Crisis without collapse

This is an edited extract from ‘The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization’ by Thomas
Homer Dixon, who spoke at the CPD event ‘Not all Roads lead to Rome’. Download the MP3 of that event here.

The fundamental challenge humankind faces is to allow for breakdown in the natural function of our societies in a
way that doesn’t produce catastrophic collapse but instead leads to healthy renewal.

This idea isn’t quite as radical as it first sounds. Cycles of breakdown and renewal are normal in modern capitalist economies. Companies go bankrupt, and new ones emerge in their
place; established economic sectors disappear, to be replaced by industries driven by new technologies; and recessions shift capital from inefficient firms to productive ones, while helping to purge the excesses of earlier boom times.
Joseph Schumpeter, one of the twentieth century’s greatest economists, famously called these processes a ‘perennial gale of creative destruction’ that’s spurred, in part, by the relentless innovation of entrepreneurs. But elsewhere in our societies, rigidity is the rule rather than the exception. Powerful
habits, beliefs, and vested interests hold sway, so things like underlying structures of wealth and power and entrenched patterns of social and consumer behavior don’t really change.

And, while lots of people cite Schumpeter’s memorable phrase, modern capitalist economies aren’t always the paragons of adaptivity they’re claimed to be. Since the 1960s, better
management of the economies of rich countries has reduced short-term economic volatility. Recessions have become less severe as central banks and governments – scared of the political aftershocks of economic downturns – have learned how to maintain demand without high inflation. But this better
short-term management may have just made our economies more prone to larger crises later; some economists believe it encourages a buildup of inefficient and unprofitable investment in real estate, factories, and the like. Meanwhile, in the larger global economy, financial crises, especially banking crises, have
become more frequent, and they’ve often hurt poor countries very badly. Such crises are breakdowns of a sort, and sometimes they even lead to vital reforms-like the flowering of democracy in Indonesia that followed the East Asian financial crisis. On balance, though, they’re often too severe to be helpful, and they only make people who are already desperately poor even more miserable.

So somehow we have to find the middle ground between dangerous rigidity and catastrophic collapse. In our
organizations, social and political systems, and individual lives, we need to create the possibility for what computer programmers and disaster planners call ‘graceful’ failure. When a system fails gracefully, damage is limited, and options for recovery are preserved. Also, the part of the system that has been
damaged recovers by drawing resources and information from undamaged parts. Holling explained how a collapsed
ecosystem regenerates itself by drawing support from panarchy
cycles that operate both above and below-or, put differently, on larger and smaller scales-than the ecosystem itself. For instance, a forest that has burned regrows when large-scale cycles of water and nutrients help to germinate tiny seeds left behind in the soil. The recovery of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire is a good example of this process too: the disaster was
limited to one geographical zone, and while people in the city worked to rebuild their individual households and businesses, relief arrived from the larger systems of American society and governments and from insurance firms as far away as London and Germany. At one point, so much gold had arrived that the
city didn’t have enough vault space to store it all. Breakdown is probably something that human social systems must go through to adapt successfully to changing conditions over the long term. But if we want to have any control over our direction in breakdown’s aftermath, we must keep breakdown constrained.
Reducing as much as we can the force of underlying tectonic stresses helps, as does making our societies more resilient. We have to do other things too, and advance planning for breakdown is undoubtedly the most important. This is the fourth action we must take if we’re going to follow a positive path into
the future.

We can’t know exactly what breakdown will look like, and we don’t know when it will happen, but we can still start figuring out now how we’ll respond. In vigorous, wide-ranging, yet disciplined
conversation among ourselves, we can develop scenarios of what kinds of breakdown could occur. In this conversation, we shouldn’t be afraid to think ‘outside the box’-to try to imagine the unimaginable-because in a non-linear world under
great pressure, we’re certain to make wrong predictions if we just extrapolate from current trends. Then we need to lay down plans and organize ourselves so that we’re prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that various types of breakdown might offer to build a better world. For instance, depending on the scenario, we might plan to aggressively disseminate information through the
Internet, mass media, and various social networks to frame the rapidly changing situation in a humane and constructive way. Or we might plan non-violent disruption of efforts by extremists to organize themselves. Or we might organize coordinated mass civil disobedience of the kind we’ve seen recently in democratic popular protests in Serbia and the Ukraine. In general, we can be
sure that when breakdown happens we’ll be much better off if we have contingency plans ready to go.