Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thomas Homer Dixon

A couple of weeks ago, ABC News showed a two hour special: “Earth 2100”. I’ve seen or heard very little about it, and I’m very surprised, as it was the story of the effects of global climate change told through a graphic fictional narrative of a twenty-first century American family. I’m surprised that I didn’t hear more about it, as it had an almost apocalyptic tone. It reminded me of the special in the mid-1980s about the effects of a nuclear attack on Lawrence, Kansas. That special seemed to have created a lot of comment and concern. Yet, climate change, along with other factors (population, environmental degradation, economic dislocation) presents as great a threat to our future. However, it’s coming in slow motion, so it’s different than the threat of a nuclear missile, and we seem even less well prepared to respond to the this huge set of threats.

Along with the graphic narrative of the fictional American family, the program Earth 2100 also included interviews with experts on these topics, and among them, I picked up the name Thomas Homer Dixon. Dixon is an MIT-trained Canadian political scientist who writes about global issues. I found his website, and I highly recommend a visit to it. I looked around, and I found that he linked to a number of interviews as podcasts, and I listened to them. Through them, I found a very articulate writer and thinker who has really put his finger on our current situation. I’m now about half-way through his book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (2006). I highly recommend it (don’t have to finish to arrive at this conclusion).

Dixon describes energy as the master trope for a society or civilization. A visit to Rome led him to consideration of the energy involved in the construction of the coliseum, and how a failure of energy supplies (read food) to Rome could be considered the key to its downfall. He also describes society as a complex adaptive system, certainly the most advanced concept that we have for understanding society, as well as ecologies, financial markets, and a myriad of other structures that are simply not mechanical. Mechanical is predictable; complex adoptive systems are only probable, often shifting by leaps and bounds and not smooth gradients like an automobile engine when you step on the gas.

I’ll be writing more about this. As I reflect on it, this lack of societal resilience (shades of Nassim Taleb here) that Dixon describes looms truly frightening and intriguing. I fear for our futures as we seem to live in Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome. I fear for the cracks in the foundation, and fear for our ability to repair them before the edifice crumbles around us.