and more complex and as it extended ever outward, this energetic network that underlaid its might became over extended and began to break down.

This brings us to the first of a number of useful concepts that Homer-Dixon introduced to me: energy return on investment (EROI). This is a concept in common parlance by experts in today’s energy debates, and it describes the ratio between the amount of energy a project or process produces by the amount it consumes. An EROI of much greater than one to one is necessary to run a society.

In Roman times, 2000 years ago, Roman farms were organized as large plantations worked by slaves and oxen.

Calculations about the amount of energy it took to raise a hectare of wheat, for instance, must also include what it took to feed the laborers during the times of year they weren’t in the field. It turns out that the EROI for Roman wheat was about 12, and for alfalfa, about 27. They invested the energy equivalent of one bushel of wheat to get 12.

The efficiency the Romans developed, and the agricultural energy they gathered, allowed them to sustain the largest city the world would know until nineteenth century London.

Then a combination of stresses combined which led to the empire’s farmers abandoning their land, taxation no longer availed as much, the EROI declined precipitously and the system, and the empire, became vulnerable and started to fall apart.

So what? you might say. That’s really ancient history. Homer-Dixon contends that our societies are, like the Romans’, becoming steadily more complex and more rigid. The stresses building inside our world are all linked to the stupendous energy demands our societies make upon the world. The high EROI we depend on is no longer so easily attainable." (

Stresses To Shake the World

"Homer-Dixon identifies what he calls five tectonic stresses.

– population stress: overall increase and the difference in rate of increase between rich and poor countries

– energy stress: increasing scarcity and cost of conventional oil

– environmental stress from mounting damage to land, sea and air

– climate stress as the atmosphere responds to global heating

– economic stress from the widening gap between rich and poor people within countries and between countries

All of these are heightened by globalization in the broadest terms: the huge scope, connectedness and speed of all human activities and impacts, from disease to terrorism.

Civilizational collapse probably won’t occur due to any one of these stresses, but what Homer-Dixon calls synchronous failure could easily lead to catastrophe.

“What happens, for example, if together or in quick succession the world has to deal with a sudden shift in climate that sharply cuts food production in Europe and Asia, a severe oil price increase that sends economies tumbling around the world, and a string of major terrorist attacks on several Western capital cities? Such a convergence would be a body blow to global order… .”

Ecology of Forests as Civilizational Model?

"Homer-Dixon provides a model of civilizational change and a possible way through in his examination of ecologist Crawford “Buzz” Holling’s panarchy theory, an idea which has its origins in the ecology of forests.

There are adaptive cycles by which forests survive. And not just at one level but over a hierarchy of adaptive cycles at different scales, a hierarchy which Holling calls “panarchy.” He believes this theory is meaningful not just for forests but for all complex systems over time.

I will refer you to the book for the details of the model, but the key concept seems to be that of resilience: that part of the system that resists deep collapse across several levels of adaptive cycles. And these adaptive cycles aren’t just physical but also psychological:

“Panarchy theory also helps us better understand another critically important phenomenon: the denial that prevents us from seeing the dangers we face. Our explanations of the world around us - whether of Earth’s place in the cosmos or of the workings of our economy - move through their own adaptive cycles. … Our explanation moves through something akin to a growth phase: it becomes progressively more complex, cumbersome, and rigid; it loses resilience; and it’s ripe for collapse should another, better, theory come along.”

And how might some other, better, theory come about? Homer-Dixon offers what he calls catagenesis: the creative renewal of our technologies, institutions, and societies in the aftermath of breakdown.

From the point of view of those with a vested interest in the status quo, efforts to manage our problems can actually be a useful diversion: such efforts provide a focus for academics, politicians, consultants, and NGOs, while in practice nothing changes.

There are immense risks of course. At a “moment of contingency”, in his language, when great danger and opportunity arise as some crisis sweeps the globe, there will be opportunity for choices that could not be made before. Of course, the worst of the human race, the ruthless, the greedy, those who manipulate the politics of us and them, may prevail."

Four Actions To Avoid the Worst

Homer-Dixon outlines four actions so that the best might instead have a chance: reduce the tectonic stresses to lower the risk of catastrophic collapse; cultivate a “prospective mind” to cope better with surprise; boost resilience of critical systems such as food and energy networks; and finally, prepare to turn breakdown to advantage because it will occur.

I’m reminded by what I once heard the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson say: it all depends on the rate of bad news. Too slow, and change will not be taken seriously. Too fast, and all hell breaks loose.

This four point list includes both the most fruitful concept in the book to me, resilience, and the most fuzzy one, prospective mind.

Prospective mind is described as a new attitude to adopt that greets the inevitability of constant change and surprise. This is not a managing mind, which is bound for failure, but an imaginative one that can implement real and radical solutions.

One has to be in favor of this, although it sounds like a jazzy form of positive thinking in some respects. I’m not sure what it means exactly. I fear it doesn’t address the depths of what’s needed. A new kind of spiritual stance is needed, not only a thoughtful one.

Resilience, now, that means something to me. A resilient system is not necessarily always economically efficient — often not. As Homer-Dixon alludes, it is characterized by individual elements that are extremely diverse, by decentralization of problem-solving and decision making, by being open to enough instability to allow unexpected innovations and yet orderly enough to learn from successes and failures. Resilience is adaptive. The Internet for instance takes on some of those characteristics.

Homer-Dixon describes the world’s need: the economic-growth-at-all-costs imperative of capitalist society giving way to a resilience imperative where dynamic sustainability can take place, rather than a one-way race to the bottom." (


Nafeez Ahmed:

"As system theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon has shown in his book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, natural and evolutionary processes reveal that breakdown can be a precursor to revitalization. But that requires fundamental systemic transformation: overcoming internal system dynamics that no longer work, breaking out of the old mold, while embracing and creating from within a new system, with new rules, new dynamics, and new vision." (

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." (