Giving us an earthly chance

The Ingenuity Gap
July 20, 2001

The future state of the planet, and of global society, is fraught, complex, uncertain and difficult to think about. Writing a successful, popular book about it is harder still. There is an established market for two temptingly simple treatments - despair and denial. Despair says the sky is falling, nature has been upset by human misdeeds, we are probably doomed, and we probably deserve it. Denial says we are on the verge of a new global super-system in which we and our myriad technologies co-evolve to a new state in which all our present problems can be engineered away. It may get bumpy at times, but enjoy the ride.

Less tempting, being more demanding for writer and reader, is the middle course. This means taking the measure of all the hazards in our path towards a habitable planet with a chance of a decent life for perhaps 10 billion humans, and of the resources we might use to get there. Such a book calls for an author with a mix of clarity, storytelling skills, familiarity with a daunting range of disciplines, and good judgement between contending claims within and between those disciplines. Thomas Homer-Dixon brings it off.

He is a political scientist at the University of Toronto and builds his exposition around the idea of ingenuity. Ingenuity is what we need to solve increasingly complex and fast-changing environmental and social problems. But a tight definition of just what counts as ingenuity proves elusive. It may be needed for crisis management, as in the opening vignette of trying to land an airliner with total loss of hydraulics, steering by engine power (less than half the passengers died). Or it may be applied to long-term prevention, researching new energy sources, say, to ease global warming. It may be instructions for problem-solving, ideas or even just information. Or it may be how these are used to make some societies adaptable to changing circumstances.

But this fuzziness does mean that ingenuity works well as a guiding thread for a popular book. It helps to unify a lengthy account of our planetary problems that, as befits a global review, touches on an impressive range of topics. Ecology, biodiversity and global climate change are here, with the economics and sociology of globalisation and communication, problems of interdependence and information overload, theories of technical change and resource use, and observations about political stability and terrorism.

All are well outlined, and Homer-Dixon switches adroitly between reviewing what the academics say and his own impressions of a range of locations seen at first hand that epitomise features of the global society he is examining. These are there to draw in the reader, of course, but also to convey the general point that wherever you are - whether it is Canary Wharf or Colombo - there are things to be seen that feed into thinking about the state of the world.

His final pair of destinations offer the most pointed - and painful - contrast. The Comdex computer convention in Las Vegas, where 200,000 delegates enjoy days of luxury in the middle of the desert, is one vision of a possible human future. It is worlds away from his last stop, a small village in Bihar, India, where he tracks down a young girl, photographed years earlier, whose life has come to stand for all those who are outside the high-tech wonderland of the urban elites.

Amid all this, several messages come across clearly. Human ingenuity is always a force to be reckoned with, but the complexity of current problems means its application has to be contrived, not taken for granted. It is likely to have real limits - some cognitive science and evolutionary psychology comes in here, too - just as future technical possibilities are more limited than some techno-fantasists like to believe.

Applied ingenuity is as much a matter of developing social institutions as physical or biological technologies. We need to recognise how intricate and carefully crafted successful economic systems are, just as legal, social and political systems must be made and remade to meet changing demands.

Here, Homer-Dixon is engagingly frank about the essential uselessness of his own main discipline, political science, epitomised by the banality of the conclusions of a study requested by the White House, which he contributed to. Asked to review historical data and predict which countries might be at risk of serious civil violence, the task force identified just three factors - openness to international trade, infant mortality and degree of democracy. The three were still poor predictors of where crises would occur.

One moral he draws from this is that the past may not be a good guide to the future. He underlines this with a sketch of fashionable theories on how complex systems behave at the border between order and chaos - though while he assures us that these can offer "tremendously rich insights" into our problems, it is not convincingly spelt out how.

This is a minor complaint about a book that is so successful in many areas. Throughout, Homer-Dixon manages to dramatise the scale of the problems while maintaining a degree of optimism about our ability to tackle them. He makes it clear that it is not a question of political will - this merely shrugs off our collective responsibility onto leaders who cannot act without our wishing it. And he eschews easy answers. This is brought home by another recurrent metaphor - that each stage in his travels yields another piece of a puzzle - which creates an expectation that he deliberately declines to meet. He concludes that the puzzle may not have a solution. More hard thinking is all we can propose, in other words.

I wish Homer-Dixon many readers: his book could actually make a difference. It is also, incidentally, an excellent advertisement for having universities in which such authors can hone their skills.

Jon Turney is senior lecturer in science and technology studies, University College London.

The Ingenuity Gap

Author - Thomas Homer-Dixon
ISBN - 0 224 05053 2
Publisher - Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 480

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