In The Up Side of Down (podcast interview HERE) Thomas Homer-Dixon contends that five “tectonic stresses” are accumulating deep underneath the surface of today’s global order:

* energy stress, especially from increasing scarcity of conventional oil;
* economic stress from greater global economic instability and widening income gaps between rich and poor;
* demographic stress from differentials in population growth rates between rich and poor societies and from expansion of megacities in poor societies;
* environmental stress from worsening damage to land, water forests, and fisheries; and,
* climate stress from changes in the composition of Earth’s atmosphere.

Of the five, energy stress plays a particularly important role, because energy is humankind’s master resource. When energy is scarce and costly, everything a society tries to do: including growing its food, obtaining enough fresh water, transmitting and processing information, and defending itself becomes far harder.

But perhaps his key argument is this: the effect of the five stresses is multiplied synergistically by the rising connectivity and speed of our societies and by the escalating power of small groups to destroy things and people, including, potentially, whole cities. Think: the perfect storm.

Scary? Oh yeah.

Taken together, these stresses greatly increase the risk of a cascading collapse of systems vital to our well-being, a phenomenon he calls “synchronous failure.” Ok.. so what is the “up” side? Homer-Dixon writes,

We can get ready in advance to turn to our advantage any breakdown that does occur.. We can boost the chances that it will lead to renewal by being well prepared, nimble and smart and by learning to recognize its many warning signs. Elsewhere he uses a word for the process of renewal that comes through breakdown: catagenesis. Catagenesis describes a process that results when complex adaptive systems adapt to new conditions. (21)

But of course, this assumes that we actually take seriously the conditions we are now experiencing. Historically, civilizations have simply refused to do this. Denial is a powerful dynamic in human systems, the dark side of homeostasis. He opines,”From the point of view of those with a vested interest in the status quo, efforts to manage our problems can actually be a useful diversion.: such efforts provide a focus for research, discussion, and countless meetings for academics, politicians, consultants and NGOs, which in practice nothing really changes. The Kyoto climate-change negotiations kept thousands of scientists and other experts busy for years. (ironically, generating vast amounts of carbon-dioxide as they traveled from meeting to meeting) while providing cover for politicians who wanted to say they were doing something about global warming.

See also “A Short History of Progress

See Jordon Cooper’s take on this.

2 Comments on catagenesis

  1. don says:

    Len … great, thanks. Reminds me to get my copy of UofD back from my friend who is a BC Assoc. Deputy Minister. He borrowed it because he had seen it on a former Deputy Minister’s bookshelf down at the Leg. A Dep. Minister being the head of BC’s Public Service reading TH-D could be a good thing, right? TH-D is a Victoria boy, did his undergrad @ UVic, then headed for MIT. He was “home” one weekend May 2008 and I took a bunch of LPC thinkers to his session up @ UVic.

    His new gig @ UWaterloo’s Centre for International Governance Innovation through looks like pretty amazing stuff.

    ps. btw, Coop has some thoughts on Homer-Dixon’s work as well, esp. Ingenuity Gap

  2. len says:

    thanks Don. Some days I find this all so depressing.. We are really in deep doodoo here.. Frankly I think if we all saw the church and leadership issue clearly we would either be jumping off bridges or fasting a lot..