From the #1 BESTSELLING thought leader: Calling on history, cutting-edge research, complexity science and even Lord of the Rings, Thomas Homer-Dixon lays out the tools we can command to rescue a world on the brink.
For three decades, the renowned author of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, and The Ingenuity Gap: Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?, has examined the threats to our future security--predicting a deteriorating global environment, extreme economic stresses, mass migrations, social instability and wide political violence if humankind continued on its current course. He was called The Doom Meister, but we now see how prescient he was.
Today just about everything we've known and relied on (our natural environment, economy, societies, cultures and institutions) is changing dramatically--too often for the worse. Without radical new approaches, our planet will become unrecognizable as well as poorer, more violent, more authoritarian.
In his fascinating long-awaited new book (dedicated to his young children), he calls on his extraordinary knowledge of complexity science, of how societies work and can evolve, and of our capacity to handle threats, to show that we can shift human civilization onto a decisively new path if we mobilize our minds, spirits, imaginations and collective values.
Commanding Hope marshals a fascinating, accessible argument for reinvigorating our cognitive strengths and belief systems to affect urgent systemic change, strengthen our economies and cultures, and renew our hope in a positive future for everyone on Earth.
About the author
THOMAS HOMER-DIXON holds a University Research Chair in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, and is director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia. Between 2009 and 2014, he was founding director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation. Born in Victoria, British Columbia, he received his BA in political science from Carleton University and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in international relations, defense and arms control policy, and conflict theory. His books include The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization; The Ingenuity Gap: Can We Solve the Problems of the Future?; and Environment, Scarcity, and Violence. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Scientific American, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, and the Globe and Mail.
Excerpt: Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril (by (author) Thomas Homer-Dixon)
Maybe you feel it too: a creeping sense that the world is going haywire. A darkness spreading across the horizon of our aspirations for our families, our communities, our world. An emerging dismay that possibilities for a good future, for ourselves and our kids, are ebbing away.
If so, your feelings are not without base; they do reflect a real shift in the state of our world. Accumulating scientific evidence and data show that key trendlines gauging humanity’s well-being—economic, social, political, and environmental—have indeed turned sharply downwards.
Just twenty years ago a feeling of exuberance still animated many societies. After the Soviet Union collapsed and before the war on terror, political, business, and intellectual leaders in the West declared that a fusion of capitalism, liberal democracy, and modern science would create a future of near-boundless possibility for all humanity. Now, humanity is at a perilous juncture. Problems like climate change, economic and social inequality, and the risk of nuclear war have become critical. In 2020, COVID-19 stopped the world at large in its tracks. International scientific agencies are issuing report after report declaring that a global environmental catastrophe is imminent, now probably far earlier than 2045, and maybe even as soon as a decade from now. Meanwhile, reason and scientific fact often seem impotent before entrenched vested interests, worsening social polarization, and rising political authoritarianism.
As our prospects seem to diminish by the day, some of us retreat inwards to focus on things close to us in time and space, such as our friends and family, in person and on social media. Others try denial, maybe by claiming that the evidence for problems such as climate change and even pandemics is invented by people who benefit from scaring us. Or, we become fatalistic, declaring we can’t do anything about the problems because we’ve gotten used to a way of living or because the problems are the fault of the rich, or the poor, or immigrants, minorities, or “them over there”—anybody but us. Some of us rally to authoritarian leaders who tell a simple story about what’s wrong and declare they can make things better with bold, harsh action.
Anxiety about the future, detachment, self-deception, and feelings of resentment and helplessness—this is a perilous psychological state—the starting line of a fast track to the end of hope. It also makes the future we fear far more likely to happen, because the best way to ensure we’ll fail to solve our problems is to believe we can’t.
We all know—whether explicitly or unconsciously—that to escape this trap we need to come up with promising ideas to address the critical problems humanity faces. But to do so, we need to understand what’s causing the problems in the first place. As any medical doctor would say, good prescription depends on good diagnosis. To that end, over the last forty years I’ve studied humankind’s global challenges closely, particularly worsening economic insecurity, climate change, pandemics, scarcities of critical resources like fresh water and clean energy, weak and incompetent governance, and the factors that keep our societies from innovating effectively to address such problems. I’ve also studied how these challenges can combine to multiply their total impact, with cascading consequences that sometimes lead to mass violence, including terrorism, genocide, and war.
As a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, I helped found a research group of young natural scientists, lawyers, and social scientists at MIT, Harvard, and other nearby universities interested in the implications of Earth’s environmental crisis. Our work together was exhilarating—we were all hopeful that science, international goodwill, and basic common sense would prevent humanity from tumbling into an environmental disaster. Today, we’re dispersed all over the world; and with a planetary environmental disaster now unfolding in real time, we remain connected with each other to share information, ideas, and research findings.
Alas, the underlying causes of humanity’s problems aren’t easy to diagnose, and some of the world’s best minds have struggled for decades to figure out what’s going on. Ever since those university years, I’ve followed their research and expert debates with fascination, and my books The Ingenuity Gap (2000) and The Upside of Down (2006) drew on that work to provide a framework for my own research and diagnoses.2 I didn’t pull any punches in my assessment of the dangers, so I was often labeled a “doom-meister.” But as the years have passed, my analysis in those books has (unfortunately) turned out to be close to the mark, and the profound gravity of humanity’s predicament is now hard to miss and broadly acknowledged.
I’ve always intended this third book to move beyond diagnosis to explore what we can do to get through the gloom and reach a new light. I start from the assumption that this is a time for honesty about the challenges we face and about our need for immediate, courageous responses. It’s now vividly apparent to me and my scientific colleagues, to many members of the world’s Indigenous cultures, to socially progressive groups everywhere, to the clear-eyed youth who in 2019 protested for climate action in the streets of more than a hundred countries, and to the countless families and communities worldwide devastated by the psychological and economic trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic the following year, that humanity is marching down a path towards calamity. To find a route to a far better outcome, we must marshal our amazing ability to overcome new challenges—an ability we’ve honed since the first hominid climbed down from the trees and set out across the savannah.
In the following chapters, I draw on insights from history, psychology, physics, philosophy, economics, politics, and art to identify such an alternative route that’s informed by honest realism—one that leads us towards a future of broadly shared opportunity, security, justice, and identity. I also provide some practical scientific tools that we can use to take our first steps together along this radically new path.
I argue that at this crucial moment in humanity’s history, three changes are essential to keep us from descending into intractable, savage violence.
First, we need individually to better understand how and why we see the world the way we do and what makes other people’s views sometimes so different from ours. Second, instead of passively accepting a dystopian image of what will come tomorrow, we need to actively create together from our diverse perspectives a shared story of a positive future—including a shared identity as “we”—that will help us address our common problems and thrive. And, finally, we need to fully mobilize our extraordinary human agency to produce that future.
Each of these changes requires that we have hope. To believe in the possible and to make the possible real, we must recognize that the right kind of hope can be a tool of change, and we must give our hope the muscle it requires in our present crisis.
Unfortunately, though, hope has seen better days. Barely more than a decade ago, Barack Obama could speak unabashedly of the “audacity of hope” in his presidential campaign, and his idea was a powerfully motivating psychological and social force in the world. And over the last fifteen years, eminent thinkers and social scientists have called for “radical hope,” “active hope,” and “intrinsic hope.” But despite these vital efforts to rejuvenate the idea, many of us have come to regard hope with disdain—as a state of mind that’s naïve and irresolute at best, delusional at worst.
Yet if we’re to survive, let alone see our children prosper in this century and beyond, we need a potently motivating principle that’s honest about the gravity of the dangers we face and about the personal responsibility each and every one of us has to face those dangers; that’s astute about the strategies we can use to overcome those dangers, given the viewpoints, values, and goals of people around us; and that’s powerful because it galvanizes our agency, our capacity to discern our most promising paths forward and choose among them. We need, in other words, the kind of hope that has motivated millions of young climate activists to sit outside parliament houses and block business-as-usual traffic in capital cities worldwide and that has galvanized communities and nations around Earth to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
In Dante’s fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, the entrance to Hell famously carries the inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The phrase has become watered down over time, almost trite. But facing a future that promises to be hell for countless people, our task in the twenty-first century is to rediscover the power of the uniquely human ability to hope—an ability to envision and strive towards a positive future that’s an alternative to whatever challenging or even unbearable present we’re living in.
I propose in the pages that follow a way of mobilizing hope’s immense psychological power, as people have done in times of great stress before and can do again. What I call commanding hope is grounded in historical and scientific knowledge of how hope works at every level—in our lives as individual human beings and in our societies too. Today, confronting challenges so large that all too often we feel unable to move, we need it more than ever.
There are no guarantees of success. The perils are real, and the chances we’ll prevail may be small. But we face a choice between denying reality, running from the crisis, or facing that crisis head on to fight for a far better future. I’ve written this book for all of us—community activists, parents and grandparents, students and teachers, business and religious leaders, farmers and builders, scientists and engineers, nurses and doctors, restaurant and shop owners and artists, politicians and voters—all of us who choose to fight.
And it’s dedicated to my children, Ben and Kate, and through them to all the children who remind us every day how to use our imaginations to tell our own story, and to see and seek the world we want.
PRAISE FOR COMMANDING HOPE:
“Thomas Homer-Dixon cuts through the doom and offers a path to hope with new book.” —Calgary Herald
“Brilliantly structured and utterly absorbing from beginning to end, Commanding Hope addresses with honesty and courage the dangers we face and offers us practical ways to prepare for the hard work ahead.” —Quill & Quire
“It is a rare thing to hold a book in your hands and think, ‘This could be a game changer.’ I had that experience at several ‘Aha!’ moments while reading Thomas Homer-Dixon’s latest, Commanding Hope. . . . Homer-Dixon has never shied away from the big questions. His previous books—The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down were both bestsellers, hailed for iconoclastic analysis of sweeping and complex issues. Even so, Commanding Hope is more ambitious. . . . For those crafting political strategies, it is dynamite. . . . Read this book and take on your part—wielding hope like a weapon in the fight for survival.” —Elizabeth May, Policy Magazine
PRAISE FOR THOMAS HOMER-DIXON:
“One of the best-informed and most brilliant writers on global affairs today.” —The Guardian
“Thomas Homer-Dixon is a public intellectual who is ready to get his hands dirty.” —The Walrus
“Homer-Dixon repeatedly reminds the reader that the future is never truly written. There are more creative and human-scale paths open to us, if we can work against our society’s deeply entrenched denial mechanisms and start to work together for positive change.” —The Toronto Star
“Homer-Dixon is one of Canada’s most talked about and controversial scholars.” —Maclean’s
“For over a decade, Thomas Homer-Dixon has provided that rare thing: a bridge between leading-edge research and the lay reader. . . . [A]ddressing the greatest problems of our time, he points us towards a path forward.” —Robert D. Kaplan, author of Imperial Grunts and Balkan Ghosts