Volume 94, Issue 40

Thursday, November 9, 2000


Thomas Homer-Dixon predicts the future

Wong dines with the stars

Snow softens his sound

Thomas Homer-Dixon predicts the future

Photo by Susan Roxborough

By Aaron St. John
Gazette Staff

Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Ingenuity Gap, doesn't bother smoothing things over when describing the problems mankind is facing in the 21st century; problems which he addresses in his book.

"The idea is that in some spheres of our existence, both in our global and individual affairs, we're creating problems that are more complex than we can solve," says Homer-Dixon. "Our need for solutions is rising faster than our ability to provide them when and where we need them – that gap between our ingenuity and our supply is the ingenuity gap."

That may not sound like a big deal, but Homer-Dixon, a professor at the University of Toronto, feels this lack of solutions will have a dramatic effect on our lives.

"It's a phenomenally serious problem. When it comes to something like climate change, the fundamental issue is whether we are smart enough and whether we can collectively mobilize sufficient will to develop what are going to be the most complicated institutions ever developed by humanity," he explained.

The Ingenuity Gap is a staggeringly well-formed book in which Homer-Dixon tackles a number of the issues most vital to our civilization and attempts to demonstrate just how grave a situation we are currently in. He says that one of the most important things for people to realize is that in many cases, a solution is available and viable, but is blocked before it can be put into practice.

"When I talk about the supply of ingenuity, I'm not talking just about the generation of ideas, but also the implementation of these solutions. Ingenuity isn't supplied until the solutions are actually implemented and delivered," Homer-Dixon expounds. "The problem usually arises with delivery. We've got lots of good ideas; the reason they often don't get implemented is because of political opposition to reforms that threaten institutionalized power and vested interest within society."

While a thesis of this magnitude may appear to be the product of countless hours of theorizing, Homer-Dixon reveals that it actually evolved quite easily. "I was working on how environmental problems lead to conflict in developing countries. I noticed pretty early on that societies can have the same level of environmental stress – say water scarcity – and respond in very different ways. Some societies are adaptive and do very well and some aren't and don't do very well at all and eventually, have a lot of violence as a result."

He continues, "That became the central question in my research program. That's where I initially developed the Ingenuity Gap concept. Then I realized that this was an idea that could be applied more generally. Like any author, you start to see what you're talking about everywhere. It becomes the lens through which you see the whole world."

Apparently, this lens is one in which a lot of people are taking an interest. Since the release of The Ingenuity Gap, the book has received rave reviews and has done extremely well commercially, entering bestseller lists around the country. Asked how he feels about the response the work has received, Homer-Dixon can barely contain his excitement. "I'm absolutely thrilled. When you work on something for so many years, you can't really appreciate whether it's valuable or not, whether its interesting or not. You lose that perspective entirely. You're so close to it that you can't see the forest for the trees."

Homer-Dixon reveals that not all reaction has been positive. He notes some of his peers have been less than encouraging, but it doesn't bring him down. "This success is not something that comes the way of an academic very often. We're used to writing things that people don't read," he says. "We're almost actively discouraged not to promote our ideas to the public. A lot of my colleagues think I should be back writing for peer review journals. That's not to be overly critical, it's just the culture within which we work."

Now that The Ingenuity Gap has made Homer-Dixon something of a celebrity, he says that people are constantly asking him for advice on how they can help solve the problems that his book addresses. "The book isn't about solving the world's problems," he notes. "What I'm trying to do is provide a new way of looking at the world and who we are and where we are in the world. It's an argument against the self-satisfaction we've developed in rich countries. We really don't know as much as we often pretend we do. We're amazing creatures, but we have to retain a sense of awe about the world."

Thomas Homer-Dixon will appear tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Conron Hall to present The Ingenuity Gap as part of the Autumn Writes Festival.

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