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Science Global Warming & Climate Change

The Upside of Down

Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization

by (author) Thomas Homer-Dixon

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2007
Global Warming & Climate Change, Future Studies, Civics & Citizenship
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2007
    List Price

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From the author of the #1 bestselling and Governor General’s Literary Award-winning The Ingenuity Gap – an essential addition to the bookshelf of every thinking person with a stake in our world and our civilization.

This is a groundbreaking, essential book for our times. Thomas Homer-Dixon brings to bear his formidable understanding of the urgent problems that confront our world to clarify their scope and deep causes. The Upside of Down provides a vivid picture of the immense stresses that are simultaneously converging on our societies and threatening a breakdown that would profoundly shake civilization. It shows, too, how we can choose a better route into the future.

With the immediacy that characterized his award-winning international bestseller, The Ingenuity Gap, Homer-Dixon takes us on a remarkable journey – from the fall of the Roman empire to the devastation of the 9/11 attacks in New York, from Toronto in the 2003 blackout to the ancient temples of Lebanon and the wildfires of California. Incorporating the newest findings from an astonishing array of disciplines, he argues that the great stresses our world is experiencing – global warming, energy scarcity, population imbalances, and widening gaps between rich and poor – can’t be looked at independently. As these stresses combine and converge, the risk of breakdown rises. The first signs are appearing in the wastelands of the Arctic, the mud-clogged streets of Gonaïves, Haiti, and the volatile regions of the Middle East and Asia. But while the consequences of denial in our more perilous world are dire, Homer-Dixon makes clear that we can use our emerging understanding of the complex systems in which we live to avoid catastrophic collapse in a way the Roman empire could not.

This vitally important new book shows how, in the face of breakdown, we can still provide for the renewal of our global civilization. We are creating the conditions for catastrophe, but by understanding the underlying principles that make human and natural systems resilient – and by working together to put those principles into effect – we can still limit the severity of collapse and foster regeneration, innovation, and renewal.

About the author


  • Winner, National Business Book Award

Contributor Notes

THOMAS HOMER-DIXON holds a University Research Chair at the University of Waterloo, where he is a professor in the Faculty of Environment. Between 2009-2014, he was founding director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation. Born in Victoria, BC, he received his BA in political science from Carleton University and his Ph.D. from the M.I.T in international relations, defense and arms control policy, and conflict theory. His books include The Ingenuity Gap,The Upside of Down, and Environment, Scarcity, and Violence. His writing has appeared in Foreign PolicyForeign AffairsScientific American, the Washington PostThe New York Times, the Financial Times, and the Globe and Mail.

Excerpt: The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization (by (author) Thomas Homer-Dixon)

From Chapter 1

All this turbulence makes it seem as if nothing is dependable. Shocks and surprises seem to rush toward us faster than ever before. As I sat among the Forum’s scattered ruins, trying to imagine what the place must have looked like two thousand years ago, I asked myself, Did the Romans ever have the same feelings? Were their certainties ever challenged, and did events ever seem out of control? I wondered whether the pressured, chaotic circumstances of today’s world are in any way like those that existed when the western Roman empire crumbled in the fifth century. How could anything that seemed so permanent and consequential, as Rome must have seemed in its heyday, be reduced to these scraps of rubble? Of course in the centuries since Rome’s fall, countless others have asked the same kind of questions, but I suspected we’d learn something new by asking them again now, in light of new studies of why societies sometimes collapse.

Isn’t everyone intrigued by the idea of the fall of Rome? As a boy, I was fascinated by it. I marveled at Rome’s feats of conquest and engineering. They were the stuff of wonder. Rome’s legions subjugated Europe and North Africa and reached deep into western Asia, while its engineers built roads, aqueducts, temples, baths, and amphitheaters across the empire’s landscape. But what really drew me to the story was what it revealed about our human frailty. There was something both spectacular and eerie about this civilization that so dominated much of the world–and then almost completely disappeared. Rome’s vast influence on Western cultures endures, but we can see today only scattered fragments of its incalculable physical effort. For a ten-year-old on the cusp of adolescence, this tale was mysterious and subtly frightening. It hinted that–in the sweep of time–all our striving and building and all our passion about issues of the day are almost wholly inconsequential; that when viewed across thousands of years, even our most prodigious achievements will seem ephemeral.

At the very least, Rome’s story reveals that civilizations, including our own, can change catastrophically. It also suggests the dark possibility that our human projects are so evanescent that they’re essentially meaningless.

Most sensible adults avoid such thoughts. Instead, we invest enormous energy in our families, friends, jobs, and day-to-day activities. And we yearn to leave some enduring evidence of our brief moment on Earth, some lasting sign of our individual or collective being. So we construct a building, perhaps, or found a company, write a book, or raise a family.

We seldom acknowledge this deep desire for meaning and longevity, but it’s surely one source of our endless fascination with Rome’s fall: if we could just understand Rome’s fatal weakness, maybe our societies could avoid a similar fate and preserve their accomplishments forever.

Of course, an infinite number of factors–most of them unknown and some unknowable – affect how our societies develop, and we can only rarely influence even those few factors we know about. So rather than resisting change, our societies must learn to adapt to the twists and turns of circumstance. This means we must sometimes give up our accomplishments. If we try to keep things largely the way they are, our societies will become progressively more complex and rigid and, in turn, progressively less creative and able to cope with sudden rises and shocks. Their collapse–when it eventually does happen–could then be so destructive that there would be little of the prior order left behind. And there would be little left to seed the vital process of renewal that should follow.

Here we have ancient Rome’s real lesson. Most of us who recall a bit of history think that constant barbarian invasions caused the western empire to disintegrate, but actually these invasions were only the most immediate cause. In the background were more powerful long-term forces, especially the rising complexity of all parts of Roman society – including its bureaucracy, military forces, cities, economy, and laws – as the empire tried to maintain itself. To support this greater complexity, the empire needed more and more energy, and eventually it couldn’t find enough. Indeed, its increasingly desperate efforts to get energy only made its bureaucracies and laws more elaborate and sclerotic and its taxes more onerous. In time, the burden on the empire’s peasants became too great, while rising complexity strangled the empire’s ability to renew itself. The collapse that followed was dramatic: populations of cities and towns fell sharply, interregional trade dwindled, banditry and piracy soared, construction of monumental buildings and large-scale infrastructure stopped, and virtually all institutions – from governments to armies–became vastly simpler in their operation and organization.

In this book I’ll argue that our circumstances today are surprisingly like Rome’s in key ways. Our societies are also becoming steadily more complex and often more rigid. This is happening partly because we’re trying to manage–often with limited success–stresses building inside our societies, including stresses arising from our gargantuan appetite for energy to run our factories, heat our homes, and fuel our cars. Eventually, as occurred in Rome, the stresses may become too extreme, and our societies too inflexible to respond, and some kind of economic or political breakdown will occur.

I’m not alone in this view. These days, lots of people have the intuition that the world is going haywire and an extraordinary crisis is coming. Some people, particularly those of a religious disposition, think we’re entering end times. Parallels between ancient Rome and the modern world are common; and fiction, religious preaching, and even scientific analyses abound with apocalyptic images of doom. Much of this stuff is nonsensical, which makes it easy for our “experts” to dismiss it with a patronizing wave of the hand. But I think that non-experts’ intuition is actually largely right. Some kind of real trouble does lie ahead.

That trouble doesn’t have to be calamitous in its ultimate results, though. If we’re smart and a bit lucky, we have a good chance of avoiding a terrible outcome. In fact, just as happened after the great San Francisco fire – when a new and more resiliant city rose from the ashes and America’s banking system was made far more resiliant too – catastrophe could create a space for creativity that helps us build a better world for our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

“Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon is the giant-killer of overwhelming issues.” —Toronto Star

“[Thomas Homer-Dixon] is just the man for the job. . . . The book introduces general readers to a number of key concepts pursued by Homer-Dixon in his academic studies on the links between population growth, environmental degradation and global security. It is his ability to delineate those links that makes The Upside of Down such a sobering and stimulating read.” —Toronto Star

“Homer-Dixon [is] a magpie of knowledge.” —Times Colonist (Victoria)

“Thomas Homer-Dixon . . . has taken off the gloves with humanity. No more talk of what might occur. . . . A crash is inevitable.” —The Globe and Mail

“This is an ambitious book. . . . Those familiar with Homer-Dixon’ s earlier work . . . will not be surprised by the wide-ranging scope and technical virtuosity of his writing. By any measure, this book is an impressive achievement. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. . . . for those who want a clear and accessible overview of this catastrophist debate, and one with a Canadian flavour . . . this is a useful place to start.” —The Globe and Mail

"For over a decade, Thomas Homer-Dixon has provided that rare thing: a bridge between leading-edge research and the lay reader. Now, addressing the great problems of our time, he points us towards a path forward." —Robert D. Kaplan, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, author of Imperial Grunts and The Coming Anarchy

"Anyone who doubts the seriousness of the human predicament should read Thomas Homer-Dixon’s brilliant The Upside of Down. Anyone who understands the seriousness should also read it for Homer-Dixon’ s insightful ideas about how to make society more resilient in the face of near-inevitable environmental and social catastrophes." —Paul Ehrlich, President of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University, author of The Population Bomb

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