A Review of The Upside of Down Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization; Strategic Insights: v.6, issue 1 (January 2007)
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In 1991 Professor Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto published ‘On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict’ in the journal International Security. In that paper he argued that as environmental degradation increased societal disruption would increase along with it, while the capacity for coping with that disruption shrank. Accordingly, early intervention to halt that degradation had become a security issue. Since then Homer-Dixon has broadened the scope of his research. His 2000 book The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable Future presents a look at those challenges through the lens of complexity theory, on which it is a handy primer. The Ingenuity Gap questioned the conventional wisdom that science, democracy and markets would always deliver the ingenuity needed to solve those problems. Homer-Dixon has since followed this up with The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity And The Renewal Of Civilization. Where in the previous book he presented an introductory look at the problem, here he offers a ‘big picture’ view of modernity under threat from multiple directions, ranging from global warming to nuclear terrorism. In doing so the author draws heavily on many disciplines. In synthesizing their work The Upside of Down presents a model that can be crudely described as follows. Systems, such as social systems, routinely respond to problems by becoming more connected, specialized, regulated and efficient - in other words, with a more complex organization of their resources. For instance, an agrarian society facing declining rainfall may respond by building an irrigation system to keep its crops watered.
This article appeared in Strategic Insights (January 2007), v.6 no.1
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