Textually Active

Review By Greg McMullen

There are ideas that buzz around in the public consciousness without being clearly articulated. Since 2000 a sense of millennial unease has lingered, and various signs and signals point to a world that, despite continued economic growth and optimistic predictions from investors, seems to be getting worse. Everyone knows about the various problems we face—climate change, environmental degradation, failing economies and gaps growing between rich and poor, energy scarcity, and population growth. Each of these problems is serious enough on its own, but even as we think about them one at a time, the sense that they’re combining and spiraling out of control is overwhelming at times.

The Upside of Down addresses each of these five issues, which Thomas Homer-Dixon calls “tectonic stresses” on our societies, tensions that are building under the surface that have the potential to seriously disrupt societies around the world. Each individual stress receives a detailed analysis filled with analogies that are both apt and powerful in their simplicity. What truly makes this analysis special, however, is the way that Homer-Dixon explains the ways that complex interactions between these stresses increases the chance of what he calls a “synchronous failure,” a series of smaller disasters that feed into one another and lead to a global collapse.

Compounding these interacting tectonic stresses are things he calls “multipliers” and “thresholds”. Multipliers make failures emerging from these stresses more likely and more disastrous when they do happen. A threshold is, in effect, the ‘straw that breaks the camel’s back.’ A particular course of action may seem fine, but in effect it is building up stress that releases all at once in a dramatic event.

Homer-Dixon lists two multipliers that are of particular importance. The first is speed and connectivity. Referring to the globalized world as a “single operational unit,” he suggests that for better or worse, everything we do is felt around the world. A power plant failure in Ohio led to a blackout across much of eastern North America in 2003. An earthquake in Taiwan means immediate microchip shortages around the world. While less serious than originally feared, SARS illustrated how quickly disease can spread around the world.

The second key multiplier is the increasing ability of small groups of people to cause incredible amounts of damage. A nuclear attack on a major city could be planned and executed by a handful of fanatics. A disgruntled grad student could engineer an unstoppable virus. These attacks would be especially devastating while attempting to deal with other global problems.

Homer-Dixon has successfully brought these ideas together to show not just the incredible danger our societies are in and the very real danger of a “synchronous failure”, but also the light at the end of the tunnel should we manage to avoid a complete collapse. Even the biggest individual disasters offer the opportunity for rebuilding in a way that is both free of the constraints of earlier systems and more resilient to future breakdown.

The Upside of Down manages to take the general feelings of unease from the public consciousness and turns them into a coherent whole. The complexities of the problems addressed and the clarity with which Homer-Dixon illustrates them make this book a seminal volume for both risk management and activism alike. This book is absolutely essential reading for those concerned with the direction of the world and for those who hope to change it for the better.