Monday, November 13, 2006

The Upside of Down

The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization is the latest feel-good book from Thomas Homer-Dixon, a political science professor at the U of T. His last cheery tale, The Ingenuity Gap, won the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction in 2001. He has a website for the book here:

I kid. Both books are interesting, even compelling, reading but they are not laugh riots, as Harold Heft noted in his review of The Ingenuity Gap in 2000:

“There's good news and there's bad news, and Thomas Homer-Dixon … is going to give us the bad news first. To be exact, Homer-Dixon provides nearly 400 pages of bad news before the payoff, 10 or so pages of pale, qualified hope.”
In The Ingenuity Gap Homer-Dixon was a doomsayer ("Dr. Doom" they call him) pointing out that global systems have become too complex, that there is a growing gap between the problems with our world and the human ingenuity required to solve them, and there is little we can do about it.

We're still doomed in Homer-Dixon's new book. In it he talks of five "tectonic stresses" (population, energy, enviroment, climate and economic) that could each cause societal breakdown. But we're headed toward a "syncronous failure", when these stresses work in tandem, and, well, there's no hope when this happens.

The Globe & Mail had a lengthy and generally positive review of The Upside of Down on the weekend, as did the Toronto Star recently.

Readers of similar recent books like Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Ronald Wright's A Short History of Progress or Jane Jacobs' Dark Age Ahead will find further ammunition for the endless pub argument: are things getting better or worse in the world?

It is interesting how many of these catastrophists are Canadian - must be the long winters. I'm a born optimist, so enjoy these books as a needed tonic to temper my deeply uncool belief that things will all work out.

Homer-Dixon is on a book tour promoting his new book. If you get a chance to see him you should as he is an engaging speaker. He was in Calgary today and appeared on the CBC Radio phone-in show, Wild Rose Country. Tomorrow night (Tuesday Nov. 14) he reads at an event in Edmonton: 7:00pm at the U of A's Engineering Teaching and Learning Complex (Building 23 - ETLC), Room E2-002. All welcome - even wide-eyed optimists!


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