The Ingenuity
Gap

Reviews


The Ingenuity Gap: How can we solve the problems of the future?

By HAROLD HEFT
Southam News

There's good news and there's bad news, and Thomas Homer-Dixon, in his expansive new book The Ingenuity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?, is going to give us the bad news first. To be exact, Homer-Dixon provides nearly 400 pages of bad news before the payoff, 10 or so pages of pale, qualified hope.

Homer-Dixon is one of a handful of young Canadian pundits poised to occupy a place on the world stage as a broadly influential political commentator of international calibre. His credentials are impressive. Currently director of peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, Homer-Dixon did his graduate work on the subject of social conflict at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has since participated in numerous projects studying the relationship between environmental scarcity and conflict, most notably in a CIA-sponsored State Failure Task Force reporting directly to U.S. Vice-President Al Gore.

The concept of an "ingenuity gap," or the gap between humanity's ability to create environmental, social and technological problems and its ability to solve them, has been preoccupying Homer-Dixon since at least 1995, when he published a paper by the same name in the Population and Development Review. Since then, the majority of his work has in some way attempted to grapple with this central theme: Can the world population resolve the crises it has already created, as well as the much greater problems on the horizon, or have we already doomed ourselves?

Homer-Dixon's extensive work in the subject enables him to provide readers with an impressive catalogue of environmental, social, political and technological hazards that currently exist around the Earth, most notably overpopulation, overexploitation of resources, global warming and the scarcity of unpolluted, fresh water. Equally impressive is his skill at probing the evolution of the human mind in his search for clues as to whether we have the mental capacity to heal our planet.

The timing could not be more ideal for the publication of The Ingenuity Gap. While reading through Homer-Dixon's analyses, I paused occasionally to watch televised newscasts and, as if world events were scripted to correspond to the book, I witnessed, in sequence, political unrest in Yugoslavia, U.S. presidential debates (starring Al Gore, who had personally asked Homer-Dixon to study "the impacts of nature on society"), clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, and the recent terrorist attack against the USS Cole. These events seemed almost perfectly choreographed to illustrate Homer-Dixon's argument that the wealthy populations of the world enjoy only a simulacrum of order, beyond which the careful observer should detect signs of social and environmental decline and potential chaos. (While watching these stories unfold, I also waited with my nine-months-pregnant wife for our first child to be born, forced to wonder about the state of the world that our child was to inherit.)

Homer-Dixon attempts to dramatize the "ingenuity gap" by weaving a series of interrelated narratives, each of which, the reader understands, has the potential to reflect some insight on our social dilemmas. The most compelling of these narratives is the story of United Airways Flight 232 which, in July 1989, experienced an explosion in its tail engine resulting from a small crack in the engine's fan disk. The flight's crew, responding to the emergency with teamwork and sufficient ingenuity to alter rules and instructions, was able to crash-land the plane, saving the lives of approximately two-thirds of the passengers. According to Homer-Dixon, the incident can be interpreted as a metaphor for "a world of converging complexities and connections" and for "crisis and the sharp, unexpected, blinding events that sometimes send us reeling."

More personal narratives provide Homer-Dixon with the opportunity to reflect broadly on the nature of the world we have created. His travels through Canary Wharf in London, Las Vegas and the wilderness of Vancouver Island enable him to expand with ease and finesse into issues of human technological achievement, socioeconomic inequality and the potential for calamity around the globe. A photo that he had taken of a small girl in India during his travels, and his subsequent decision to try to find that girl again, lead to questions of the connectedness between people around the world and our communal responsibility for one another.

The greatest strength of The Ingenuity Gap is in Homer-Dixon's ability to illustrate the thin line between order and chaos, prosperity and starvation, or compassion and carelessness in today's world. The book is a wake-up call to all citizens to take notice of our collective deterioration and therefore, if widely distributed and read, it has the potential to be one of the most important and revolutionary books of recent years.

It is difficult to identify Homer-Dixon's specific readership, however, since he shifts often and abruptly between an anecdotal, accessible writing style and an intensely academic, technical approach, which has the potential to alienate both academic and casual readers.

It should also be noted that, while Homer-Dixon proves adept at presenting the reader with lists of problems confronting the world, his answers to the question posed in the subtitle of the book, "How can we solve the problems of the future?" seem facile and unconvincing. While traveling through one of the poorest and most politically corrupt regions of India, it suddenly, inexplicably, occurs to him that "as some resources become scarcer, societies can maintain or raise their standard of living by supplying more ingenuity," though there is absolutely no indication of where he found evidence to lead him to so sanguine a conclusion.

Even as Homer-Dixon attempts to conclude poetically with such pronouncements as "We need imagination, metaphor and empathy more than ever, to help us remember each other's essential humanity," his sentiments ring false, and the reader senses that there are simply no easy answers to the challenges described in The Ingenuity Gap. In truth, the solutions to the problems raised by Homer-Dixon cannot be articulated in a few concluding paragraphs; they will only be formulated over many years and many volumes, and they will not be found in the work of one writer, but will instead require a collective, international effort of unprecedented proportions.

Author and Montreal native Harold Heft is director of advancement and communications at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto.

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