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The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization 2nd Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1597260657
ISBN-10: 1597260657
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With easy-to-understand terminology and a mountain of research, Toronto author Homer-Dixon (The Ingenuity Gap) faces down imminent, unavoidable and catastrophic threats to modern civilization, keeping a wary eye on mankind's chances to adapt. Methodically illustrating how the modern world is doomed to suffer a large-scale breakdown, Homer-Dixon enumerates the "tectonic stresses" on civilization-population growth disparities, energy scarcity, environmental damage, and economic instabilities-and the "multipliers"-increasing global connectivity and small groups' ability to enact destruction-that help propel them. Woven throughout are well-illustrated comparisons between the current state of industrialized nations-especially the U.S.-with the unsustainable complexities, and subsequent downfall, of the Roman Empire. With each page, humanity's situation seems more dire, but Homer-Dixon argues that the force of "catagenesis"-the "commonplace occurrence of renewal through breakdown"-means that good will come from the collapse of civilization as we know it. Unfortunately, he offers few practical suggestions as to how we can prepare for civilization's inevitable failure, and little evidence on which to hang hope. As a result, the book takes on a tone of doomsday prophecy directly at odds with its title. Where Homer-Dixon succeeds admirably is in explaining exactly why modern stresses are so worrisome and the outcomes that neglect could cause.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"Thomas Homer-Dixon [is] one of the best-in-formed and most brilliant writers on global affairs today." - THE GUARDIAN "Homer-Dixon succeeds admirably...in explaining exactly why modern stresses are so worrisome and the outcome that neglect could cause." - PUBLISHERS WEEKLY "Anyone who wants to get serious about the defense of civilization had better read The Upside of Down." - JAMES HOWARD KUNSTLER, AUTHOR OF THE LONG EMERGENCY AND THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHERE "For over a decade, Thomas Homer-Dixon has provided that rare thing: a bridge between leading-edge research and the lay reader." - ROBERT D. KAPLAN, AUTHOR OF IMPERIAL GRUNTS AND BALKAN GHOSTS"
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press; 2 edition (January 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597260657
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597260657
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #391,382 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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