attacks of last September 11 tore a ragged hole in the fabric of
our reality. Through that hole we glimpsed something hideous. As
is in our worst nightmares, it was indistinct and incomprehensible.
We couldn't see its beginning, its end, or its true form. But we
knew immediately that this thing – whatever it was – was both profoundly
dangerous and utterly terrifying.
first response was to back away, shield our eyes, and try to return
our world to normal as quickly as possible. We did this, partly,
by using well-worn categories, distinctions, and theories to explain
the horror: moral categories of good and evil, psychological distinctions
between sanity and madness, and crude stereotypes about the character
of Islam. To the extent that we could see the attacks through these
existing lenses, we could understand and discount them. They were
just extreme forms of phenomena we already grasped; they were appalling
and wrenching, to be sure, but we didn't have to question our basic
assumptions about the world.
also turned for help to people with power and knowledge – that is,
to our leaders and experts. We asked our political leaders to develop
policies to protect us without requiring great change in our lives.
We sought out experts of all types – on terrorism, on the Middle
East and the Arab world, and on the economic effects of the attacks.
Their incessant background prattle was reassuring, because it helped
us believe that someone, somewhere, knew what was going on.
these ways, we’ve busily stitched over the tear in reality’s fabric.
Alas, the stitches aren’t strong. Events are multiplying that our
conventional categories and theories can’t easily explain. Moreover,
our leaders’ pronouncements and our experts' prattle seem less and
less reassuring, because it's dawning on us that, a lot of the time,
these people don't really know what's going on at all. Most importantly,
they rarely have clear or useful solutions to the truly tough problems
Middle East is aflame, and no one really has a clue, anymore, how
to bring durable peace to the region. India and Pakistan remain
on the brink of a war that could escalate into a nuclear exchange;
again, there's a dearth of credible solutions to the underlying
crisis in Kashmir. The United States is planning to attack Iraq,
but its plans are widely opposed, even by staunch allies, largely
because no one can really predict the downside risk. (Will oil prices
go through the roof? Will Saddam release smallpox when U.S. forces
are at the gates of Baghdad?)
the economic front, the world is a mess, and critical economic policymakers
– such as the heads of national central banks, the IMF, and the
World Bank – seem flummoxed. Many of the richest economies are stagnating,
while in poor countries nearly three billion people still live on
less than $2 a day. The U.S. economy – critical to world growth
– is sliding sideways. European growth is also almost nonexistent,
and Germany’s unemployment rate is nearing double digits. The Japanese
Nikkei Index has dropped to levels unseen in two decades, with renewed
doubts about the stability of the country’s banking system. Latin
America is in financial crisis; a decade of market liberalization
on the continent has produced growth rates half those of the '60s
and a rise in the number of poor people. Turkey’s economy is in
shambles. And Africa . . . well, Africa and its 700 million inhabitants
aren't even on the economic map.
it’s on environmental issues that our leaders and experts have proved
most inadequate. In the last century, humankind's total impact on
the planet's environment (measured, principally, by the flow of
materials through our economies and our output of wastes) has multiplied
about 16-fold. We're now disrupting fundamental flows of energy
and materials within the biosphere – that layer of life on Earth's
surface as thick, proportionately, as an apple’s skin – and we're
producing profound changes in cycles of key elements, like nitrogen,
sulfur, and carbon. These changes will have immense consequences
for life, industry, and agriculture in every corner of the planet.
Yet, just when we need, more than ever, aggressive policies to deal
with our common environmental challenges, the recent summit in Johannesburg
produced a pathetic spectacle of cacophony and global gridlock.
combination of intractable political, economic, and environmental
challenges is not a recipe for a humane and peaceful world society.
Looking at them together, one gets the dismaying sense that deep
and inexorable forces are building within the global system. At
some point, these forces could combine in unforeseeable ways to
cause a sharp breakdown of world order. Then, once again, we’ll
suddenly see through the fabric of security and regularity that
we’ve so carefully woven for ourselves: it will be torn away, we'll
be naked, and we’ll feel that dreadful terror once more. Only this
time, our leaders and experts won't be able to help us at all.
can we choose a different future? First, we need to recognize that
the relationship between us, on one hand, and our leaders and experts,
on the other, is entirely symbiotic: we provide these people with
the perks of authority and ego-gratification; they provide us with
the illusion that somebody knows what's going on and that we’ll
be safe. But our leaders and experts increasingly can’t fulfill
their part of the bargain, because the systems we want them to explain
and manage (from the international economy to our relationship with
the biosphere) are too complex and opaque and are changing too fast.
we have to extract ourselves from this false bargain and reassert
our responsibility for our own future. In other words, if we can't
count on our leaders and experts, we have to get more involved in
making critical decisions ourselves. And this change will itself
require two others: a revitalization of our democratic institutions
(perhaps through the creative use of Internet-based debate and voting
procedures) so that the average citizen can participate more effectively
in governance; and, most importantly, a dramatic improvement in
the average citizen's knowledge of current affairs and of the technical
and scientific facts that bear on our lives these days.
can societies make responsible democratic decisions about climate
change, for example, when nearly half their citizens – as a recent
National Science Foundation poll found in the U.S. – are so ignorant
of basic science that they don't know it takes a year for Earth
to go around the sun? How can we decide whether we should go to
war with Saddam Hussein when so few of us know the difference between
plutonium and enriched uranium as the basic material for atomic
bombs? (Both are really bad, but we should be much more worried
if Saddam has a lot of the latter rather than the former.)
knowledge is something that we can start improving right away. Better
knowledge won't necessarily help us come up with better solutions
to our complex problems than those proposed by our current leaders
and experts. But it will help us discriminate, collectively
and democratically, between those problems where we know enough
to promote decisive solutions and those where solutions are difficult
to find, the risks of mistake are large, and prudence and caution
are in order until we know more.
Thomas Homer-Dixon is author of The Ingenuity Gap and Director of
the Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict at the University