Thomas Homer-Dixon holds the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, and is a Professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo.
After postdoctoral research and stints with government, engineering firms, and the National Research Council of Canada, Hassan Masum is now Senior Research Co-ordinator with the McLaughlin-Rotman Center for Global Health in Toronto and a contributor to WorldChanging.com. www.hmasum.com.
Key Piece in a Body of Work of Great Import, February 24, 2008
I have read and reviewed one earlier book by this author, and bought the two more recent works a week ago after realizing I had seriously under-estimated the relevance of this author’s work to my holistic integrative “civilization resilience” intent.
This is a five-star book and I expect Upside of Down will be as well.
I was immediately struck by the grace with which the author credits key other minds in the body of the work rather than just as a footnote.
Here are the highlights from my flyleaf notes, and a few other recommended readings:
+ Complexity soaring, need ideas for better institutions and better social arrangements.
+ Delusion of control over complex systems we barely comprehend
+ Citing Paul Rober: ideas co-equivalent to capital and labor
+Wealth gaps + migrations = poor global management
+ Losing 25% of our biodiversity
+ Delays in policy understanding, decisions, action, and outcomes compound losses over time
+ Mike Whitfield cited on need for holistic view, keystone species, and radical differences in compressed time scales. I am reminded of everything written by Richard Falk, Ervin Laszlo and others in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
+ Population factor is profound
+ Corruption is the primary obstacle to reform
+ Garbage overtaking coastlines while nitrogen leeches into water and carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere
+ Citing David Harvey, “hypercapitalism” compresses time and space while over-producing both wasted production and concentrated wealth
+ Losing our sense of place, not getting enough signals to understand the tipping point circumstances
+ Complexity goes awry (he cited Perrow, whose book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies remains a seminal work (simple systems have single points of failure easy to diagnose and fix; complex systems have multiple points of failure that interact in unpredictable and sometimes undiscoverable ways; we live in a constellation of complex systems well beyond our ken)
+ Complex systems characterized by multiplicity; causal feedback; some tightly coupled; interdependence; openness; synergy; and nonlinear behavior.
+ Chaos theory warns us that nature will magnify the smallest perturbation from humans
+ Four stages of human perception of nature: 1) Balancing; 2) Anarchic; 3) Resilient; 4) Evolving.
+ Citing Wally Broeker: “Climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks.”
+ Social systems are path dependent, delay at any point can be disastrous
+ Lessons of financial crises: governments and the IMF are out of touch with speed and breadth of financial systemic changes; computer-driven changes can accelerate and deepen mistakes
+ Citing Kofi Annan: “imbalance between economic, social, and political realms can never be sustained for long.”
+ Author: social system out of synch with natural and technological systems
+ Software code doubling every two years, bugs a real problem, still in pre-industrial era
+ Information glut has a critical bottleneck, lack of a sense-making bridge from data to our cognitive absorption
+ Ingenuity is both technical and social
+ Our biggest problem is the failure of our economic institutions and policies
+ Washington DC bureaucrats, including senior CIA analysts, “largely out of their depth”
+ Pace of change, depth of ignorance, and political resistance all assume scary proportions
+ Self-organizing resilience and adapting systems could be key
+ As ingenuity gap widens “need imagination, metaphor, and empathy more than ever.”
+ Afterword: relentless increase in complexity while “world economic system is profoundly dysfunctional.”
+ Most interesting to me, as I have committed to publish a book on “Cultural Intelligence” in 2009, is the author’s citing of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, saying culture is “information–skills, attitudes, beliefs, values–capable of affecting individuals’ behavior.”
There are other notes but Amazon imposes a word limit. This is a great book, and I honor it by listing other great and relevant works below (to my limit of ten):
Spectacular Synthesis, Signals Emergence of Collective Intelligence, February 24, 2008
I learned a great deal more about this author when two chapters in a book I just published, Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace featured his thinking: an interview of him by Hassan Masum; and his interview of the Rt Hon Paul Martin on the important topic of the Internet and democracy.
Consequently, I may place more value on this book than some of the other reviewers, but I choose to give it a solid five stars. In combination with his earlier book The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex and Unpredictable Future, and the work of many, many people on emergent collective, peace, commercial, gift, cultural, and earth intelligence, all subsets of the emerging discipline of public intellligence (self-governance founded on full access to all information to produce reality-based balanced budgets), I regard the author as one of a handful of individuals exploring the possibilities of cognitive collective integral consciousness.
I have a note: superb single best overview. I cannot list all the books I would like, being limited to ten links, the ones I do are a token. See my 1100+ other reviews and my many lists for a more comprehensive stroll through the relevant literatures.
Highlights from my notes:
+ Five stresses (population, energy, environmental, climate, economic)
+ I have a note, what about mental, cultural, physical stress (e.g. dramatic increases in mental illness, blind fundamentalism, and obesity).
+ See the image on predicting revolution, the author observes that revolutions come from synchronous failures with negative synergy.
+ Connectivity and speed are multipliers, and I am reminded that virtually all US SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) systems in the US are connected to the Internet and hackable (meanwhile, the Chinese have figured how to hack into systems not connected to the Internet, but drawing electric power from the open grid).
+ Synchronous failures get worse when they jump system boundaries and created frayed less resilient networks.
+ He write of the thermodynamics of empire and the declining return on investment from energy discovery and exploitation.
+ He writes of migration getting much much worse in the future, which confirms my own view that border control is not the answer, stabilization & reconstruction of the source countries is the longer-term sustainable answer.
+ He credits George Soros with having the first intuitive understanding of the asymmetries of wealth in relation to destabilization of the world.
+ He observes that we have transformed and degrades half the Earth’s land surface, and is particularly concerned with the washing away of entire nations of topsoil (compounded by agriculture that does not do deep-root farming).
+ As the book winds to a conclusion, the author discusses massive denial and the loss of resilience that gets worse each day.
+ “Non-extremists have a formidable ‘collective action problem.'”
+ Need alternative values (I am reminded that the literature points out just two sustainable approaches to agriculture and community: the Amish and the Cuban). He notes that fundamentalists are especially ill-equipped by their myopia to be adaptive or resilient.
+ He covers the polarization between rich and poor. While other books listed below are more trenchant, the author has done a superb job of integrating historical, economic, social, and cultural works. This is a very fine book.
+ He adds a useful snippet on Cultural Intelligence, distinguishing between utilitarian values (likes and dislikes), moral values (fairness and justice), and existential values (significance and meaning).
+ Violence is discusses as stemming from motivation, opportunity, and framing–all of which can be found in the eight stages of genocide as defined by Dr. Greg Stanton of Genocide Watch.
+ He ends the book with praise of the open source model (search from my Gnomedex 2007 keytone, “Open Everything”) and concludes that the Internet is not living up to its potential as a platform for large-scale problem solving. I agree, and I condemn Google for choosing to become an illicit vacuum cleaner of other people’s information, rather than an open source platform for allowing every person to be a collector, processor, analyst, producer, and consumer of public intelligence (search for my book review of “Google 2.o: The Calculating Predator.” IBM ando the Google partners are literally BLIND and refusing to assimilate documented early warnings on how Google is preparing to scorch banking, communications, data storage, entertainment, and publishing, all without respect for privacy or copyright, and without regulatory oversight.
I list below eight books I recommend for reading as an expansion of this elegant synthesis. At Earth Intelligence Network you can find a table of 1000+ books I have reviewed, sortable by threat, policy, or challenger.
Last year we had some exceptional works on water scarcity (de Villier), resource wars (Klare), corporate razing of the environment (Czech), among many others that I reviewed here on Amazon. This year we have two extraordinary books, this is the second of the two in my estimation (the other being Andrew Price-Smith’s “The Health of Nations: Infectious Disease, Environmental Change, and Their Effects on National Security and Development”- as both authors are from the University of Toronto, one can only applaud the collection of talent this organization seems to nurture).The author is brilliant and has a longer track record than most for being both prescient and meticulous about in the arena of environmental scarcity.
His book is effective in making the point, but very candidly, did not go the full distance that I was hoping for–he is, in a word, too general and the book lacks a single chapter that pulls it all together with very specific rankings of both the variables and the countries.
The general proposition is clear-cut: environmental scarcity has social effects that lead to violent conflict. However, the author takes a side road in exploring “human ingenuity” as an ameliorating factor, and while he makes reference to crass corporate and elitist carpet-bagging and the social structures of repression, he fails to draw out more fully and explicitly the inherent association between repressive corrupt regimes with extreme concentrations of wealth and power, scarcity, and violence.
For myself, I found two gems within this book: the first, a passing comment on the crucial role that unfettered urbanization plays in exacerbating scarcity and all that comes with it (migration, disease, crime); the second, the author’s prescriptive emphasis, extremely importance, on the prevention of scarcity rather than adaptation or amelioration of scarcity.
The endnotes would have been more useful as footnotes but are quite good. The bibliography and index are four star rather than five star, and I was quite disappointed to not have a single page about the author, nor a consolidated bibliography of his many signal contribution over time in the form of articles and lectures.