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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 85 The Big Wake-up Call THE UPSIDE OF DOWN: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization By Thomas Homer-Dixon Island Press, 2006; 416 pp.; $25.95 (cloth) REVIEWED BY MICHAEL VALPY REVIEWS MICHAEL VALPY is an award-winning Canadian journalist and author. He is a regular columnist for the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. SEVEN YEARS AGO Thomas Homer-Dixon wrote The Ingenu- ity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future? It was intended as a wake-up call to the world from an eminent politi- cal theorist who had been a frequent visitor to the Clinton White House, an adviser to former vice-president Al Gore (indeed an adviser to governments on both sides of the Atlantic), and whose research had been the primary source for journalist Robert Kaplan’s alarming and controversial 1994 Atlantic Monthly arti- cle, “The Coming Anarchy.” The world faced, in Homer-Dixon’s view, a widening gap between the discovery of creative, inge- nious solutions to our most serious problems and the arrival of the crippling results of those problems. Homer-Dixon, director of the University of Toronto’s Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, warned in The Ingenuity Gap that if a society is unable to deal with the multiplying stresses of population expansion, gaps between rich and poor, resource depletion, and, most of all, ecological degradation, it “will risk entering a downward and self-reinforcing spiral of crisis and de- cay.” He wrote that the world—particularly the rich world—must focus its attention, its energy, and its creative research on finding smart solutions, on closing the ingenuity gap, lest we “lose con- trol of our destiny and become hapless, frenetic puppets.” All of which sounds eminently reasonable, but it got him labeled by pundits as a doomsayer, a Jeremiah. The Economist called him “an extreme eco-pessimist.” He was accused of trend- speak and peddling a catchy Big Idea. The former editor of a journal of advanced research wrote only a few months ago that Homer-Dixon’s prognostications were wrong because, ha-ha, “we’re still here.” In the mean time, Al-Qaeda flew passenger planes into buildings, and the Greenland ice cap melted at 200 cubic kilometers a year. Now Homer-Dixon is back with a new book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, in which he takes a further exploratory step into the pit he sees po- tentially awaiting humankind. His Ingenuity Gap thesis was that humans had to get smarter and more creative to avoid catastro- phe. His thesis in The Upside of Down is that the window of op- portunity for relatively easy—in hindsight—clever fixes has been slammed shut. The planet’s problems have become so complex, so multifaceted, that humanity and its spaceship earth are now irrevocably heading toward some significant breakdown. Ecologically? “We’re going to lose some coastline,” he says. Throw out the old maps. Think submerged cities. There’s no time left for a pre-emptive response to the impact of global warming. Geopolitically? He has in mind a possible crisis scenario that goes like this: Al-Qaeda detonates a radioactive device in the Abqaiq oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia that takes five percent of world production off-line and triggers a domino cascade of political, social, and economic shocks owing to a too tightly interconnected global society: riots in poor countries; the assassination of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf by hard-line Islamic military officers; bank failures; an ugly Sino-Japanese conflict; and Western plans for a massive invasion of the Persian Gulf. “Yes, there will be some form of breakdown,” he says in an interview. “I feel pretty confident of that. So in some sense you can say I’ve concluded that we can’t close the ingenuity gap, at least in some areas.” What is happening are what Homer-Dixon identifies as five “tectonic stresses” on humanity and the planet: uneven population PHOTOBYTHOMASALLEN,COURTESYOFFOLEYGALLERY