The Ingenuity
Gap

Reviews


This gap seems more like the Grand Canyon

By DAVID GOLDBLATT
The Independent, London, UK
7 December 2000

Like any good Victorian gentleman, Karl Marx was a relentless optimist, no more so than when it came to the collective fate of humanity: "Mankind only sets itself those problems that it can solve." Had he been standing on a railway platform in Kent recently, or wading through his notebooks in a cellar in York, he might have concluded otherwise. Had he read Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Ingenuity Gap, he would have been forced to conclude that we are all taking the course "Dealing with environmental catastrophe 101". Not only have we been skipping lectures, but there is a very good chance there will be no resit.

Thomas (let's be informal, the end of the world is nigh) puts it simply. The world is changing fast, really fast. In the last three decades the scope and toxicity of environmental problems have gone through the roof. The South remains to a great extent mired in unsolvable poverty and dislocation. The North is immersed in its binge of overconsumption and grotesque economic polarisation. Global markets are becoming more chaotic. Small and not so small arms find their way to every irredentist groupuscule in the world. And it's getting harder to think about it all, let alone come up with answers.

Humanity is making the world a more complex, dangerous place. We need more good ideas, technological and social. But our capacity to generate them is not keeping pace. This is the ingenuity gap.

So far, so depressing. Tom's response (surely only his mother calls him Thomas?) has been to travel, talk, observe, report and read. The Ingenuity Gap takes us to the postmodern architectural and financial chaos of Canary Wharf and Las Vegas; the desperate disorganised poverty of India; the offices of eminent scientists. If you pack plenty of environmental statistics and popular science on your travels, you will like this. If not, go anyway. Tom travels lightly and smartly even when the write-up is a little heavier.

What is limiting the supply of ingenuity? In the South, the usual combination of grinding poverty, incessant warfare, widespread corruption and conservatism ensures that collective social ingenuity is in desperately short supply. In the North, information technology is forcing many to spend all their time managing data rather than having a good idea. The labour market and education system reward the young who can process huge data streams at speed. Simultaneously, they are discarding the improvisers, the old, the wise and the generalists.

The dominant elites of the North are putting their talent for post-hoc rationalisation, boorish oversimplification and optimistic boosterism into overdrive. The cultural landscapes of the North are so overloaded and fragmented that the long view and overview are out of sight. Scientists can probably supply the technological ingenuity that might help, but, until the market and the state get sorted out, they will mainly produce the technological ingenuity that doesn't help.

Which leaves us with social ingenuity. Tom's bottom line is that we need social ingenuity, buckets of it, to devise new institutions, new social practices, new forms of protection, insurance, resilience and nurturing. However, the outlook is bleak.

The social sciences, which purport to supply the intellectual infrastructure for this mission, are our culture's Railtrack compared to the Japanese Bullet Train of the natural sciences. Things started badly, with a ragbag of fragmented theories and methods. Subsequent investment has been minimal. The capacity to predict performance, given the cussed nature of individuals, is almost non-existent.

Tom knows this is small change against the really big bottleneck: power and politics. Good ideas are a dime a dollar if the change they promise threatens the powerful and the entrenched, while the beneficiaries are non-voting future generations.

The gap is also moral. At the end of his trip round the cyclone of disaster, Tom argues that what we really need is moral ingenuity and emotional intelligence: the imagination to grasp the fate of others. An ingenuity gap? It feels more like the Grand Canyon.

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