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The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization Paperback – 2007

4.2 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Canada (2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0676977235
  • ISBN-13: 978-0676977233
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,101,616 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By James A. Vedda on April 5, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As I read this book I was reminded of Paul Kennedy's 1993 book "Preparing for the 21st Century." Like Kennedy and other authors in recent decades, Homer-Dixon assesses major global problems and trends with an eye toward how such stresses have converged throughout human history to cause breakdown or collapse of whole societies. The "tectonic stresses" he identifies are:

Population stress (megacities; differing rich/poor growth rates)

Energy stress (especially from scarcity of oil)

Environmental stress (land, water, forests, fisheries)

Climate stress (atmosphere)

Economic stress (instability; widening income gaps)

None of this is surprising, having been identified elsewhere in the literature at least as far back as the 1972 study "Limits to Growth" by the Club of Rome. But the author eloquently lays out the scenarios, makes historical analogies, and explains the interplay between the stresses in language that concerned citizens, and even policy-makers, can understand. This in itself is a great service to the reader.

Like Kennedy, Homer-Dixon will be criticized for not sufficiently addressing solutions to these problems. Indeed, the "upside" in his title doesn't really manifest itself until about the last 50 pages of the book, and some readers may find what's offered to be inadequate. His solutions should be common sense (which can be uncommon in complex societies): design for resilience, be prepared to make the best of change. His belief that endless economic growth is overrated and even detrimental will not please everyone. And part of his argument is that collapse is probably inevitable, so we should strive to emerge from the disaster as good or better than we were before.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an absolutely outstanding book - passionate, original, and easily accessible. It's far better than Homer-Dixon's The Ingenuity Gap, which was in itself groundbreaking. Homer-Dixon has a striking ability to bring together diverse ideas and research into one larger and compelling theme. He is also one of the few people in the world who really grasps the complexities and dangers of the human predicament in its totality. Many readers won't like this book's argument - that some form of crisis in the future is now extremely likely, that we'd best get ready for it, and that (if we're lucky) it might ultimately produce some good - but after finishing this book I find these conclusions inescapable and largely correct.

The book is rich with new ideas, on practically every page. I do wish the author had given us more on how "open-source" architectures on the Internet could be the basis for new forms of democracy, and for mobilization of non-extremists, but clearly he's just beginning to work through these ideas.

If you want to know about the role of energy scarcity in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the sources of modern capitalism's unchallengeable obsession with economic growth, the causes of people's widespread denial of our global crisis, the relationship between rising complexity and social breakdown, or the real story on global income inequality - the list of subjects covered goes on and on - this book is unmatched. But don't expect that it won't challenge some of your preconceptions. The book is definitely not for intellectual sissies, nor for people whose minds are already made up.
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Format: Hardcover
Thomas Homer-Dixon can be credited for putting the term "environmental security" on the radar of policy makers and defense analysts more than a decade ago. His careful analysis of resource scarcity and its potential linkages to conflict found convergence with the work of veteran journalist Robert Kaplan, who wrote a subsequent essay and book called "The Coming Anarchy." (Kaplan is one of the cover reviewers in this book as well). This discourse gained traction with the Clinton administration but was subsequently contested by political scientists for perhaps being too linear and lacking complex multivariate interactions. Homer-Dixon then went on to write a book called The Ingenuity Gap in which he suggested a theory of technical innovation as being the determining factor in development disparities.

In this latest book, Homer-Dixon again considers global environmental crises and seeks to draw historical comparisons with Rome, the San Francisco Earthquake and other catastrophic events to understand the resilience of human societies. In some ways the title is reminiscent of the Taoist refrain that was frequently heralded after 9/11, that "disaster and opportunity have the same symbol." (In Chinese characters they are depicted by the same symbol as well).

Similar in cadence to Jared Diamond's book "Collapse," the book attempts to cover a wide range of fields and genres of literature. However, many of the ideas presented here have appeared elsewhere. For example, the analogy of plate tectonics that Homer-Dixon uses is similar to Lester Thurow's usage of the analogy in his book "The Future of Capitalism.
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