Political scientist and environmental author Thomas Homer­Dixon is fast becoming one of Canada’s most valuable exports if judged by the sustained, international success of his writings on the environment and security over the past two decades.

I first came across Homer­ Dixon’s work in the mid­1990s when he had already established himself as a leading researcher in the field. What impressed me was the rigour of his scholarship and a rarely found willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries in search of answers.

These qualities are abundantly evident in his latest book, which is an insightful but deeply troubling analysis of the environmental ills confronting society. The Upside of Down is best located within the burgeoning genre of literature that claims to illuminate the causes of civilisational decline and collapse. Prominent among its authors’ ranks are the well known anthropologist­futurist Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed) and seminal historians of earlier repute, going right back to Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

Gibbon’s work is particularly relevant, as Homer­Dixon’s prologue begins with musings about Rome’s long decline, eventual collapse and the implications he sees for modern society. While acknowledging there are clear differences in context and complexity, Homer­Dixon argues our circumstances are not dissimilar to Rome’s before its fall.

Governments are finding it increasingly difficult to manage the tectonic stresses and fissures that are becoming evident in our physical environment and political and social institutions because of population growth, energy imbalances, environmental degradation, climate change and instabilities in the global economic system. This is hardly an original line of argument. But what separates The Upside of Down from other, lesser works is the author’s explanation of how two stress multipliers ­­ globalisation and the escalating power of small groups to destroy things and people ­­ might plausibly lead to what he calls synchronous failure. Nations and societies may be able to cope with one or even two simultaneous crises, but they could collapse in the face of multiple problems such as climate change, economic instability and mega­terrorism.

Developing states are especially at risk, because their adaptive capacities and resilience are generally weaker than those of richer nations. The proliferating number of failed states is testimony to this reality. But complexity has its downside too. As societies grow more sophisticated they also become more vulnerable to systemic shocks as a result of their interconnectedness and the enormous increase in the velocity of events, transactions and communications, as any user of the internet knows.

A computer­generated virus can proliferate with alarming speed and infect huge numbers of other computers until whole systems are rendered unusable. In the biological world, infectious diseases can spread with fecund rapidity to devastating effect as the SARS epidemic of 2003 demonstrated.

Rome’s long decline took place over many decades, even centuries, because communications moved at a snail’s pace compared with today’s warp speeds. But if our global system breaks down, collapse is more likely than steady decline, because trade, financial transactions, energy flows and vital infrastructure are increasingly networked and dependent on scale­free hubs. Homer­Dixon points out that if a scale­free network loses a key hub, it can be potentially disastrous. An ecosystem, for example, will have a number of keystone species that provide vital services, such as bees for pollination. If enough of these hubs are lost, the ecosystem can collapse.

Collapse could be triggered by a threshold event or tipping point that may not appear especially significant at the time, such as a malfunctioning refrigerator in which the temperature rises by one degree. Not enough for your hand to register but more than enough for all the food inside to spoil, if the problem is not detected in time and fixed.
Homer­Dixon identifies energy (along with climate change) as a particularly acute vulnerability and potential tipping point in a chapter informed by a stint, as a young man, working on oil rigs in Canada’s frigid northwest. As he and many other energy analysts observe, although oil is not going to run out suddenly, the cheapest, most accessible oil has already been consumed and the world’s gargantuan appetite for fossil fuels cannot be sustained indefinitely. A transition to a new era of clean, renewable energy will be difficult to manage without system­challenging political and strategic repercussions.

Another distinguishing feature of Homer­Dixon’s approach in The Upside of Down is his willingness to move beyond diagnosis to consider how we might avert collapse and seize the opportunity to rethink our stewardship of the planet before a breakdown occurs. Building the resilience of our energy and food supply networks is the key to avoiding Rome’s fate and that of the world’s other great civilisations, all of which proclaimed their exceptionalism before their ultimate demise.

Sceptics will no doubt be quick to dismiss Homer­Dixon as the latest in a long line of discredited Cassandras whose warnings of impending catastrophe never eventuate because their fears are exaggerated or ill­conceived, or are simply environmental advocacy disguised as scholarship.

Only time will tell whether Homer­Dixon’s analysis is right, but one thing is certain: he cannot be accused of irresponsible scare­mongering or shoddy scholarship. His book is a wonderful example of eminently readable storytelling, underpinned by painstaking scholarship, reasoned discourse and a willingness to confront the arguments of sceptics. You may not agree with the Homer­Dixon thesis, but The Upside of Down is compelling and informative reading.

The Upside of Down
By Thomas Homer­ Dixon Text, 429pp, $34.95