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Lions Roar : May 2007
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2007 87 growth between rich and poor countries; the impending oil short- age; environmental degradation; global warming; and the growing economic instability and inequality generated by global capitalism. It is not any one of these stresses that looms as overwhelming. It is rather their combined impact, their convergence that points to breakdown. It is a pattern, says Homer-Dixon, that history, biology, ecology, and economics are familiar with: all systems go through stages of growth, complexification, rigidification, and eventual breakdown. But here he comes to the thesis of his new book: after systemic breakdown there is a reorganization of the components and then regrowth. There is hope. There is “cata- genesis”: rebirth and renewal through breakdown, creativity af- ter catastrophe. “If,” he adds, “we’re lucky.” If, that is, breakdown scares the daylights out of us and stimulates truly radical think- ing and problem-solving. Thus what Homer-Dixon is offering is not what he calls a “whacko Dooms- day scenario”—or a mirror of U.S. evo- lutionary biologist Jared Diamond’s 2005 portrait (in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) of game-over human ruin—but the vision of a door still open. Although getting over the threshold will be tough. He cites examples of renewal in the wake of destruction, such as the forest that regrows—more healthy than before—after a savagely destructive fire, and the San Francisco earthquake that devastated U.S. financial institutions and led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System and a reformed and stronger American capital- ism. He also cites harbingers of coming breakdowns: how quickly civil order disintegrated in the wake of Katrina’s assault on New Orleans; the lightning-speed swiftness with which SARS moved from China to North America; the instant, near-catastrophic im- pact of the 2003 blackout on North America’s most densely popu- lated urban centers—all illustrative of a world too interconnected with too little built-in resilience and too little capacity for radically creative collective responses to new problems. Much of what Homer-Dixon proposes for kick-starting cre- ative renewal is pragmatic, which is why politicians are inclined to listen to him. As the journal New Scientist notes, the kites he flies are less prone to crashing than most. I would have liked more specific examples of where he wants to go—something along the lines of what is presented in George Monbiot’s Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning, which Homer-Dixon thinks is brilliant. But he is reluctant to prescribe too precisely, he says, because it’s very difficult to predict precisely which shocks humanity is going to encounter. “All the same, we can prepare for the possibility of major disruptions in the future, even though we don’t know exactly what is going to take place.” And so he offers an approach: find ways to make human sys- tems more shock-resistant, and devise modes of thinking about problem-solving that will make it more likely that humanity goes down the right path. To begin with, he argues that if the principle threat to humanity and the planet is the convergence of multiple stresses, then the principle responses must be multi- faceted and not isolated in silos. He calls on governments to find the courage to legislate rules for the common good—because if they don’t, no one else will. He urges the development of what he calls a “prospective mind” to engage with a new world of surprise, uncertainty, and risk. He wants an inquiry into spiritual values that relate, as he tells me, “to what our position is in the cosmos, what the meaning of life is. You’ll notice in my book that the issue of meaningfulness comes up over and over again.” Homer-Dixon advocates building more resilience and self- reliance into human systems that have become too rigid, too centralized, and too tightly coupled to withstand shocks. In The Upside of Down, he explores why so many Roman edifices are more or less upright two thousand years after they were built, and concludes it’s in large part because the Romans factored in a risk of failure and therefore overbuilt to compensate. “They built in a lot of buffering capacity,” he says, “and that’s why we go around the Mediterranean and we see the remains of aqueducts and stadia. Because they were built so well, they withstood all the earthquakes. It was just part of their prudent approach to engineering.” In contrast, much of what the contemporary world creates has had all the slack squeezed out in the interest of efficiency and profitability; thus, there’s far more underbuilding than over- building. To overcome these tendencies, he says, “We can intro- duce the concept of resilience into our technologies, into our social arrangements. It should be part of our common discourse when we think about how we’re going to design everything from buildings to institutions. What will this building or this institu- tion do, how is it going to behave if it’s shocked in some way? That’s what resilience is about, the ability to maintain coherence in the event of some strong external shock.” If, for example, the 2003 blackout had lasted longer than it did, he says, in apartment buildings without back-up genera- tors to run air conditioners and elevators, elderly people trapped in summer heat on the upper floors of apartment buildings would have been carted out in body bags. That’s not resilience. Consumer cultures in the developed world depending on food trucked and flown in from hundreds and thousands of miles away rather than enhancing their own agricultural capabilities and eating according to the local season—that’s not resilience, says Homer-Dixon. Our lack of resilience emerges from what we have chosen to value. “People have established as value priorities things that really don’t contribute much to our happiness,” he says, “and they have What Homer-Dixon is offering is not a whacko Doomsday scenario of game-over human ruin, but the vision of a door still open. Although getting over the threshold will be tough.