WSBG reviews The Devil’s Candy and The Upside of Down


I’m getting seriously behind on my World’s Smallest Book Group book reviews, am I not? Time to start catching up…

Okay, so we read The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization by Thomas Homer-Dixon and The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood by Julie Salamon. What a weird combination! Except that the making of The Bonfire of the Vanities movie might be a perfect example of a civilization at the point of catastrophe!

Anyway, The Upside of Down is an important book. It’s largely about how five major “tectonic” stresses — population imbalances, energy shortages, environmental damage, climate change, income gaps — are putting the earth and civilization at risk. Presently, collapses are much more likely to be global rather than regional like the fall of Rome, because the world is so connected and connections are so fast. When civilization goes down next time (and we are heading straight toward that outcome), the effects will be horrendous. He calls it “synchronous failure: catastrophic collapse that cascades across boundaries between technological, social, and ecological systems.”

We found a lot more downside than upside in the book, but that’s probably because he gives us little reason to put a lot of faith in ourselves as humans. And the four of us think he’s right to be pessimistic. Here’s what he says has to happen for us to save ourselves and the earth:
1. We have to reduce the underlying stresses listed above
2. We need to cultivate a prospective mind so we can cope better with surprise
3. We must boost the overall resilience of critical systems like energy and food supply networks
4. We need to turn breakdown to our advantage
One of the most promising things he sees is the Open Source movement… though it hasn’t quite lived up to its promise yet.

Here’s something from the book I’d like to leave you with:

“One thing is clear to me now, I thought: our values must be compatible with the exigencies of the natural world we live in and depend on. They must implicitly recognize the laws of thermodynamics, energy’s role in our survival, the dangers of certain kinds of connectivity, and the nonlinear behavior of natural systems like the climate. The endless material growth of our economies is fundamentally inconsistent with these physical facts of life. Period. End of story. And a value system that makes endless growth the primary source of our social stability and spiritual well-being will destroy us.
“Our current values serve the interests of today’s political and economic elites, and so are aggressively defended by these elites. Growth, even in already obscenely rich societies, is sacrosanct. This central value won’t really change until it’s discredited by some kind of major shock, which probably means some kind of system breakdown. Then, alternative values that are centered on the idea of resilience might flower, not just at the fringes of our societies but also at their core. They might, for instance, promote the merit of smaller populations that tread lightly on nature, of decentralized communities that can take better care of their own needs, and of lifestyles that are far less complex and fast paced.” (pp. 305-6)

That wouldn’t be so bad, now would it?? WSBG highly recommends this book!

Okay, The Devil’s Candy is not an important book. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a kind of guilty pleasure in reading it. The people in the book could serve as poster children for why the warnings given in Upside of Down won’t be heeded in America.

I confess to enjoying reading about some of the technical things in filming certain scenes in the movie.

Speaking of the movie, we convened after breakfast at my house to watch the movie. Oh. my. god. It sucks sooooooooooooo bad. Not a single one of the four of us could remember ever watching a worse movie. What a frikkin waste of money. Energy. All the things Homer-Dixon warned against. Not one single redeeming quality.

There is just no excuse for something that bad that costs that much. Period. End of story.


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