The intersection of environment, conflict and innovation
Posted on November 30, 2012 by Christopher Thrall
Author and researcher Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon spoke at Augustana Campus on Wednesday, November 28 about the present and some solutions for the future.
Thomas Homer-Dixon is the Centre for International Governance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation and Professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise, and Development at the University of Waterloo. He spoke at Augustana about Community Resilience in a Turbulent World: Pathways to Innovation on November 28.
“I study the overlap between four main issues,” explains Homer-Dixon. “Global environmental problems such as climate and energy, security issues such as conflict and war, innovation and adaptation, and complex systems theory. I’m particularly interested in what goes on in people’s heads: the psychology and emotional processes that influence how people react to crisis.”
Homer-Dixon talks about how the world is changing. “In particular,” he explains, “the increasing frequency and severity of shocks of various kinds – economic, environmental and social turbulence. I will focus in particular on climate and energy issues, both of which will be the source of extraordinary disruption in the future.”
“I examine the importance of resilience as a response to these shocks and the kind of innovations that are going to happen in our economies – a general-purpose technology transition, a green energy transition – is almost inevitable. We either do it or our economies start to collapse. This transition will be of the same magnitude as those accompanying the introduction of steam power, the internal combustion engine or the more recent I.T. revolution. It will affect every areas of our lives and have a huge impact on Alberta as an energy-driven economy.”
“How will communities survive and thrive in that very disruptive environment?” he finishes with a smile. “This is why I focus on resilience: what it is, how you get it.”
Homer-Dixon began studying conflict at the beginning of his university career in the late 1970s. “It’s been my ultimate dependent variable,” he laughs. His primary concern is the disintegration of social order and the attendant mass violence: he studies resource and environmental stresses in different cultures at different times, and how the cultures respond.
“Highly innovative cultures can deal with these stresses more effectively and they don’t erupt in violence,” he says. “Other cultures can suffer serious dislocations, violence or even strategic collapse.”
Homer-Dixon has been seen as a catastrophist in his early years, but as the situations he anticipates in his books – including the 9/11 attacks and the financial crisis in the mid-2000s – he finds that people are starting to ask about the connections he identifies.
“After you see what’s going on around the world – the economic crisis, climate problems, other rapidly-propagating social shocks like SARS – you can see they are all species of the same kind of thing,” Homer-Dixon explains. “They are all consequences of a highly interconnected, extremely complex global socio-ecological system that is pushing the boundaries of resource availability and adaptive capability. We’re exceeding those boundaries and the system has started to behave in increasingly volatile ways. Shocks propagate through a volatile system very quickly.” What he was saying ten years ago has become mainstream.
“I’m not a fount of wisdom on this stuff,” Homer-Dixon hastens to state. “These issues are so vast and complex that responding to them has to be a distributed process. The most successful complex, adaptive systems are distributed, problem-solving systems.” He claims to be simply one node – he tries to catalyze conversations and get people thinking in certain ways. If these conversations begin, he feels that his work is successful.
“Don’t think we can hold on to what we had in the past – things are changing, and changing a lot faster than we expected,” he says. “I emphasize experimentation, distributed problem-solving, diversity of ideas – these are things that are contrary to standard, bureaucratic decision-making processes. We can’t use expert-driven, technocratic, top-down models in a world that is changing this fast.”
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