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