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The Ingenuity Gap

by Thomas Homer-Dixon
480 pages,
ISBN: 0676972969


Post Your Opinion
Cardboard Man Meets Invisible Consort
by Frank Smith

Thomas Homer-Dixon begins The Ingenuity Gap with a harrowing analogy. We are aboard United Airlines flight 232 on 19 July 1989 out of Denver bound for Chicago when there is a catastrophic collapse of all control systems. The captain draws on all his skill and experience to stabilize the plane, but it doesn't respond. Problems cascade faster than he can think, and there is more complexity, overflow of information and uncertainty than his brain can handle. Experts on the ground give us up. By sheer random chance, the airport at Sioux City happens to be where we need it when our aircraft slaloms down to earth. Two thirds of the 296 people aboard survive, including the cockpit crew. When the airline tries to recapitulate the landing on a simulator there are 35 successive calamitous failures.

This is the plight of the world, says Homer-Dixon. All signs point to a catastrophic worldwide systems failure, and there seems little we can do. Compounding ecological, social, financial, and technological problems are too complex to be comprehended, the volume of information is torrentially unmanageable, and violence can break out anywhere at any unpredictable point in time. He speaks with calm scientific logic, not religious fervour. He has looked at the evidence and concludes that the end of the world is nigh, and there is little we can do about it. He doesn't provide dates. This is a refreshing approach to annihilation. Most doomsayers declare it's not too late provided we smarten up. The pollyannaish attitude is disconcerting and patronizing. It predicts disaster, but then tells us not to worry. Somehow the world leaders are supposed to get together and agree to eliminate all noxious emissions, poverty, disease, conflict, and their own vested interests. Industries will relinquish corporate advantage for the benefit of the world at large.

Homer-Dixon thinks they probably won't, and I'm inclined to agree. When the air is too thick to breathe and the water too poisonous to drink, the unrepentant perpetrators of the calamity will be the last to go, sedated in their fortified luxury transition resorts, doubtless taking full advantage of the benefits of cryogenics.

Some people might argue that it is improper, immoral even, to outline problems without offering clear solutions. But what if there is no possibility of solutions? Homer-Dixon is like the practical man powerless to prevent a head-on train crash, who calls out his friends to ensure they won't miss the spectacle.

Homer-Dixon tries to summarize our situation with academic sleight of hand. Ingenuity got us into the mess and ingenuity is needed to get us out. But there's a gap. The problems caused by the ingenuity we've already displayed are exceeding the ingenuity we can recruit to solve them. I don't buy this spin. It's like saying that heat made the house burn down. It doesn't even sound scientific, especially since Homer-Dixon can't describe or measure what ingenuity is. But this doesn't stop him trying to make it look like a scientific concept, with a graph. The top line on this graph, rising steeply with the passage of time, represents the ingenuity we require, and the lower line, flatter, is the ingenuity supply. Problems are increasing faster than solutions. This is the ingenuity gap.

Can't we speed up the rate of ingenuity? No, he says. The brain has reached its limit and can go no faster. Can't we stop creating problems with our ingenuity? No, events have their own momentum. We are in a state of "path dependency"¨having gone so far down one particular track that it is too late to divert to any other. Besides, too many powerful people have a vested interest in opposing ingenuity in favour of the status quo.

As Homer-Dixon subsequently points out, the problem is not a lack of ingenuity, which he concedes that people in all circumstances can demonstrate whenever they have a chance, but a lack of will to rein in the havoc that our ill-considered ingenuity¨or our stupidity¨can often let loose. If the problem were lack of bright ideas, government and corporate research centres and think tanks would quickly find resolution. But while ingenuity is usually rapidly exploited, especially if there is a pot of gold at the end of it, alternative courses of action are silenced or suppressed.

At this point, Homer-Dixon sets his ingenuity analogy aside and becomes political and interesting. His day job is director of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Toronto, and he travels the world collecting data and theories about the multitude of ways in which the world is going to the dogs. (Literally. He begins and ends his odyssey at Canary Wharf, Canada's monument to financial megalomania on London's Isle of Dogs.) The bulk of the book is a catalogue of how all environmental, social, financial and technological systems are growing evermore out of hand.

His enemies are the people he calls economic optimists, whom he finds everywhere. These are the experts who believe that everything will be fine because human beings are smart enough to solve all problems. They see human experience as a story of exuberance, energy and expansion surmounting hardship and misery. A combination of free markets, science, and liberal democracy will provide the incentives for entrepreneurs to solve all our problems¨in the long run. But Homer-Dixon counters every argument. Anyone can extrapolate from selected trends in the past, he says, and project a rosy future.

Why are resources (all right, ingenuity) not brought to bear on many problems? One obstacle is power structures¨change is just not appealing to those people most responsible for many of the current difficulties. And the other is poverty. Shortage of food, medicines, education and opportunities, especially among the young, inevitably lead to violence. Young people will fight and steal if they see no other options.

As befits a prophet of apocalyptic vision, Homer-Dixon writes with ponderous authority. He doesn't think, suspect or fear that anyone with a differing point of view is wrong; he knows they are. And anyone who agrees with what he says is right. He often refers to these people as his closest, oldest and dearest friends.

Homer-Dixon praises one friend for advice which helped him put life and excitement into his writing. The formula seems to have been to add a description of "how I spent my day" to the beginning of every chapter. But when he speaks of apocalypse, I don't really care about what he had for breakfast, or the view from his bedroom window. Homer-Dixon laboriously constructs an image of himself in every setting, producing a large cardboard cutout that he transfers from one exotic site to the next. Then he undermines his efforts to be evocative with a mannerism so consistent it must have been deliberate. Out of what may be a perverse form of political correctness, he never (until one glaring exception at the end) reveals the gender of any of the close, old and dear friends accompanying him on his many treks and missions. The result of this pronominal reticence is that it becomes impossible to visualize the scenes he so carefully describes. I can visualize a companion who is male, female, someone in between, and even canine, but I can't visualize a companion who is none of the above. Cardboard man meets invisible consort.

There is one other theme that Homer-Dixon carries through the book. On a trip to India two years earlier, he photographed a two-year-old girl sitting forlornly in a dusty village street by the Ganges, clutching a small clay pot. He feels he must return to find that waif¨"the last piece of the puzzle." He rediscovers her, now aged four, still in want and squalor, but not without hope. She will go to school like her older sisters, and will at least become literate. With luck, she will live a longer and healthier life than her predecessors. This, he says, is the moment of truth.

What has he discovered? The world is full of contradictions that play themselves out at many levels in many ways, some of them frightening. "I realized that there was no single correct interpretation of the world around us, no one answer to my quest, and no single, definitive arrangement of the pieces of the ingenuity puzzle." Perhaps at the end¨when he rested from all his data gathering¨Homer-Dixon found what he had been seeking. Compassion. The young girl is his symbol of hope. Cardboard man becomes human. It seems he was looking for consolation rather than conclusions, and he found it in a face.

This principle could be extended to many human dilemmas. Impractical optimism is worse than compassionate pessimism. If Homer-Dixon is right, it is even more disgraceful that any members of the human race should spend the world's declining days in poverty and hopelessness. ˛

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