The Ingenuity


Future complex: Tad Homer-Dixon confronts the gap between global problems and solutions.

Oct 30, 2000, p. 56

Five years into the eight-year odyssey that was the writing of The Ingenuity Gap, Thomas (Tad) Homer-Dixon found himself overwhelmed by the complexity of his project. So he did what he does very well in his intricately argued book about the problems facing global civilization. He paused to take stock, and to break his intractable mass of data into manageable bits. The University of Toronto political scientist calculates that he had accumulated more than 100 km of paper in his small home office. Materials for the first third of the book alone filled 35 banker's boxes. "I'm living the problem I'm describing," Homer-Dixon despairingly told his editors at Knopf Canada, before summoning up the personal ingenuity to cope, by dividing his narrative into three more workable strands -- thematic, geographical and metaphoric.

It's a good thing he persevered, because Homer-Dixon is one of the few people on the planet who could have tackled what he defines as the world's overriding issue: the yawning "ingenuity" gap between the need for practical solutions to complex problems, from global warming to Third World poverty, and the actual supply of workable ideas. For most of the past decade, the 44-year-old director of U of T's Peace and Conflict Studies program has combined demographics, economics, and environmental and military conflict analyses with an eye to making sense of various crises around the world. Homer-Dixon's pioneering work has brought him to the attention of policy-makers in the United States, where he has twice briefed Vice-President Al Gore, and Canada, where he interrupted his book tour last week for a 90-minute discussion with Privy Council Office staff in Ottawa.

The Ingenuity Gap ranges over the world, discussing the barriers -- mostly attitude and political will -- that prevent humanity from dealing effectively with its vital concerns. Homer-Dixon does a superb job in one of his primary aims, "making complexity simple enough to understand." Much of his attention is focused on the great natural systems that allow life on the planet to flourish. Time and again he interviews experts who are just beginning to learn how little they know. Seismologists, for example, now see their goal of accurate earthquake prediction -- widely believed 20 years ago as being almost within their grasp -- receding the more they learn about the factors involved.

Climate is another favourite example. Columbia University geochemist Wally Broecker points out that there have been abrupt climate changes before, the result of previous "nonlinear" eruptions. It is entirely possible, in Broecker's view, that incremental global warming will cause the main North Atlantic current to shut down and plunge Europe into a Siberian-style climate. Or maybe it won't. Broecker's point -- and Homer-Dixon's, too -- is simply that we don't know, but continue to act as though we do: "Climate is an angry beast, and we are poking it with sticks." The core argument of The Ingenuity Gap is that there is considerable reason, given the number and nature of environmental "insults" humanity is inflicting on the planet, to expect that global systems will not always carry on as before. That conclusion puts the native of Prospect Lake, near Victoria, the only child of an artist mother and a forester father, at odds with crucial aspects of Western thinking. Homer-Dixon argues that economic optimists, those who think market signals and technology will guide the world safely through any future shocks, are dangerous. They have the ear of governments, he notes, and their influence helps keep humanity on a collision course with nature.

Despite considerable convergence in their diagnoses, Homer-Dixon also parts company with those he considers environmental pessimists. "I'm fed up with being labelled a doomsayer," he says. "What separates me from them is that I'm pretty impressed with human beings, their creativity and adaptability. I emphasize technical solutions." But Homer-Dixon acknowledges that the questions and solutions he raises are "ultimately spiritual." A profound change in attitude, he says, from arrogance towards natural systems to a more humble assessment of "our strengths, weaknesses and ignorance" would go a long way to bridging the ingenuity gap.

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