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Lions Roar : September 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2008 45 THOMAS HOMER-DIXON is a political scientist who is not content to remain within the confines of his chosen discipline. His books, while intricately detailed, do not read like abstract recitations of pre-digested ideas. They’re travelogues of inquiry. He visits people and places, listens and observes, and carves out a new way of seeing, one that’s tentative but driven by a strong belief that “we can do better.” For several decades, he’s made it his business to research hu- manity’s capacity to deal with the complexity it has wrought. Long- time director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, he was a frequent visitor to the Clin- ton White House and an adviser to Al Gore. In his 2002 book, The Ingenuity Gap: Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?, he present- ed evidence that the demand for ingenuity arising from the ever-increasing complexity of our world is far outstripping our capacity to supply it. Heretofore we’ve been able to come up with technological fixes—and in Homer- Dixon’s words, “throw huge amounts of energy at our problems”—to keep our ever- expanding Rube Goldberg contraption to- gether. But now we will almost certainly find it necessary to accept some large break- downs in human and natural systems and to develop radical new ways of running things as a result. Homer-Dixon’s appetite for in- novation has led him to take a position as the CIGI chair of global systems at the newly formed Balsillie School of International Af- fairs in Ontario. (CIGI stands for The Centre for International Governance Innovation, a think tank recently formed by Jim Balsillie, whose company invented the wildly popular Blackberry.) “There are a couple of areas where I sometimes despair about our capacity to deal with what lies ahead,” Homer-Dixon told me. “One is our cognitive character- istics and the other is the self-reinforcing nature of our economic system.” When Homer-Dixon speaks of our “cog- nitive characteristics,” he refers to the fact that we adapt easily to small-scale, incremental change. It’s what makes it possible to get up in the morning and not feel we’re in a strange new world. It’s part of our survival apparatus. And yet, Homer-Dixon says, this very capacity is “a real handicap when it comes to dealing with slow-creep problems. We just don’t see the change, and the thing about slow-creep problems is they may be slow-creep for a while, but then all of a sudden there’s a non-linear shift and we find our- selves in a crisis.” Our economic habits link up with every other problem we face, since at bottom economics is about how we choose to use the resources of the planet—in what ways, in what proportion, and at what rates. “We simply don’t have a vision of an alterna- tive economic system that isn’t oriented toward unending mate- rial growth,” Homer-Dixon says. “Until we have an alternative vision, or theory, we won’t give up the one we have.” Rather than a mere study of stock markets and gross national products, real economics is the interface between human beings and the world all around. And we are evermore out of touch with that world. “Seduced by our extraordinary technological prowess,” Homer- Dixon writes in The Ingenuity Gap, “many of us come to believe that ... the reality outside our constructed world ... needs little attention because, if we ever have to, we can manage any problem that might arise there.” But we are numb to the messages from our surroundings. “On a day-to-day basis, most of us in rich coun- tries are increasingly sealed within the hermetic and sometimes illusory world of the human-made, the human-scaled, and the human-imagined,” he says. This narcissism weakens our sense of awe and “our receptivity to critical signals ... that might awaken us to our deep ignorance of the potential consequences of our ac- tions, and warn us against hubris.” In The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civiliza- tion, Homer-Dixon explores new ways of thinking about the world that might lead to new ways of acting. “There is a temporal order in dealing with our big problems,” he told me. “First we have to change how we view the world, and that will cause us to change how we act.” Like Adam Kahane, Thomas Homer- Dixon asks us to take the time to ap- preciate complexity. He points out that with each passing decade we build more complexity into the conduct of everyday life, which requires ever more energy and maintenance. While “connectivity” is generally thought of as a virtue, in complexity theory, systems with many close connec- tions are said to be “tightly coupled.” Tightly coupled systems can act like the proverbial chain of dominoes: a breakdown in one lo- cation sends rapidly cascading effects throughout the world. For example, if the few large food-growing areas we rely on suddenly experience breakdown at the same time that transportation costs spiral upward, a food crisis can develop within days. Breakdown is one problem, Homer-Dixon says; debilitating One thing we all agree on is that we care about our kids. We want the best possible future for them and we have a pretty clear conception of what that good future means. THOMAS HOMER-DIXON PHOTOBYHOLLYPAGNACCO SEPT 40-47.indd 45 SEPT 40-47.indd 45 7/3/08 1:31:05 PM 7/3/08 1:31:05 PM