Can we solve the problems of the future?
By Thomas Homer-Dixon
Knopf Canada (1st edition Sep 2000)
Last year I more or less accidentally bought "The Upside of Down", Thomas Homer-Dixon's most recent book (you find my review here). Wow, I thought, there is somebody who manages to write about politics, sociology, economy and history in a way that my little brain can actually understand something - even though it is challenged with a PhD in physics!
More seriously, I am really picky with books. Given that there are just too many books that I could ever read all of them, it happens frequently that I drop one because it doesn't live up to my expectations (a very bad example of which you find here. I still haven't proceeded one sentence farther than this upsetting paragraph in the preface). "The Upside of Down" wasn't only a great read, it convinced me to also buy Homer-Dixon's previous book "The Ingenuity Gap".
As it turns out, I like "The Ingenuity Gap" better. Mostly because I find the topic more interesting, but also because I find the story better told. It is a very well written narrative that despite several time jumps remains coherent. It uses a number of metaphors that open an area to a closer examination of specific issues, without overusing these metaphors. It tells about a search for understanding, a search by somebody who doesn't stop asking questions, and who tries to fit together pieces of an enormously complex puzzle. 'Complex' is arguably the central word of the book.
Both books, "The Ingenuity Gap" and "The Upside of Down", are on a scientific level equally well founded, and come with a lot of references for further reading. The argumentation is careful and well balanced, points for as well as against a model or a conclusion are mentioned in almost all cases.
The issue under examination in "The Ingenuity Gap" is whether our societies are able to supply the necessary 'ingenuity' to address, in a timely manner, the increasingly complex problems that we are facing.
Homer-Dixon discusses several developments that need to be addressed on global as well as national scales. He covers economical instability, climate change, various other environmental stresses, global politics (terrorism included), info-glut, and 'techno hubris' - changes that are worrisome to varying degrees but have the common feature that they all reflect the human struggle to manage complex systems that have a lot of 'unknown unknowns'. His main argument is that once a problem has been identified, we do not only need the technological knowledge of how to solve it. We also need the appropriate 'social ingenuity' to implement this knowledge. To begin with you have to convince people the problem exists and needs to be solved - a process not without difficulties, the success of which crucially depends on the political and social system and its institutions one has to operate in:
"I soon realized that ingenuity comes in two distinct kinds: the kind used to create new technologies, like irrigation systems that conserve scarce water, or custom-engineered grains that grown in eroded soil, and the more crucial kind used to reform old institution and social arrangements and build new ones, including efficient markets, competent and honest governments, and productive schools and universities. I called these two kinds technical and social ingenuity."
A society that can not provide the sufficient ingenuity of both types to solve its problems, faces an 'Ingenuity Gap'
"If a society develops a serious ingenuity gap - that is, if it loses the race between requirement and supply - prosperity falls falls in the regions already affected by scarcity, and people usually migrate out of those regions in large numbers. Social dissatisfaction rises [...] These changes undermine the government's legitimacy and raise the likelihood of widespread and chronic civil violence. Violence further erodes the society's capacity to supply ingenuity, especially by causing human and financial capital to flee. Such societies risk entering a downward and self-reinforcing spiral of crisis and decay."
Homer-Dixon provides several examples for this, addressing social, political, economical and environmental problems among others in India and China.
The book draws on a large variety of studies, ranging from economy, over complex system's theory, sociology, psychology, neuroscience, biology and even a particle physicist makes an appearance in the plot, 1977 in Strasbourg France:
"[I] earned myself a small wage making kitchen cabinets and cooking meals for a local family. The father was a physicist. He worked at a nearby research laboratory that included a particle accelerator designed to pry open the deepest secrets of the atom. One sunny afternoon in August he took me on a tour of the facilities.
Although tiny by comparison with accelerators elsewhere in the world, the Strasbourg machine seemed mammoth to me, stretching through room upon room filled with computers, wiring, tubing, and heavy magnets. I asked my physics guide about one queer looking component after another, and he tried to explain the machine's operation in simple terms. After an hour or so, however, a larger puzzle came to my mind.
"Is there anybody," I asked, "Who understands this thing in its entirety? [...] Is there anyone who has expertise about all the components and who can put those individual bits of knowledge together into a truly complete understanding of the entire machine?"
"No," the physicist answered, with a look that showed he thought the question a bit peculiar. "No, no one understands this machine completely." I felt some discomfort about his answer at the time, but I didn't know exactly why. "
Admittedly, I too found the question a bit peculiar. Gee, just think about the LHC! However, Homer-Dixon uses this episode to make a point on a much more general level that made me think a lot. As a result of increasingly complex demands, people in our society specialize in certain niches, where they can become experts in their areas. A side-effect of this not necessarily bad development though is a fragmentation of our communities, and a lack of people who have an overview on how the pieces work together. Is there anybody who understands the world's economy in its entirety? The politics? Our societies?
"No matter how much we believe in our institutions and in the regularized procedures of our societies, no matter how just, rational, and durable we think them, they are at the best only loosely grounded on some form of bedrock reality or immutable truths that endure beyond human beings. To a considerable degree, they are sustained by collective belief and consensus, by tacit, unquestioned, and often grossly simplistic assumptions about how the world works, and often by mutual and willful self-delusion. Our societies cohere and function in no small part because most of us want them to cohere and function, and because the alternatives are, for most of us, literally unthinkable.
We all eagerly assume there exist people, somewhere, who unlike ourselves do have a grip on the bedrock reality that underlies our societies, who understand how things work and will take care of us if severe problems arise. We also deeply fear the possibility that it isn't true [...]"
That is to say, the book is determined to make you think about what's going on. Admittedly, I found it a bit scary in parts.
Okay, I feel already odd for all the nice words, it's so not me, so here is the criticism: Despite several attempts the actual definition of 'ingenuity' remains somewhat vague throughout the book. It is also interesting that the subtitle on my paperback version is "Can we solve the problems of the future?", whereas looking at the image above the subtitle on the hardcover is "How can we solve the problems of the future?". The book unfortunately doesn't contain very much on the "How" except the general plea that we need to remedy the "dangerous lag between the natural sciences and the social sciences"
"The natural sciences and the technologies they spawn carry us into the future at bewildering speed, in the process remolding our understanding of ourselves and revolutionizing our relationship with each other and the natural world. The social sciences plod along behind, unable to generate fast enough the knowledge we need to build new institutions for our new world."
Essentially, Homer-Dixon warns we might be running into a global ingenuity gap.
The most amazing aspect of "The Ingenuity Gap" is that despite the large variety of topics the book covers it remains throughout coherent and provides a consistent though somehow incomplete picture (some points esp. the role of energy scarcity were further examined in the second book "The Upside of Down").
The book is overall recommendable. If this was an Amazon.com review I'd give five stars. I wish more people would listen to what he's saying.
If you want to listen to Homer-Dixon yourself, check our today's colloquium PIRSA 08020001 (mostly about climate change and energy scarcity, so not directly related to the review above)
An End to Reticence? Natural Scientists and the Politics of Global Change
Speaker: Thomas Homer-Dixon - University of Toronto
Abstract: A convergence of climate, resource, technological, and economic stresses gravely threaten the future of humankind. Scientists have a special role in humankind's response, because only rigorous science can help us understand the complexities and potential consequences of these stresses. Diminishing the threat they pose will require profound social, institutional, and technological changes -- changes that will be opposed by powerful status-quo special interests. Do scientists have a responsibility to articulate the dangers of inaction to a broader public beyond simply publishing their findings in scholarly journals? Should they become more actively involved in the politics of global change?
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