Monday, June 4, 2007

The Upside Of Down, by Thomas Homer-Dixon

Although I have not finished reading The Upside of Down, I must say that while many of the global arguments presented in the book parallel my own arguments, I disagree rather strongly with many of the nuances, details, principles and, especially, the overall tone of the book. I don’t, in general, like doomsday books, even though I recognize that they serve a valid purpose, and even though Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book tries to lift things out of the doldrums to some extent.

Like Homer-Dixon, I am a systems theorist in training. However, my systems theory has been heavily influenced by Buddhist traditions and modern psychoanalysis theory, especially Jungian. Homer-Dixon argues that complex systems are characterized by unpredictable behaviour, and then uses this argument as an almost self-evident proof that we are headed for a system-wide breakdown. He then mitigates the argument by admitting that “good things” can emerge from breakdowns, that renewal is possible… if we do things right. If we make the right choices.

I have many, many problems with this approach. First of all, what does it mean to choose? We are not talking about individuals here, we are talking about societies or large groups of people. Large groups of people don’t “choose” in the same way that individuals do, nor do they act in similar ways. While I recognize the need to use analogies and metaphors to discuss these issues, it is important not to slide unconsciouslessly from one metaphor to another, especially when dealing with issues as important as these. He discusses the emergent behaviours of complex systems on the one hand, but then suggests that our current societies may act as if we were “in control” of our destinies on the other.

This raises issues of control, another area of subtle traps. He indicates that we need to stop being “passengers” and become “drivers”. This argument made sense in the 1980’s and 90’s, when we were still struggling with the issue that we needed to get off our buts as individuals and act in our own lives. Remember, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”? Remember, too, “think globally, act locally”. In the days of our early awareness of systems theory and its importance for our interaction with the environment, there was a need to assert the power of the individual to change things. But now, I believe, I hope, we are at a different level of awareness of systems theory. And we should be wary of any argument that favours “control”.

The issue is not one of a need to “take control over our destiny”, to “choose correctly” in a series of mini-crises which we will face. That is not how complex systems operate, and as Homer-Dixon himself underlines, both as societies and as individuals, we are complex systems.

Instead, we must remember that complex systems contain emergent behaviours that exceed our capacity to understand and know them. This is true about ourselves as individuals and about our communities. This does not mean that these complex systems will exhibit surprising behaviours that may sometimes be “good” for us, and sometimes “bad” for us, as Homer-Dixon suggests. It means that more is going on than meets the eye, that larger forces are in play. We shall never fully understand these forces, but we can delve into them deeper than we have.

I believe that the source for optimism lies in the “self-regenerative” capacity of complex systems, part of their behaviour that escapes our day-to-day awareness. It is easy, too easy, to predict doom and gloom. The tendency, even the need to do so, comes from our individual psyches, especially in a society that suppresses all acknowledgement or open recognition of our shadow selves. But our capacity for regeneration also emerges from our shadow side, both as individual and as society.

The huge blooming of expression of all and sundry through the blogosphere is a part of our emerging capacity for regeneration, and there are many other instances of this occurring around us. While I agree that some form of major crisis is in gestation, for reasons discussed by Homer-Dixon and others in response to his arguments, that is, that crisis is a means of engendering a major shift in behaviour, I do not believe this will be destructive, although it may have destructive elements. But I don’t think whether it happens or not is a matter of “choice” in any simple way. A major change in how we, as humans, function is underway, and this change will itself drive us towards such a crisis.

We are not yet at a point in our evolution where we, as a planetary community, can “choose” our destiny, although we are getting closer to a stage where we will have a greater influence over what happens. The planetary crisis in which we currently live is not a crisis that results from our choices… but rather from the unfolding of our own being through history. The possibility to act only emerges when we acknowledge and accept our unknowable parts… and for our planetary community, these parts may include the ecosystems of the planet as a whole… when all this comes into alignment, then, perhaps, we will be in a position to act, but the word “act” will not mean what it does today.

We are in a time of transformation. There is as much, perhaps much more, that is positive and life-enhancing that is going on as that is negative and life-destroying. I thank Thomas Homer-Dixon for raising issues of importance for our collective understanding – he is one of the few such voices in the world today that dares address these issues in such a global way – but I profoundly disagree with the focus on reductive systems thinking I find in his work.

He mentions personal temperament as one of the limitations of future thinking. I think this understates something very important. The changes in our understanding that are going on involve a reconnection of our understanding of the individual psyche and its desires, needs and organization, with the communal consciousness. Understanding the role of doomsday predictions within this reconnection is part of what needs to occur, to bring ourselves into alignment with our own underpinnings.

There is a need to move beyond fear, and beyond the need for fear. Fear is a survival instinct, but on its own it paralyzes our ability to innovate and change. It is time to develop a discourse for change that is neither fearsome, nor overly optimistic, but rooted in the regenerative nature of human beings and their societies.

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