How all em­pires end

The Up­side of Down By Thomas Homer- Dixon Text, 429pp, $ 34.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Dupont

PO­LIT­I­CAL sci­en­tist and en­vi­ron­men­tal au­thor Thomas Homer- Dixon is fast be­com­ing one of Canada’s most valu­able ex­ports if judged by the sus­tained, in­ter­na­tional suc­cess of his writ­ings on the en­vi­ron­ment and se­cu­rity over the past two decades.

I first came across Homer- Dixon’s work in the mid- 1990s when he had al­ready es­tab­lished him­self as a lead­ing re­searcher in the field. What im­pressed me was the rigour of his schol­ar­ship and a rarely found will­ing­ness to cross dis­ci­plinary bound­aries in search of an­swers.

Th­ese qual­i­ties are abun­dantly ev­i­dent in his latest book, which is an in­sight­ful but deeply trou­bling anal­y­sis of the en­vi­ron­men­tal ills con­fronting so­ci­ety. The Up­side of Down is best lo­cated within the bur­geon­ing genre of lit­er­a­ture that claims to il­lu­mi­nate the causes of civil­i­sa­tional de­cline and col­lapse. Prom­i­nent among its au­thors’ ranks are the well known an­thro­pol­o­gist- fu­tur­ist Jared Di­a­mond ( Col­lapse: How So­ci­eties Choose to Fail or Suc­ceed ) and sem­i­nal his­to­ri­ans of ear­lier re­pute, go­ing right back to Ed­ward Gibbon ( The His­tory of the De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire ).

Gibbon’s work is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant, as Homer- Dixon’s pro­logue be­gins with mus­ings about Rome’s long de­cline, even­tual col­lapse and the im­pli­ca­tions he sees for mod­ern so­ci­ety. While ac­knowl­edg­ing there are clear dif­fer­ences in con­text and com­plex­ity, Homer- Dixon ar­gues our cir­cum­stances are not dis­sim­i­lar to Rome’s be­fore its fall.

Gov­ern­ments are find­ing it in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to man­age the tec­tonic stresses and fis­sures that are be­com­ing ev­i­dent in our phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and po­lit­i­cal and so­cial in­sti­tu­tions be­cause of pop­u­la­tion growth, en­ergy im­bal­ances, en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, cli­mate change and in­sta­bil­i­ties in the global eco­nomic sys­tem. This is hardly an orig­i­nal line of ar­gu­ment. But what sep­a­rates The Up­side of Down from other, lesser works is the au­thor’s ex­pla­na­tion of how two stress mul­ti­pli­ers — glob­al­i­sa­tion and the es­ca­lat­ing power of small groups to de­stroy things and peo­ple — might plau­si­bly lead to what he calls syn­chro­nous fail­ure. Na­tions and so­ci­eties may be able to cope with one or even two si­mul­ta­ne­ous crises, but they could col­lapse in the face of mul­ti­ple prob­lems such as cli­mate change, eco­nomic in­sta­bil­ity and mega- ter­ror­ism.

De­vel­op­ing states are es­pe­cially at risk, be­cause their adap­tive ca­pac­i­ties and re­silience are gen­er­ally weaker than those of richer na­tions. The pro­lif­er­at­ing num­ber of failed states is tes­ti­mony to this re­al­ity. But com­plex­ity has its down­side too. As so­ci­eties grow more so­phis­ti­cated they also be­come more vul­ner­a­ble to sys­temic shocks as a re­sult of their in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness and the enor­mous in­crease in the ve­loc­ity of events, trans­ac­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as any user of the in­ter­net knows.

A com­puter- gen­er­ated virus can pro­lif­er­ate with alarm­ing speed and in­fect huge num­bers of other com­put­ers un­til whole sys­tems are ren­dered un­us­able. In the bi­o­log­i­cal world, in­fec­tious dis­eases can spread with fe­cund ra­pid­ity to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect as the SARS epi­demic of 2003 demon­strated.

Rome’s long de­cline took place over many decades, even cen­turies, be­cause com­mu­ni­ca­tions moved at a snail’s pace com­pared with to­day’s warp speeds. But if our global sys­tem breaks down, col­lapse is more likely than steady de­cline, be­cause trade, fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions, en­ergy flows and vi­tal in­fra­struc­ture are in­creas­ingly net­worked and de­pen­dent on scale- free hubs. Homer- Dixon points out that if a scale- free net­work loses a key hub, it can be po­ten­tially dis­as­trous. An ecosys­tem, for ex­am­ple, will have a num­ber of key­stone species that pro­vide vi­tal ser­vices, such as bees for pol­li­na­tion. If enough of th­ese hubs are lost, the ecosys­tem can col­lapse.

Col­lapse could be trig­gered by a thresh­old event or tip­ping point that may not ap­pear es­pe­cially sig­nif­i­cant at the time, such as a mal­func­tion­ing re­frig­er­a­tor in which the tem­per­a­ture rises by one de­gree. Not enough for your hand to reg­is­ter but more than enough for all the food inside to spoil, if the prob­lem is not de­tected in time and fixed.

Homer- Dixon iden­ti­fies en­ergy ( along with cli­mate change) as a par­tic­u­larly acute vul­ner­a­bil­ity and po­ten­tial tip­ping point in a chap­ter in­formed by a stint, as a young man, work­ing on oil rigs in Canada’s frigid north­west. As he and many other en­ergy an­a­lysts ob­serve, al­though oil is not go­ing to run out sud­denly, the cheap­est, most ac­ces­si­ble oil has al­ready been con­sumed and the world’s gar­gan­tuan ap­petite for fos­sil fu­els can­not be sus­tained in­def­i­nitely. A tran­si­tion to a new era of clean, re­new­able en­ergy will be dif­fi­cult to man­age with­out sys­tem­chal­leng­ing po­lit­i­cal and strate­gic reper­cus­sions.

An­other dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of HomerDixon’s approach in The Up­side of Down is his will­ing­ness to move be­yond di­ag­no­sis to con­sider how we might avert col­lapse and seize the op­por­tu­nity to re­think our stew­ard­ship of the planet be­fore a break­down oc­curs. Build­ing the re­silience of our en­ergy and food sup­ply net­works is the key to avoid­ing Rome’s fate and that of the world’s other great civil­i­sa­tions, all of which pro­claimed their ex­cep­tion­al­ism be­fore their ul­ti­mate demise.

Scep­tics will no doubt be quick to dis­miss Homer- Dixon as the latest in a long line of dis­cred­ited Cas­san­dras whose warn­ings of im­pend­ing catas­tro­phe never even­tu­ate be­cause their fears are ex­ag­ger­ated or ill- con­ceived, or are sim­ply en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy dis­guised as schol­ar­ship.

Only time will tell whether Homer- Dixon’s anal­y­sis is right, but one thing is cer­tain: he can­not be ac­cused of ir­re­spon­si­ble scare­mon­ger­ing or shoddy schol­ar­ship. His book is a won­der­ful ex­am­ple of em­i­nently read­able sto­ry­telling, un­der­pinned by painstak­ing schol­ar­ship, rea­soned dis­course and a will­ing­ness to con­front the ar­gu­ments of scep­tics. You may not agree with the Homer- Dixon the­sis, but The Up­side of Down is com­pelling and in­for­ma­tive read­ing. Alan Dupont is di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney. Thomas Homer- Dixon will be a guest of the Melbourne Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, which opens on Au­gust 24. He will speak about The Up­side of Down at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney’s Syd­ney Ideas on Au­gust 27.

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