Monday, January 08, 2007

It's Now, Now

Several years ago, I read a book called the Ingenuity Gap written by Thomas Homer-Dixon. It was a pretty useful book for understanding the technological trends of the day and where our ingenuity was failing us. Now, Homer-Dixon has a new book called the Up Side of Down.

According to the blurb,

"In The Upside of Down, political scientist and award-winning author Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that converging stresses could cause a catastrophic breakdown of national and global order — a social earthquake that could hurt billions of people.

But he shows that this outcome isn't inevitable; there's much we can do to prevent it. And after setting out a general theory of the growth, breakdown, and renewal of societies, he shows that less severe types of breakdown could open up extraordinary opportunities for creative, bold reform of our societies.

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.

The effect of the five stresses is multiplied 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.

Drawing parallels between the challenges we face today and the crisis faced by the Roman empire almost two thousand years ago, Homer-Dixon argues that these stresses and multipliers are potentially a lethal mixture. Together, they greatly increase the risk of a cascading collapse of systems vital to our wellbeing — a phenomenon he calls "synchronous failure."

Homer-Dixon is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and Scientific American.

He is, in short, no slouch.

He joins a growing chorus of scientists, writers, artists, and bloggers who feel that our society is facing a very unique time and challenge in the not so distant future. (Like next Tuesday) I may not agree with his ordering of the global forcing agents, but I do agree with his overall thesis.

His final point is this. (watch)

If we want to take advantage of this,

The time to think about and plan for these five stresses is now.

Not then.

"if people are well-prepared, they may be able to exploit less extreme forms of breakdown to achieve deep reform and renewal of institutions, social relations, technologies, and entrenched habits of behavior. "

And it's now, now.


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6:35 PM  

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