An interview with author Thomas Homer-Dixon about the social, political, economic and technological crises we face and how long we can sustain the lifestyle that brought them about.
Thomas Homer-Dixon compares our current situation to driving too fast along a country road in a dense fog. Some ignore the fog and keep their foot pressed on the accelerator, but most of us feel like fairly helpless passengers on this wild ride.
In 1870, the average income in the world’s richest country was about nine times greater than that in the world’s poorest country. By 1990 it was forty-five times greater.
In 2006, the world’s 793 billionaires held combined wealth of $2.6 trillion. (If liquidated in 2006), this wealth could have hired the poorest half of the world’s workers — the 1.4 billion workers who earn a few dollars a day — for almost two years.
Between 1977 and 1996, the weight of the average American cheeseburger grew over 25 percent, and the volume of the average soft drink grew more than 50 percent. About 40 percent of the world’s population now lacks sufficient water for basic sanitation and hygiene, and nearly one out of every five people does not have enough to drink.
Between 2000 and the beginning of 2005, China’s daily oil imports soared 140 percent. Saudi Arabia, has pumped a total of 46 billion barrels of oil in the past 17 years, without admitting to any decrease in its stated reserve figure of about 260 billion barrels.
Since 1950, industrialized fishing has reduced the total mass of large fish in the world’s oceans by 90 percent. The atmosphere’s level of carbon dioxide is the highest in 650,000 years.
Is a deadly crash inevitable?
Thomas Homer-Dixon is director of the Trudeau Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict at the University of Toronto. He is the author of “The Ingenuity Gap” and his newest book “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization.”
Terrence McNally: What are the biggest questions driving you right now?
Thomas Homer-Dixon: I have a 20-month-old son, and I’m concerned about the future for him. I’m trying to figure out what might happen and how we can make it better.
It’s unlikely that the future is going to be a linear extrapolation of the present, but I’ve pretty well arrived at the conclusion that the diversity and power of the stresses that we’re encountering are going to cause some major volatility. I expect social, political, economic and technological crises and breakdowns. It’s hard to say what they’re going to look like, but the probability of some major problems developing is rising.
So how are we going to respond in times of crisis?
In the book I introduce the metaphor of earthquakes. I talk about tectonic stresses building up under the surface of our societies and of global society. Now this is something that Californians are very familiar with. Everybody in the state knows that there are mighty tectonic plates pressing together along the San Andreas Fault, among others. Potential energy builds up, and at some point it’s released in earthquakes that can have devastating consequences.
And I think the same is at least metaphorically true for our world. Stresses are building, and at some point I expect there will be a release of pressure because our institutions and our adaptive capability will be overloaded. We just won’t be able to cope.
TMN: You point out that it’s not linear, and it isn’t any one thing that’s going to do it. It’s the combination and interaction. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond puts forth five factors that have led to collapse — human environmental impacts, climate change, the behavior of your enemies, the behavior of your friends and how you respond. What are the converging stresses you see?
THD: Demographic, energy, environmental change, especially scarcity of water, shortages of cropland and forest in poor countries, climate, and then finally widening gaps between rich and poor people around the world.
You touched on something a moment ago that’s very important. The real problem is that they’re all happening together. We’ve learned in recent decades that revolution or societal collapse tends to happen when societies are stressed from multiple directions simultaneously.
Any one of the problems we face could be a major challenge for human society, but we have things going in the wrong direction in five different ways at the same time. Millions around the world are in a situation of severe water scarcity. That’s already having major economic impacts, causing poverty and dislocation, and undermining institutions. Add climate change and the problem becomes that much worse. The two things will multiply each other. You could have a really catastrophic problem where, say, the precipitation fails and there’s already water scarcity.
TMN: And the energy issue impacts everything — moving water, moving people.
THD: Or drilling deeper into the ground to pull more water out of the ground. Energy is kind of a master resource. If we have enough cheap, high quality energy, we can cope with a lot of our other problems. But once energy becomes a lot more expensive, then the combination of climate change and water scarcity will be that much harder to deal with.
TMN: I recall Buckminster Fuller made the basic point that truly accurate economic value is related to energy.
THD: In fact there’s a whole way of approaching economics that uses thermodynamics. Herman Daly in particular has pioneered this. Energy is a currency that is fundamental and physical, and it gets you away from prices, which are often distractions. The price of something — a barrel of oil, a bushel of grain — includes so many other factors that may not have anything to do with underlying abundance or scarcity of these things.
TMN: The economics of a snail, or a pond, or an entire society — all have to do with the energy that keeps the organism alive.
THD: Physicists would tell you all of those things are far from thermodynamic equilibrium. That basically means they’re complex systems, and they require a constant input of high quality energy to maintain that complexity. Human beings have created cities and societies and technologies that are extremely complex. We use those things to solve our problems and to raise our standard of living, but that takes enormous inputs of high quality energy. The energy footprint of Los Angeles, for instance, is hundreds of times larger than the city itself.
The question is ultimately whether we can sustain that indefinitely, especially since we’re probably moving to a post-petroleum age. Energy is going to become steadily more expensive, in terms of the amount of energy that it takes to produce energy.
TMN: Peak oil is either already here or perhaps it’s a decade away. That may not sound like such a bad thing — the fact that we’ve used up half the oil in the ground. Many might say, my God, only half in a hundred years.
THD: We still have half of it left.
TMN: But every single barrel from now on is harder to get. We’ve gotten the easy half.
THD: Once you’ve passed peak production in a field or a region, the decline can be quite rapid. The major oil field in Oman and a lot of the fields in Texas are declining at 12 percent a year. The North Sea field that the U.K. depends upon is declining 8 percent a year. That’s a very rapid shift from increasing production to decreasing production — a shift into a world of scarcity. When we pass the peak in global oil production, energy prices will rise dramatically and very quickly.
TMN: Our current way of feeding ourselves in America is unsustainable. Everything on our plates travels an average of 1,300 miles to get there. We’ve rigged all of our economic systems and our agricultural systems as if energy would never run out.
THD: Here’s a statistic that I came across in writing this book that really astonished me. We’ve quadrupled the human population in the last century, from 1.5 billion to 6.3 billion, in part because we’ve had a lot of cheap energy. In particular, that cheap energy has allowed us to increase the amount of energy in our food production systems by 80 fold.
TMN: So it takes 80 times more energy to feed four times more people.
THD: Exactly. We’ve created a food system, a water system, and cities that are fundamentally dependent upon a resource that is not indefinitely available.
TMN: The whole idea of free trade is built on globalized exchange, which depends on long distances.
THD: In his book “The Flat Earth,” Thomas Friedman says we’re moving to a frictionless global economy where everybody can compete on an equal plane. But that’s only the case if we have abundant cheap energy. As energy becomes more expensive, people will start moving production closer to consumers. It won’t make sense to have your production facilities in China if you’re selling your goods in the United States. You’re going to want them at least on the Mexican border.
TMN: It’s going take playing the film backwards to save ourselves.
People have heard about the litany of crises in your book, but what’s unique I think is the stance you’re willing to take about what’s going to happen. Jared Diamond says that there are two main factors that define whether societies succeed or collapse. Societies that survive practice long-term thinking and are willing and flexible enough to change their values when they no longer serve them.
What do you feel will save us from ourselves? What is The Upside of Down?
THD: I agree with Jared on both those factors. At the end of my book I spend a fair amount of time talking about the importance of value change. We need to move away from what I call strictly utilitarian values which focus on simple likes and dislikes that emphasize consumption of material goods, towards moral values, and even what I would call existential values. These relate to what we consider to be the good life, what brings meaning into our lives, what kind of world do we really want for our children and our children’s children. These are fundamentally values conversations.
My difference with Diamond is that I don’t think we’re going to really begin those conversations in a proper way until we face some crises or breakdowns. In other words, my impression of his argument is that collapse is something we have to avoid, in all cases and in all forms. On the other hand, I believe there is a spectrum of forms of collapse. At one end is the ideal, optimistic future where we solve all our problems and we live happily every after. At the other end is catastrophic collapse. We have tended not to fill in all the spaces in between, but that’s actually where things might be very interesting. There may be some forms of disruption and crisis that will actually stimulate us to be really creative. Most importantly, they may allow us to get the deep vested interests that are blocking change out of the way.
TMN: And that will be part of what allows us to finally have that values conversation?
TMN: It seems that we’re more willing to admit that when we talk about individuals. The 12-step notion, for instance, that people don’t change till their backs are against the wall, till they hit bottom. We’re usually not willing to say that about society because it’s too frightening.
THD: I introduce it very much in personal terms, exactly the kinds of things that you mentioned. Many of us have had times in our lives where crises have challenged us in the most fundamental ways. We’ve had in some sense a breakdown of the basic systems that we rely upon to manage our lives. And we’ve had to rebuild, we’ve had to think very carefully about what we’re doing, re-examine our values, break patterns. And often we’ve ended up much better off afterwards.
When you look at research that’s come out over the last 15 to 20 years, the most complex adaptive systems in the world all go through patterns of growth and increasing complexity till eventually they become rigid and break down. Then they reorganize themselves, regenerate and regrow. All highly adaptive systems have breakdown in them at some point or other.
The key thing though — and this is where I think that Jared Diamond’s argument just doesn’t give us the purchase that we need — is that we have to keep the breakdown from being catastrophic. There has to be enough resilience in the system, enough information, enough adaptive capacity that things can be regenerated. With catastrophic breakdown, recovery is often impossible.
TMN: So you’re saying, let’s be realistic and not afraid to talk about breakdown. If an intervention is needed — if things are that bad or about to become that bad — we’ve got to be able to deal with it and not be disempowered.
THD: We need to start thinking now about what we’re going to do in those occasions.
There will be times of frustration and fear and anger on the part of many people when fundamental verities and patterns of life are suddenly challenged. They’ll be scared. And in those moments, extremists can take advantage of the situation and push our societies in directions that are very bad. Those of us who are nonextremists need to be prepared to push in other directions and create something that’s good.
TMN: I recently interviewed Niall Ferguson about his book “War of the World.” He quotes Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler as both come to power in the midst of the Depression. They sound remarkably alike, and yet one of them took things one way and one of them another.
THD: In fact that’s exactly the example I use in my book. The great depression was a breakdown that challenged the fundamentals of the capitalist system. In fact, in the 1930s a lot of Americans thought that capitalism was a failed system. FDR used the opportunity created by that catastrophe to rebuild the fundamentals of American capitalism, to introduce a lot of Keynesian policies that laid the groundwork for American economic power for the next five decades. On the other hand, that crisis was used by Hitler to generate one of history’s most horrific regimes.
TMN: Another lesson of history — In his book Plan B 2.0, Lester Brown says that we should take hope from the fact that we turned our economy and our productive capacity around on a dime to fight and win World War II.
THD: And that turning on a dime occurred in the midst of a crisis. My suggestion is that we’re not going to see fundamental shifts until we confront a major crisis. Whether we’re able to exploit such crises effectively will largely depend upon whether we’ve planned well in advance, whether we’ve thought through how we’re going to mobilize at those critical moments.
TMN: What is the role of religion in this?
THD: Our religious institutions are supposedly the places where we think about these larger values issues. But when we go in the door of our church or our mosque or our synagogue, we’re given a creed, we’re told what to think. We’re not given a space in which to have a conversation about these things. So one of the issues that I discuss at the end of the book is how can we create what I would call an “open source democracy,” an environment in which we can have some of those really deep discussions about values that we can’t within our current religious institutions.
TMN: You’re saying that we’re in bad shape, and things are probably going to break down — though not necessarily collapse, and it’s that breakdown that’s going to finally give us the impetus to change. But you’re also saying that we’re going to have to adapt our values institutions — our politics and religion — in order to successfully prepare for that moment.
THD: Whether we effectively take advantage of what I call “moments of contingency” will largely depend on whether we know where we’re going. And we won’t know where we’re going unless we’ve had those values conversations ahead of time. Those conversations have to start now.