Thomas Homer Dixon reviews, “Global Catastrophes and Trends, the next 50 years”


One of HFP’s favourite thinkers, Thomas Homer-Dixon, publishes a review of two books on catastrophe in this week’s Nature.

In his review of two catastrophe-oriented books, Dixon argues that, “opinion-makers must demonstrate a better grasp of how societies rise and fall if they are to steer nations successfully through many of this century’s major crises.”

In Global Catastrophes and Trends, Smil, a Canadian scientist of prodigious productivity and extraordinary disciplinary breadth, basically says “get used to it”. Many of the vital natural and social systems around us are so complex that deep uncertainty characterizes their behaviour, and predicting this behaviour is near impossible. Thankfully, many of the threats to our wellbeing highlighted by the media are exaggerated — often wildly so. Although there are reasons for concern about where humankind is going, we need to remember that insecurity is part of the human condition. Catastrophe is too, but it is less likely than we imagine. Overall, given the admirable human capacity to adapt and change, the human prospect is far brighter than many assume.

Alex Steffan argues a similar point in his post, “Collapse Forward“.  He writes,

We certainly could blow it badly enough to trigger irrecoverable collapse (for instance, by triggering climate tipping points), but I’m dubious that most of the collapses we fear will in fact occur, or, even if they occur, that they will last as long or be quite as catastrophic as we think.

That doesn’t mean that big shake-ups aren’t coming. They are. The question is, how do communities and regions prepare themselves to sail as gracefully through that turbulence as possible?

Steffan suggests that investing in green infrastructure both lessens the stress on the system now, and decreases chances of systemic failure in the future.  This kind of “no regrets” planning is wise; both in the short term and as a long term development strategy.  

Are there any parallels between “no regrets” approaches to human vulnerability and the on-going aid vs. development debates?


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