Before the solution, admit there's a problem

On first impression, his brush cut, lean physique, erect bearing, and crisp manner of speech, give Thomas Homer-Dixon the look of a Marine drill instructor rather than the thinker, writer, and futurist that he is.

Rest assured, he's the latter. His powers of persuasion, logic, and argument command their own authority.

Like a combat veteran eyeball to eyeball with a new recruit, he stares down the growing existential fear that the world has become too complex to manage. Dr. Homer-Dixon - intellectually speaking - is politely but steadfastly in your face when he asserts that our first priority is to admit how the world we live in is currently beyond what we can imagine.

"We often don't know what we don't know. We live in a world of 'unknown unknowns,' " he says in an interview here at the Monitor where he presents a tour de force of environmental, social, and technological problems for the 21st century.

"That human ingenuity is practically boundless and that our technical experts have all the authority and knowledge they need to deftly manage our ever-more complex world," is "completely unwarranted," he says. In fact, "we frequently have only superficial control over the complex systems we've made and critically depend upon."

What for many are vaguely defined global concerns that loom over the horizon are for Homer-Dixon ominous problems that demarcate what government and nongovernmental organizations should be using to set their priorities.

If we don't establish structures to discuss ways to solve them now, they will outstrip our ability to cope with them when they can no longer be ignored, he says, and also, possibly, be too late to be solved.

The director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, he expands on issues he raises in his book, "The Ingenuity Gap: How Can We Solve the Problems of the Future" (Knopf).

Global warming

Climate change, he says, is the type of complex issue human ingenuity may not be up to solving. "We have the capacity to cause a reorganization of the currents in the ocean, the North Atlantic currents,which could flip the climate for Europe. We've never been able to do that," he says.

In the northern oceans, there is a "current of warm water that comes up and drops down. Now, if that [North Atlantic thermal highline circulation] around Iceland and Greenland breaks down - and there are good arguments that it might, and there's a lot of evidence that it has in the past - it poses a level of disruption in the system unlike anything we have been able to produce before."

It also means Britain and Northern Europe will become so cold as to be uninhabitable.

Let's be clear on how he defines ingenuity. It is not something solely in the province of individual endeavor. It is not just an idea for "new technologies like computers or drought-resistant crops." It is much more fundamental, and it is something communally expressed.

Ingenuity for Homer-Dixon is what it takes for people to come up with "ideas for better institutions and social arrangements, like efficient markets and competent governments." We do not live isolated lives, or communicate solely within isolated tribes, ethnic groups, or nation-states. Globalization is the arena where we will play out our human destinies, he says.

"One kid sitting over in a basement at MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] can bring down computers around the world. That's a power we've never seen before." Remember, one-third of Europe was wiped out by the Black Death in the 14th century. How much more interconnected is the world today than then, he asks.

"As the human-made and natural systems we depend upon become more complex, and as our demands on them increase, the institutions and technologies we use to manage them must become more complex, too," he says. "This boosts our need for ingenuity.".

On the practical, "what it means in my daily life level," we still need to register, both imaginatively and in an individually empathetic manner, how we go about structuring political and international systems and how we describe a global common good, he says.

"The past century's countless incremental changes in our societies around the planet, in our technologies and our interactions with our surrounding natural environments, have accumulated to create a qualitatively new world."

These phenomena will increasingly occur, he says, making social and political response to it one of the greatest challenges facing humanity this century.

He gives the following example: "The quantitative factor is that we occupy the entire planet. The human population has no physical frontier.... We've fully occupied the planet and are perturbing its most basic dynamics in terms of its energy flows and material and chemical flows." Individually, most of us are not cognizant of this unless someone puts all the pieces together for us to understand. "We've never done this before.... [Our sheer numbers are] having such effects on these systems that the magnitudes of the disasters might be far greater than we've done before."

Beware technological hubris

When addressing what he sees as one of modern society's greatest shortcomings - the technological hubris of experts and a false reliance on their all-knowing wisdom to solve some of the multitude of global problems facing society - he exhorts people to come to attention, stand up, and think for themselves:

"People like to have experts because it allows them to say we don't have to worry about these problems. And the experts like to be experts because that gives them money, wealth, and power.... But when a crisis comes along - the unexpected - the public feels misled.

"A quantitative [problem] can cross over and make a qualitative difference." Human civilization shouldn't lull itself "into a false confidence that experts will create ideas fast enough to solve them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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