Over Our Heads

Thomas Homer-Dixon warns we lack the ingenuity we need to solve our increasingly complex social problems

Date published: 2006-04-18 9:18:57 AM

The problems facing our society aren't hundreds of years down the road—they're here now and need to be addressed immediately or there will be grave consequences in the next few decades, warns University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer-Dixon.

Like many people today, he feels our politicians and other "experts" don't really understand the gravity of what's going on in the world, and, as a result, we've released forces that are neither managed nor manageable.

"Technological change is racing ahead in many areas—from the computers on our desks to the light weapons used by insurgents and terrorists—often leaving our social institutions and policies far behind," he says. "This lag between technological and social change can produce dangerous political and economic instabilities."

This is the ingenuity gap: the disparity between our need for practical and innovative ideas to solve complex problems and our actual supply of those ideas.

As the gap widens the result is political disintegration and violent upheaval that affects our daily lives—sometimes in subtle, unforeseen ways; other times in the horrifying destruction of September 11, 2001.

"The problems our societies must address—from pandemics of tuberculosis and AIDS to international financial instability and climate change—are generally becoming harder to solve," he says. "We are in dire need of advanced social scientific knowledge to manage our affairs in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, and SSHRC plays a vital role in fulfilling this need in Canada."

In his book, The Ingenuity Gap (winner of the 2001 Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction), he outlines the problems facing our society and offers some ideas to jump-start debate. Homer-Dixon is the first to admit that he doesn't have the solutions, but he offers a starting point.

"I don't have a checklist of answers to the problems we face, but I'm convinced that the starting point has to be aggressive action to counter this trend towards the fragmentation of the human experience and our shared identity," he says. "Indeed, our individual, everyday experiences and our collective identity are intimately linked."

After the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, there is no longer any need to stress that the danger is real and immediate. Despite our advances in technology, communication, and transportation, the imbalance of wealth and opportunity between nations has never been so great, causing an open sore that festers until anger infects whole generations of disadvantaged people.

"If people's everyday lives around the planet are similar in some respects—if we retain some commonality of individual experience—we have a basis for empathy. And from empathy we can build community."

While he is convinced that there is still time to muster the ingenuity and will, the hour is late and we have a long way to go.

"Looking back from the year 2100, we'll see a period when our creations—technological, social, ecological—outstripped our understanding, and we lost control of our destiny," he says. "And, we will think: if only. If only we'd had the ingenuity and will to choose a different course."

Thomas Homer-Dixon is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict at the University of Toronto. He received SSHRC grants for his graduate work.