Political scientist 'doom-meister' shares prescription for a better world

Climate activist Greta Thunberg once declared that she doesn’t want hope, unless it translates into action. Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon shares his ideas on how hope can galvanize concrete change.

Author Thomas Homer-Dixon explains how hope can galvanize action in his latest book

Thomas Homer Dixon's book, Commanding Hope, argues that our cognitive strengths and belief systems must be reinvigorated to affect urgent systemic change, and renew our hope in a positive future for everyone. (Penguin Random House/Peter Lee)

*Originally published on November 26, 2020.

This episode is part of our series called The Common GoodThroughout the season, we will ask one basic question: what do we owe each other?

Politicians often evoke the idea of hope. Former NDP leader Jack Layton famously wrote, "Love is better than anger; hope is better than fear."

Former U.S. President Barack Obama championed the 'audacity of hope', and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney in his nomination speech:

"History says,
Don't hope on this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme."

Yet for climate change activists like Greta Thunberg, hope alone is not enough.

"Adults keep saying, 'we owe it to the young people to give them hope,'" she told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year.

"But I don't want you to hope… I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act." 

Political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon sees ways to translate hope into action. For the past 40 years, he's studied the rapid and destructive impact of humankind on our planet: from resource depletion, to pandemics, to the climate crisis —and and how the impact of all of this can cascade into mass violence, terrorism and war. 

He has been nicknamed a 'doom-meister' for his bleak assessment of the state of the world.

Homer-Dixon is a political scientist and the director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University, in British Columbia. His latest book Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, provides insights into how we can best meet the challenges facing the world. He spoke with Ideas host Nahlah Ayed.

Here are excerpts from their conversation.

Is there any irony in someone who is being called a 'doom-meister' writing a book about hope? 

Oh, absolutely, I don't think anybody expected somebody like me would write a book about positive possibilities in the future and about hope…. Maybe that gives me some greater credibility in discussing the issue. But I did it fundamentally for my children because I have along with my wife, Sarah, we have two relatively young children, Ben, who's 15, and Kate, who's 12. And they grew up essentially while I was writing this book over an eight year period.

The deepest anguish I have in my heart is really that they will emerge as adults into a world and lose their hope and lose their sense of possibility as adults and for a positive future. And I realize that's just what I had to confront.

I want to meditate a little bit more on the idea of hope and in your imagining of a worst case scenario. In your book, you point to the pop culture phenomenon of Mad Max — a sort of post-apocalyptic action hero who navigates the dystopian world.  Why do you draw specifically on this example? 

Well, of all of the widely understood pop cultural references, the one that seems to come closest to depicting the kind of dystopia or brutal future that we might face in giving these increasing stresses and the unraveling potential unraveling of our societies is the Mad Max series of movies. I don't enjoy them very much. They're quite well done. But there's an underlying tenor of resource scarcity, underlying sort of principles of resource scarcity and a survival of the fittest. And, of course, enormous violence that I think captures some key elements of what we might be evolving into.

And what's the value in doing that...looking at fictional depictions of what our future might be like? 

Well, I think it gives us a contrast point. It gives us a 'we do not want to go there', and helps motivate us to find some alternative, some other possibility. One of the things I point out about hope is that it's most powerful when it has an object, when it has a vision of the future. But you need to contrast that vision of the future with the alternative to make it really motivating.

On Sept. 6, 2012, Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barack Obama accepted the nomination during the final day of the Democratic National Convention. The Barack Obama 'Hope' poster, designed by artist Shepard Fairey, became an iconic image in his 2008 presidential campaign. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

So turning to the question of hope, you distinguish between two kinds of hope. There's the 'hope that' and then there's the 'hope to.' Why is it important to you to make that distinction?

Hope has a bit of a bad rap at the moment in popular discourse. Some people regard it as kind of a passive emotion, as perhaps conducive to wishful thinking because it encourages us to bend the probabilities in our minds for the positive future we hope will happen.

For instance, 'I hope that it will be sunny tomorrow, I hope that I win a million dollars in a lottery.' In each case, that's a very passive use of the notion of hope. You're sitting back and you're simply hoping that something will come to pass, whereas the 'hope to' locution is much more active.

Someone you mention is Greta Thunberg. What is it about her that resonates with your understanding of hope?

Well, I think she's a remarkable present-day instantiation, if you want to use that fancy word of all the characteristics or components of what I call commanding hope.

It has three components: honest hope, astute hope and powerful hope. And Greta Thunberg seems to have a notion of hope motivating her that has all of those characteristics. She has a brutally realistic, scientifically grounded and honest understanding of the situation we face and how serious this climate change problem is. So that's honest hope.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg gives a speech during a demonstration of students calling for climate protection on March 1, 2019 in front of the cityhall in Hambourg, Germany. (Axel Heimken/AFP via Getty Images)

She has a very astute understanding of how other people are seeing the world and how they may or may not be motivated to change. She's extraordinarily strategically smart in her political activities to mobilize people around the world.

So that's part of what I call astute hope. And then she has a very clear moral vision of where she wants to go, of what kind of future we should have, that object of her hope. And because of that, her hope is very powerful. She makes a deep moral commitment to stopping this problem. And that gives her ambition and agency and psychological force.

One of the detours you take in your book is to the fantasy land as told by J.R.R. Tolkein in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You say that 'a deep dive into the Tolkein classic fantasy might seem out of place in a sombre book about hope'... But clearly there's a reason it's there. 

It is really an extended meditation on what one should do if things look absolutely hopeless and how one should respond. Not so much in the specific logistics… but more in the psychological response. The book's three volumes are very psychological.

A carving adorns a fallen tree at Moseley Bog, believed to be the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien's ancient forests in his books The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

There's a lot of conversation about how people are thinking and feeling and thinking and feeling about each other and seeing their enemies. And they're constantly struggling with despair. They're constantly struggling with whether they should just throw up their hands and walk away. And so it's a wonderful vehicle for talking about some aspects of hope. And Tolkien was brilliant and he understood the issues surrounding hope very intimately.

We're now living through a time, as you point out, where there's quite a bit of polarization, authoritarian style, populist politicians around the world getting growing support in Brazil, Turkey, the United States. How would you describe this polarization in terms of our inability to see each other's world views and your words? 

I think the increasingly dominant emotion in our world is fear, and the fear causes people to retreat to verities, to things that their ideas and attitudes and norms, commitments to things that are true, that have always anchored their lives. So their basic worldview commitments, they could be religious, they could be things that they learned within their families and they become less tolerant of those who think differently. 

It's very easy to understand how fear encourages people to retreat into their identity groups and hunker down and reinforce their fundamental commitments to certain values. And this is exacerbated, of course, by the social media in our world that encourage groups to develop kind of echo chambers, to talk only to themselves, not to those who disagree with them about whole different points of view. And so within these different epistemic worlds, you could say people have their own truths, their own knowledge systems. They have their own experts, they have their own scientific journals. They have their own sources of evidence.

A student wearing a sticker that reads 'Bolsonaro Out' protested education cuts in federal public education funding by President Jair Bolsonaro, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, May 23, 2019. (Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press)

And the result is you have a breakdown of the basic conversation that's essential for a democratic society to function. 

The Agora as the Greeks would call it, is where you come together and work out your disputes and your differences in a common space. And you have to have some basic understanding, some shared understandings of the world for that to happen. And those understandings are breaking down, which is extraordinarily dangerous if we're going to try to address problems like climate change.

What is the first step to finding practical help when it seems harder for people to engage with those outside their so-called political camps?

I would argue that the first step is having a much better understanding of how we as individuals inside our own heads see the world and what our basic value commitments are…. People's perceptions of the attitudes and perspectives of their opponents are usually pretty inaccurate.

You can have partial and very stereotypical perceptions of how the people we disagree with look at the world. So we're not going to be very effective in either building bridges to those people or, frankly, even having any kind of conversation or. Working around them in any kind of political contest, unless we understand how they see the world.

* Q&A was edited for clarity and length.

Special thanks to the Canadian International Council for hosting the Zoom event where Nahlah recorded the interview with Thomas Homer Dixon. 

This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic.

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