The Ingenuity


Headed for the future in an out-of-control DC-10

The National Post
21 October 2000

The essentially banal big idea of this nevertheless very interesting book is that mankind may now have created problems -- mainly environmental -- that we are not clever enough to solve. If they don't actually do us in as a species, they will certainly cause serious harm to the lifestyles we Westerners have grown accustomed to. Ho-hum, another lefty angst-fest. And 496 pages of it!

Well, in fact, not. True, Thomas Homer-Dixon is a political scientist and the director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, which doesn't augur well. Political scientists excel at torporific prose about excruciatingly minute details of process or vertiginously grand thematic trends that, one always suspects, never have anything to do with why things really change. Moreover, they are generally uncomfortable with economics ­ which (an economist is bound to believe) does have a lot to do with why things change.

Homer-Dixon is an exception to this rule. He's read lots of economics, as his (beware!) 61 pages of footnotes make clear, and talked to the world's leading experts on economic growth. He evidently agrees with much of what they told him, because he writes with great respect about a modem economy's resilience to both environmental shortages -- which lead, through price increases, to the discovery of new sources of energy, for instance -- and financial crises. (He has a nice story about how the Sri Lankan financial system worked around a Tamil terror attack on its central bank.) He also has innate respect for "general equilibrium theory" -- the core idea of modern economics, which is that everything is at least potentially connected to everything else. In fact, the complexity of just about everything these days is his theme.

Even so, economists, if not quite the villains of the piece, are Homer-Dixon's foils, for we're painted (paradoxically, for dismal scientists) as almost airheaded optimists about society's problems (even if he's the one who writes "Human history is a triumphant record of people smashing through [resource] constraints.") A solution will come along, we are all supposed to believe. In fact, we don't all believe that. On the other hand, understanding the system's great resiliency, we aren't prepared to assume, certainly not on the basis of linear extrapolation, that problems will only get worse. If problems can evolve non-linearly -- one moment everything's cruising along fine and the next moment, bang!, things start falling apart -- so, clearly, can solutions. An informed and wary agnosticism, which in fact is my reading of Homer-Dixon's outlook, is always the most sensible view of the future.

But measuring this book by its treatment of economics is narcissistic. It isn't primarily about economics, though it is, in the largest sense, about the economic problem of making everything work. Homer-Dixon travels, reads and thinks widely. And he writes compellingly. He begins with a can't-put-it-down account of a DC-10 that loses all three of its hydraulic systems. By processing up to a thought per second, the plane's crew were able, against all odds, to cartwheel their crippled craft to the ground, miraculously saving their own lives and those of almost two-thirds the people aboard. Homer-Dixon sees this as a metaphor for the fantastically complex problems that rain down on modern policy-makers.

He has, if anything, too great a gift for metaphor, as almost everything he notices turns into a metaphor for something or other. Las Vegas is a living embodiment of virtual reality. Canary Wharf is variously: "the urban design of economic deregulation," or "a microcosm of the new post-industrial economy," while the pyramid atop its central tower is "a serene image of eternity set against capitalism's corrosiveness."

Beyond this talent for metaphor, Homer-Dixon is lucky. As he's sitting in a coffee shop in Canary Wharf, meditating on the Reichmanns' effect on Western civilization, who should walk in but Paul Reichmann himself, in search of takeout? When he goes off to the Indian state of Bihar in search of an anonymous young girl whose picture he took 30 months earlier, he actually finds her. (She's not a metaphor for anything, but she sparks a discussion of human brain development and the effect of insufficient Third World nutrition on the supply of ingenuity.) "Enough!" one is tempted to say, as Homer-Dixon circles the globe yet again pursuing his theory of social ingenuity. "Take a day off. Go to the beach. Don't think anything."

As I kept reading that today's problems are of a different order of magnitude than those of the past, I found myself wondering what the bubonic plague was like. It wiped out roughly a third of Europe's population -- extinction of the species must have seemed a real possibility -- and the medical knowledge of the day wasn't a hundredth ingenious enough to do a thing about it. Though Homer-Dixon worries a lot about techno-terrorism, the worst disaster he can conjure is a small nuclear device set off in a major world city that kills 50,000 people and depresses urban property values the world round. Ants at a picnic compared to Black Death.

Homer-Dixon's solutions to our ingenuity problem are inevitably disappointing: Better communications among policy-makers; more funding for research, especially in energy and agriculture; new international institutions to deal with cross-border environmental problems; scaling back our consumption habits; easing off on the personal stress pedal.

But, as so often with travel, if the destination is ultimately unsatisfying, the trip itself was well worth it. Thomas Homer-Dixon is a sort of Bruce Chatwin of ideas. Reading the meditations that his travels around the world prompt in him -- on nitrogen-fixing, on deep sea currents, on the impossibility of predicting state failure, on car engines, on the Earth's place in the cosmos, on briefing Al Gore and on dozens of other things -- is addictive.

If we Westerners do scale back our consumption, as he recommends, I hope some provision is made to maintain his travel budget.

William Watson, editor of Policy Options, teaches economics at McGill University. His most recent book is Globalization and the Meaning of Canadian Life.

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