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The Upside of Down

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." Societies must do everything they can to avoid such an outcome.

On the other hand, 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. This is likely our best hope for a prosperous and humane future.