Embrace the Collapse: another Homer-Dixon interview

The Tyee, an online Vancouver newsite, has a two part interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon, which focusses on some different issues than the Worldchanging interview. The first part Embrace the Collapse focusses on learning from collapse, while the second part, An Internet Idea Army, focusses on social learning. From the article:

Thomas Homer-Dixon says there’s hope. Not that global warming isn’t upon us, or that terrorists won’t explode a nuclear device in the near future, or that the growing gap between rich and poor won’t result in deeply destructive conflict, or that our social, political and economic systems aren’t deeply vulnerable to collapse.

No, not that kind of hope. That’s actually called denial. The question is, what might we do when one or all of those events — which Homer-Dixon calls “moments of contingency” — shake us out of our collective inertia? What might we do to ensure that, ahem, more is very much less.

In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, that’s the central question. Can we turn failure into some kind of success? Homer-Dixon thinks we can, and his prescription isn’t very complicated. One thing we must do, he says, is develop a “prospective mind,” by which he means think ahead, and plan to take advantage when a crisis creates an opportunity.
…Homer-Dixon devotes a large section of the book to the work of former UBC professor and ecology guru Buzz Holling, who has looked at what allows complex natural systems to remain resilient. At the core of Holling’s “panarchy theory” is the simple idea that complex systems grow, become brittle, collapse and then renew themselves. If the growth cycle goes on too long, however, the potential increases for “deep collapse,” which can pretty much cut out that heartwarming renewal stage.

It’s the human tendency to try and keep everything as it is that has Holling and Homer-Dixon worried. If we don’t plan for the occasional collapse, if we don’t plan for real change, we’re going to pay and pay and pay.

The Upside of Down is also a hopeful book. Homer-Dixon, the Victoria-raised director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, wants us to learn from ecology. He wants us to see human endeavour through nature’s lens. Systems grow, mature, become rigid, and break down. If we accept that this is true for human systems, we will be better able to create less rigid, less dangerously interdependent systems to minimize potential domino effects, and we will learn to plan for renewal when things do break down.

Of course, many people can talk a good line about impending peril. The question is, what are they actually doing about it? Homer-Dixon places a great deal of faith in individuals, in their ability to collaborate, create consensus, and place that consensus squarely in the public realm in a manner that cannot be ignored.

Some bits from the interview are below:

On the need to foster local food security:

“I think it’s pretty important. I say to my audiences in Ontario that the largest patch of Class 1 agricultural land in the entire country is in downtown Toronto, under pavement, under Bay Street. Because that’s the first place you establish settlements. In Ontario, our food system depends upon steady streams of tractor-trailers bringing fresh vegetables from Florida and California. As we pave over our agricultural land and build subdivisions, we are progressively losing our food-system resilience.

“I don’t think we should have the capacity to produce all our food, or even the majority of it, but our communities need to have the capacity to produce more of what we need locally. That has to be a matter of government concern. What happens if the Canadian border is shut, and not just for a couple of days as it was after 9-11, but for an extended period of time? It’s conceivable if there were major attacks in the United States, that would happen. What kind of capacity do we have to maintain an agricultural system in the eventuality of much higher energy prices, say five times higher than they are right now?

“We’re making assumptions that the parameters in which we live are going to stay roughly the same, in terms of energy prices, in terms of political and social stability, and we have to spend some time thinking about what would happen if the world were radically different. Food security is part of that. A resilient food production system is networked, but not tightly networked. If it’s tightly networked and highly specialized, then it’s vulnerable to cascading failures. If everybody’s producing entirely their own food, then any one area that has trouble can’t draw from other areas. I think we’re too far in the direction of too much connectivity and specialization.

“Things like [British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve] are an important part of maintaining that resilience. There may be a point somewhere in the future where we’ll need all that agricultural land. I think the new plan to protect agricultural land and greenspace around Toronto should be interpreted not in aesthetic terms — that’s important — but in terms of long-term economic resilience for Ontario’s society.”

On the absence of a refuge when things go badly:

“I don’t think it makes much difference. We’re all one big connected organism on this planet now. People say, ‘I’m going out to B.C. because at least I can grow my food there.’ The idea that you can retreat somewhere and be safe, I don’t think that has much grounding anymore. We are all profoundly dependent on our industrial society. We can do things to make ourselves somewhat more independent, somewhat more resilient, on a household level, but we also have to recognize that we are not and don’t want to go back to 19th-century living. There are a lot of good things about the world in which we live and we need to figure out how to keep the best and get rid of the things that aren’t doing us so much good.”

This ain’t no Rapture, no Armageddon:

“I want to make it clear that [my outlook] is not an end-of-the-world theory. Catastrophe is not inevitable. It’s interpreted by some people that way, but that’s a caricature. I’m saying that it’s likely that we’re going to get significant crises and some forms of breakdown in the future. But that’s by no means the end of the world. Even if it’s as bad as the Great Depression, that wasn’t the end of the world and in some places it was an opportunity for fundamental reform. And 9-11 was a nasty, nasty situation, but it could have been used for real creativity. We should be prepared to exploit those opportunities. But this is not about inevitable catastrophe. The hope then resides in the possibility of change, not in trying to keep things the same. Things are going to change. That’s actually good.”

Creating space for “exuberant experimentation”:

“In the areas of energy and climate change, there are lots and lots and lots of problems to be solved, micro and macro. [We need] real space for “exuberant experimentation,” as [ecologist] Buzz Holling would call it — this environment can be a place where experiments are thought up, planned for, reported and analyzed. And then the information is transferred within the community.”

2 thoughts on “Embrace the Collapse: another Homer-Dixon interview”

  1. Every environment has its champions. I was raised on a farm in North Florida in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. In 1968 I took a course called World Geogrpahy and fell in love with the subject. My professor kept us intrigued each week by his passion for nature. It set a course for each of us in that class. We were stewards of Earth. To serve her was a choice. This professor had to chase us out of class at 10:00 at night. Our conversations were heady and for this we loved being in his class. As I have grown older I have focused my personal attention to just a few issues, one being global health. We retired and moved to a little fishing village, Cedar Key, Florida. Our first meetings with Buzz Holling was a happy surprise. We enjoy the meaningful and positive dialouge. At every crossroads we choose a path. Global crossroads needs signs to lead the way. Teachers like Buzz, books such as this, open ended dialouge, and blogs of this caliber are ways to steer the course.

  2. Very interesting read. Thanks for the post. I agree that countries should always look for ways to be self-sufficient and engage in trade, but too often the almighty dollar dictates when things will be bought elsewhere.

    For Canada, with the weather, the outlook at growing 100% of the food needs looks impossible. But, I don’t know much about farming.

    Anyway, interesting post indeed.


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