Friday, September 24, 2010

Homer-Dixon sighting .... or, actually, hearing

Think Globally Radio recently posted an interview with Tad Homer-Dixon. As is typical of interview format shows, the topics covered are wide ranging but somewhat disconnected. If you are someone who follows his work closely, the program doesn't break any new ground. There are, however, some interesting specifics and nuances. Thus, there is the inevitable discussion of his take on events following the publication of his last book, such as the financial meltdown and the collapse of climate change negotiations at Copenhagen. More interesting to me, however, were the following:

1) An implicit call for a shift from individualist to collectivist decision making. I may be reading more into this than he intends, but beginning at the 30 minute mark of the program there is a characterization of past history in a great man framework, i.e., that major historical transformations were the product of new worldviews brought forward by charismatic leaders. He uses the World War II examples of Roosevelt and Hitler to illustrate the role of leaders taking their countries in good and bad directions respectively. He then shifts to a discussion of the need for building networks of trust and social capital, so that society can use the periods of inevitable system shock to reorganize itself in a more desirable form. Here he uses the example of the Orange Revolution and the end of apartheid. Personally, I think it is an overstatement to render the bulk of past transformations in terms of the influence of a select few. Networks, social capital and other collective processes have always been important. What has changed is the scale, character and complexity of the problems humanity currently faces. Emphasis on collective processes is more important now than in the past because the problems have exceeded the reach of our existing collective institutions and processes.

2) At the 36 minute mark, Tad defends his call for small-scale testing of geoengineering technologies. Like Dyer and others, he notes that some of the ideas are comparatively inexpensive and, should the shit really hit the fan, roughly one third the countries of the world would be financially capable of deploying such technologies in unilateral attempts to manage the global climate. To prevent the international chaos likely to irrupt if that path were taken, he advocates not only testing of the technologies (to determine which, if any, work and which don't) but intergovernmental arrangements to identify who deploys what, who pays, who is responsible if things go horribly wrong and other non-technical aspects of using geoengineering technology. As a former Boy Scout (Be Prepared!), this is a suggestion I think makes immanent sense.

3) Complexity theorists have developed a variety of different ways of conceptualizing complexity. In his earlier writing Tad opted for the 'strings of instructions' definition. There is a discussion of complexity and coupling, starting at the 7:30 mark, where he suggests that the problem with these ideas is not competing definitions and frames but, rather, an underdeveloped vocabulary for articulating the concepts themselves. He goes on to note several interesting possibilities: a) that there may be multiple forms of complexity and b) that the practical benefit of a particular level or form of complexity or coupling may be contingent on circumstances. This seems to indicate a new level of nuance and sophistication in his thinking about the concepts. A number of years ago I had a lengthy discussion with him about precisely this topic. At that point, he was heavily influenced by the debate within ecology over the relationship between ecosystem complexity and stability and argued that complexity was good (See footnote 34, Chapter 5 of the Ingenuity Gap). Similarly, he rendered Perrow's arguments (that highly complex technological systems are inherently more risky than less complex ones) as wrong. As empirical evidence of Perrow's mistake, he noted there had not been more Three Mile Islands. He was both surprised and intrigued by my suggestion that there could be multiple forms of complexity and, hence, the two arguments were not necessarily incompatible.

4) The early part of the interview revolves around the discussion of tectonic stresses developed in the first half of Up-side of Down. A longer and more coherent presentation of the book's argument is available below.

5) Beginning around the 40 minute mark the interview turns to an analysis of the cultural factors behind our attachment to economic growth. This is an interesting and useful attempt to get beyond the standard diagnosis -- that we have such an attachment and it is a problem -- to an understanding of why we have the attachment and what needs to change for us to shed the attachment. These ideas are developed further in "The Great Transformation: Climate Change as Cultural Change."

6) The interview turns to a discussion of Homer-Dixon's early work on the connection between environmental stress, scarcity and violence at the 50 minute mark. The most interesting point, around 53:30, involves a discussion of the current situation in Pakistan.


  1. Nice overview. Interestingly, I picked up on his Pakistan comments near the end and transcribed them for a post I wrote over at my site:

  2. Keith's post (and a number of the comments that it generated) are well worth checking out.