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Wake-up call to a complacent world

Author Thomas Homer-Dixon tackles subjects others don't want to touch -- like an impending cataclysmic breakdown of society; Canada's biggest brainshare bringing their theories to a Victoria think-fest this weekend
 
Yvonne Zacharias and Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun
Vancouver Sun
Author Thomas Homer-Dixon's vision of the future is of a world that is doomed to a 'synchronous failure,' a cascading effect of compounding problems.
 

Global warming melts the Arctic ice cap and raises the level of oceans. The world's fresh water supply runs dry. Air pollution makes tens of millions sick. Hyper-inflation makes international currencies next to worthless. Masses of people grow poorer, lashing out in violence at the wealthy. Terrorists wield cheap and powerful weapons to hold entire continents hostage. Vast computer networks are wiped out by a handful of saboteurs. Genetically identical food crops are wiped out by blight.

You might call it mega-mayhem.

University of Toronto political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon calls his vision of doom "synchronous failure," a cascading breakdown of our increasingly complex ecological, political and economic systems.

Homer-Dixon, winner of Canada's 2001 Governor-General's award for his book, The Ingenuity Gap, which argues the world is rapidly exceeding our intellectual grasp, envisions the not-too-distant collapse of the international monetary system, more terrorist attacks against major Western centres and environmental calamity.

These impending, simultaneous catastrophes, he predicts, will overwhelm the capacity of even rich and powerful societies to cope.

Far-fetched?

"I think it is real and no one is talking about it," Homer-Dixon, the director of the Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict at the University of Toronto, said flatly in an interview.

Homer-Dixon is bringing his dire views to Victoria, where he'll take part this weekend in a gathering with some of the best and brightest of the country's scientists, economists and deep thinkers, who have been brought together by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

Homer-Dixon maintains there is a dramatic need for aggressive action on climate change and reform of international financial markets. He predicts the scientists who defend the petroleum industry and argue against the Kyoto Accord will be regarded in two or three decades in the same negative light as those who defended the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s.

"It's a new ball game," he said. "People aren't seeing what's happening. They trudge along in their daily lives without seeing these larger processes. The kind of hubris or triumphalism of the west that we've seen so much of in the last decade is bound to get us into trouble."

For a man who was raised in the peace and quiet of rural Victoria in the 1950s and '60s, Homer-Dixon knows how to ruffle feathers.

The fiercely intelligent, strongly moral thinker and writer is becoming known for unleashing one torrent of unhappy thought after another.

That's fine with him.

It is not the job of academics to make people feel good, he pointed out with just a touch of impatience in an interview in which he propounded his latest prognostications for the human race.

"The first step is to see things in the right way. Do we only want to be told things that make us feel good?"

His predictions of synchronous failure are certainly unlikely to make anyone feel good, but they deliver a powerful wakeup call.

Look at each problem individually, he advises.

The events of last Sept. 11 and predictions in the U.S. of a repeat performance underscore the likelihood of future terrorist attacks.

The population explosion in the Middle East and South Asia has produced a huge bulge of urbanized, unemployed, despairing young men, many of whom Homer-Dixon maintains will be receptive to terror's radical message.

The international financial system, meanwhile, isn't working. "Just look around the world: Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia and South Africa."

Hyperinflation is keeping populations on edge as they have their savings turn worthless overnight. The world's financial systems are now unbelievably interconnected and fragile, he says. A crisis in one distant economy quickly spreads to others.

For evidence of climate change, look to the Arctic. "Forty per cent of the thickness of the Arctic ice cap has disappeared over the last 40 years. It's melting at the rate of a foot every three years. The average thickness is six feet now. In the next 20 years, large swaths of the Arctic ocean could be in open water. That alone could change the whole energy balance for the northern part of the planet."

The problem, says Homer-Dixon, is "we might have too much to deal with simultaneously in too many places. We could be trying to deal with large numbers of climate-induced refugees at the same time as there is a financial crisis in China and nuclear war between India and Pakistan. All bets could be off at that point."

In Homer-Dixon's view, future wars and civil violence will often arise from scarcities of resources such as water, arable land, forests and fish. Just as there will be environmentally driven wars and refugee flows, he predicts there will be environmentally induced "hard regimes."

Countries with the highest probability of acquiring those regimes are those threatened by a declining resource base and those that have a history of state or military strength. Candidates include Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria.

Homer-Dixon seems to have a knack for cataloguing the environmental, social, political and technological hazards around the earth, most notably over-population, over-exploitation of resources, global warming and the scarcity of unpolluted, fresh water. He knows how to probe the depths of the human mind and measure its capacity for sorting out chaos.

While Homer-Dixon excels in delivering bad news, there is a momentary silence each time the interview moves in he direction of solutions.

About the best he can offer is the sanguine prediction that answers will come from probing questions. He just believes we all need to be thinking about these problems and trying to see the links between them.

Homer-Dixon grew up not only with a love of the British Columbia environment but with parents who spent hours talking with him about current events, discussions that sparked a continuing interest in the causes of human violence.

The beauty of the West Coast served as a contrast with the violence and instability he was hearing about in the rest of the world. He was perplexed and appalled by it.

After doing his graduate work on the subject of social conflict at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he made a name for himself in the mid-1990s by participating in numerous projects studying the relationship between environmental scarcity and conflict, most notably in a CIA-sponsored state failure panel, reporting directly to former U.S. Vice-president Al Gore. His work won praise from prominent U.S. journalist Robert Kaplan, but his ideas have not always been universally embraced.

His musings about the underlying causes of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were scorned by right-wing critics as being inspired by soft, ideological, anti-capitalist thinking.

Those causes include "a demographic explosion that has produced a huge bulge of urbanized, unemployed young men, the most dangerous group of all, according to many social scientists," Homer-Dixon has written.

In countries as diverse as Sri Lanka and the Congo, Homer-Dixon says, those bitter and dissatisfied men now have access to incredibly deadly weapons. "The virulence of violence [and its fatality rate] increases because individuals or small groups can kill more people faster, at greater range and with greater coordination than ever before."

He describes how a small band of discontented teenagers in one of the world's trouble spots, who might have caused trouble with bolt-action rifles a few decades ago, now have ready access to cheap machine guns, grenades, rocket launchers and land mines that can kill or wound hundreds of people in a few minutes. Gun-running is big business throughout the world.

The threat of social, economic and environmental collapse, leading to violence, is compounded, he says, by the shattered economies of many countries in west and south Asia, by corrupt and incompetent government "and by an international political and economic system that's more concerned about realpolitik, oil supply and the interests of global finance than about the well-being of the region's human beings."

He argues that terrorism won't be wiped out by force. "We must also address the roots of this madness."

Those are fighting words to some conservative commentators.

"With the likes of Homer-Dixon around, it's no wonder ideological twerps with spray cans are inspired to scrawl anti-capitalism graffiti on bank buildings," Terence Corcoran wrote in The National Post.

"To offer this explanation as the driving force behind the attacks is to demonstrate a breath-taking ignorance of the nature of radical Islamic fundamentalism and the power politics of the Middle East," the Vancouver Sun's Michael Campbell wrote.

That wasn't the first time Homer-Dixon has weighed in with reminders of just how wanting the human race is.

In his book The Ingenuity Gap, which won the Governor General's Award in 2001, he argues the surfeit of information bombarding us everywhere is out-stripping our ability to synthesize it.

As dismal of his outlook seems, his ideas find resonance with almost anyone who works in a modern office.

In the book, in which he weaves anecdotes with social commentary, he paints a picture of himself sitting in a grubby office building on the outskirts of New Delhi, waiting to see the Indian minister of state for the environment.

The meeting has been delayed by the over-worked, over-wrought minister, who is beleaguered by an incessantly ringing phone, interruptions by assistants and stacks of file folders awaiting his attention.

"The minister's brain, with its array of cognitive tools adapted for hominid life in the late Pleistocene, was clearly not up to the task confronting him that day on his desk," he writes. "The issues and problems were piling up faster than he or his staff could solve them. They faced an ingenuity gap."

Admit it. The problem is familiar.

After initially dismissing the book as "another lefty angst-fest," McGill University economics professor William Watson praises Homer-Dixon's understanding of economics and his compelling writing.

Watson writes, "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."

INEQUALITY CREATING TOO MANY PEOPLE WITH GUNS

Thomas Homer-Dixon says mega-mayhem will be caused by three global trends, which he has dubbed "the capitalist trilemma."

1. The global economy is starting to produce too many goods and services too many people can't afford.

While technology and globalization are expanding productivity, there are not enough people with enough money to buy the products. Homer-Dixon maintains companies are already producing 30-40 per cent more goods and services than are being consumed. The world's poor have seen a tiny rise in their standard of living, he says. But the gap continues to grow dramatically between rich and poor groups. The inequality is creating swarms of hungry, jealous, angry people in slums. They will be prone to violence. Some will gain access to increasingly sophisticated, cheap, portable and powerful weapons.

2. Population growth and rapidly expanding economies are throwing the Earth's natural balances out of kilter.

Although greener technologies are being developed, hyper-growth and technological advances are putting incredible pressure on the Earth and its resources, he says. The world's population has quadrupled in just a century. Fresh water supplies are being drained and farming crippled. Corporate and business leaders, he says, focus on narrow financial success rather than helping people live in a sustainable way. Global climate change and rising temperatures, caused by pollution, are just the most obvious examples of how the Earth cannot handle the waste being produced.

3. The world is becoming ultra-complex and few are capable of offering answers to match.

Growing populations, growing economies and growing technologies are making the Earth increasingly vulnerable and less naturally resilient. The world desperately needs integrated solutions to these complex problems, he says. The failure of U.S. intelligence to prepare for the Sept. 11 terrorist attack is a symbolic example of how the so-called experts are thinking far too narrowly, he says. He looks favorably on the Kyoto Accord, which he says constitutes the most complex international treaty ever agreed upon.

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun



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