Interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon on Upside of Down

WorldChanging‘s Hassan Masum interviews Thomas Homer-Dixon about his new book, Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. The book is heavily influenced by the work of people in the Resilience Alliance – Buzz Holling, Sander van der Leeuw and and Joe Tainter in particular, along with the book Supply Side Sustainability by Tim Allen, Joe Tainter and Thomas Hoekstra.

HM: For me, one of the most resonant focal points of your book was the dual theme of resilience and catagenesis. I wonder if you agree that a particularly practical avenue is to adopt “low-regrets” technologies and systems?

More generally, what creative new kinds of institutions, customs, or ways of thought would you like to see arise, that could help spur catagenesis on an ongoing basis?

TH: We need to build buffering capacity in our societies and systems that’s fungible, that can be moved back and forth between different eventualities.

In the first part of the book, I talk about people’s desire to hold on, to keep things the same. But we can’t always keep things the same, since we don’t have as much control over reality as we think we do. This is very different from being fatalistic. The whole idea of the prospective mind is to develop a new set of customs – proactive, anticipatory, comfortable with change, and not surprised by surprise.

Institutionally, we could build in tax incentives and subsidies for people to make households more resilient. For example, if we have an energy grid that’s unreliable, maybe we shouldn’t build condo apartments that are totally dependent on electricity for elevators, water, and air conditioning. In some business towers, the windows don’t even open without power. This kind of housing is fundamentally reliant on large-scale centralized power production.

But what if our economy provided tax incentives for residents and commercial centers to have autonomous power production? If these kinds of incentives were incorporated into everyday policy – whether transportation, electricity, food or water – our systems would evolve to be more capable of withstanding shocks.

I’m sure if we got smart people around the table to think about this, we would generate thousands of specific ideas. Right now resilience isn’t treated as important, so people don’t pay a premium for it – and there will be a cost associated with the necessary capital investments, a cost that draws resources away from other things. But you’re buying resilience – a positive externality in the system, that benefits everybody to the extent it’s there.

It’s partly the role of government to provide encouragement to do these kinds of things. Distributed open source problem solving would also be an essential feature of a society which recognized that catagenesis is an important part of adaptation – that you’re going to have growth, increasing complexity, breakdown, recombination, regeneration, regrowth, and so forth in cycles again and again. A system able to incorporate those cycles in a natural, “standard operating procedure” kind of way is going to require non-hierarchical distributed problem solving.

Let me take an analogy. Within our market economy, the Schumpeterian notion of creative destruction is manifested every day – the growth of new industrial sectors, their decline and obsolescence, their replacement by new technology. Individual companies will start and grow, but may eventually go bankrupt. This creative destruction is part of the everyday world in market economies – it’s part of life, and a reason why market economies are so adaptive.

Somehow we need to take that normative comfort level that markets have to adaptation, and introduce the same kind of culture into our social and political worlds. Remarkably, in economies nobody assumes that things stay the same. But in political systems, everybody assumes change is an anomaly, and to the extent change is allowed, it’s incremental and managed.

HM: How are you feeling about this book, now that it’s complete and about to be released?

TH: It’s scary because it’s an encapsulation of 30 years of thought, and I know I’m going to take some bruises on this one. One of the reasons I spend much of the book talking about the problems we face in detail is that I’m sick of people dismissing the fact that we’re in a serious situation. By the time you finish chapter 8, if you’ve been listening and thinking, it’s going to be hard to deny at least the possibility that there will be serious breakdowns in the future.

The last part of the book is about denial, about what breakdowns might look like, and what we might do about them. [With the potential of open-source democratic problem-solving and resilience], it’s the first time I’ve started to see a glimmer of something that offered a way out. At the end of the last book, I didn’t have a sense of what the way out might be.

It was by reading Buzz Holling’s work that I realized what normally seems bad can be an enormous opportunity. It’s a radical idea that some people are not going to like, and they may ridicule and pigeonhole it.

3 thoughts on “Interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon on Upside of Down”

  1. Elsewhere in the same interview (of which the above is an excerpt) Thomas says he is not advocating 100% autonomy but something close to it. As a supporter, nay fan, of his work and of the Resilience Alliance and of
    Panarchy, I wonder why he is not advocating 100% autonomy. If partial autonomy increases resilience, then surely 100% autonomy increases reslience even more. Does Thomas draw back from this argument because living off-grid is too wacky, even though it is perhaps the right answer? Is it that he is already way out on a limb and the logical implications of his argument are too extreme even for him to bear?

    I would love to know his answer to that question.

  2. Homer-Dixon talk about that issue in his interview with the Tyee, which is linked to here.

    Many fewer people could live on the planet if we all tried to do it alone.
    But a few people living off the grid adds something to the whole.

    I think he would argue that there is an inverted u shaped curve between autonomy and resilience.

  3. I indeed make exactly that kind of argument — in chapter 11 of The Upside of Down — that very low autonomy reduces resilience, as does very high autonomy. The greatest resilience is achieved somewhere in the middle between the two extremes.

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