Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Upside of Down: Leveraging Catastrophe for Positive Change

Date: 11/09/06

Speaker(s): Thomas Homer-Dixon, Director, Trudeau Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict, University of Toronto at the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Description: From the rise and fall of the Roman empire, to the devastation of the 9/11 attacks; from the slums of the megacities in Latin America and Asia, to ground zero of the SARS outbreak in Toronto and Hong Kong; we are, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, on course for breakdown. Simply managing our problems is no longer good enough. As population, energy, environmental, and economic stresses build in force deep underneath our societies, as our technologies grow more complex and interconnected, and as events in one place increasingly cause effects that cascade around the planet, major system failure becomes more likely. But rather than giving up in despair, we must embrace this possibility as an opportunity for revolutionary change. By adopting a "prospective mind" - a mindset adapted to constant surprise and instability - we can create something new from the unexpected, and something useful from turmoil and crisis.

These are my notes:

The Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon
Audio available at:

Crisis can lead to creativity. San Francisco earthquake and fire led to enormous creativity, creation of one of the most important institutions of the 21st century.

Thesis of the book: We (Humans) are in grave trouble, but there is great hope depending on how we respond. Two parts, diagnosis and prescription.

Diagnosis like peeling an onion.

First layer, what is the nature of the crisis. Crisis is overloading the adaptive mechanisms that have worked in the past. We tend to see the individual parts rather than the whole. Past examples of collapse, French, Russian revolutions, convergence of multiple overloads. It is like an earthquake, stress builds, released in catastrophic way.

Stresses of today:

1. Demographic stress. Not size per se, but fact that poor population growing while rich population is declining. Sets up flows of migrants.

2. Energy scarcity of the post-petroleum era, within two decades of peak global oil production. Peak in discovery was 1964, use has grown faster than new oil discovered ever since.

3. Local and regional environmental damage in developing countries. Erodes the institutional strength in these countries.

4. Climate change. Tipping point in the information from the scientific community on this in the last year or two. Concern that consequences of climate change is creating even more warming.

5. Economic imbalances, increasing gaps between the rich and the poor.

Two multipliers that make the force of these stresses greater:

A. Increasing connectivity of speed of materials and information, makes it more likely that we will see cascading failures. Similar to an accident in heavy traffic leading to chain accidents on freeways. It is not true that the more connectivity the better, can lead to cascade of calamity.

B. Power effect of new technology, especially computing power, gives individual enormous analytic and computing power. Unfortunately also growth of power to kill and destroy.

These 5X2 can lead to simultaneous failure that will affect the world. Europe oil shortage, climate shock could produce civil instability.

This is the first layer.

Second layer, energy essential for complex society and technology. We are going through an energy transition. EROI (Energy Return on Investment) declining. Was 100 to 1, now 17 to 1 in West Texas oil. As we move to 1-1 there is less energy available to solve complex problems.

Third layer:

Underlying problems that casuse all this, the dynamic of modern capitalism. At $15K or so of income per capita, more money doesn’t make us any happier, in fact lots of evidence that happiness may decline as income goes up. So why do we insist on maintaining growth?

Theory is that we need growth to absorb the unemployed that result from technological change, otherwise there will demand failure. Need 3 to 5% per year growth just to stay even, it is said.

So we may not be able to tech-fix our way out of the problem.

Conclusion of diagnosis:

We can’t predict the future. But a probability of breakdown, catastrophic collapse is rising fast. The future is going to be a volatile time. So what do we need to do?

1. Recognize that we may be able to bring about reform because of the breakdowns. Complex adaptive systems go through periods of growth, breakdown, and adaptation. takes place in market economies all the time, creative destruction. Social/ political systems don’t work like that, we get locked into a management paradigm of incrimentalism. We need to start thinking creatively about what we are going to do during moments of breakdown.

2. We shouldn’t be surprised by being surprised.

3. Increase the autonomy of units of production. Produce power locally with solar, geothermal. Produce food locally.

4. Increase resilience by loosening coupling. Create more space within systems so people have more time. Move away from things like just in time production.

Second part of prescription:

1. Start thinking about what we will do in crisis NOW. Non-extremists have to collectively solve the problem of what we are going to do in times of crisis. Discuss core values, develop plans for response, build social capitol, networks of trust and reciprocity.

2. Catagenisis, down birth, rebirth. San Francisco after the earthquake great example. Water system rebuild, parallel system for fire fighting. 1907 financial failure triggered. Led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

Little progress will be made with our greatest problems until our society experiences great shock. Moments of opportunity will occur, we have to be ready.


Q: No mention of religion. How does it fit in?

A: Who asked? Book has discussion of values and fundamentalism, they are related.

Rise and spread of fundamentalism is a dangerous think, people who want to substitute a creed for thinking. They are subject to being manipulated, being violent against other groups.

I advocate an expansive discussion of our values, utilitarian, moral, and existential.

We don’t have a sufficient conversation about what it is that we want. Consumer conversations fill up all the space. One of the most important crisis that we face.

Q: What about the aging and medical crisis?

A: Relates to the demographic trends. Rich areas have aging populations, poor have youth buldges. We are not effectively exploiting technological productivity gains.

We need growth to support pension systems, that is a challenge.

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