Commanding Hope: A Review

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Commanding Hope, The Power We Have To Renew A World In Peril, Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2020.


Defining the concept of commanding hope

The author has put commanding hope at the center of the worldview that he would like to develop through a broad collaboration. In the author’s mind commanding hope features three key aspects. One aspect is a science-based approach to a situation, such as climate change. If nothing is changed in humanity’s continued production of greenhouse gases, climate science informs us that within about one or two decades we will see a dramatic increase in the frequency of droughts, wildfires and devastating storms, these being tied to a global atmospheric temperature increase of about one degree over the present one. Honest hope, the author writes, must face this problem and not hide behind the veil of denial. A second aspect of commanding hope is astuteness, which the author expresses the following way: ‘’Astute hope is strategically smart.’’ Being astute includes developing a ‘’deep understanding of people’s worldviews and motivations’’. [ pp. 86-88]. Finally, commanding hope acquires more power by incorporating humanity’s bedrock principles of a healthy society, which are: opportunity, safety, justice and a common feeling of ‘’we-ness’’. [p. 87]

Time travel

In chapter 8 the author tackles the question of time. Some of our planetary problems, like climate change and agricultural land erosion, are gradually and visibly getting worse with time. Others, like the threat of nuclear war, have a largely unknown dependence on time. Homer-Dixon has paid particular attention to ‘’what scientists call ‘’recursive thinking’’, something that’s almost certainly a hallmark of human cognition – unique to us as a species.’’ [p. 95]  On page 96 the author writes: ‘’Recursive thinking lets us travel in time. On those occasions when we feel like we’re living a past moment again, we’re conscious of our consciousness at that moment. As psychologist Michael Corballis says: ‘’In remembering episodes from the past …. we essentially insert sequences of past consciousness into present consciousness.’’ [1]

This may seem like simple stuff, but if Michael Corballis is right in his theory of thinking and language, humanity’s development of language during evolution may have focussed in the management of time in our thinking. Here are two pertinent examples of where our thinking about time is right now : -1, how do we feel when advocates of nuclear weapons assert that these have kept the world at peace for 75 years, thereby implying that another 75 years free of nuclear conflicts can be counted on in the future ?  and -2, Nobel Physics Prize laureate Roger Penrose has made the following prediction: ‘’It is my opinion that our present picture of physical reality, particularly in relation to the nature of time, is due for a grand shake-up – even greater perhaps, than that which has already been provided by present-day relativity and quantum mechanics.’’ [2, p. 371]

The author has considered different approaches to the nature of time [pp. 106-110]. A defeatist approach to time is to state that the future is fixed, that ‘’it is already written’’. For a sharply contradicting view the author quotes physicist Lee Smolin who is at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. Smolin has argued for a picture of time in which the future is open. Thus, our creativity has an open field to expand into.

The false promise of techno-optimism

This provocative declaration is the title of chapter 8. The author starts by quoting the well-known author Isaac Asimov : ‘’Science in the service of humanity is technology, but lack of wisdom may make the service harmful.’’ The most frightening example of Asimov’s wisdom is the potential use of nuclear weapons.

In chapters 8 and 9 Homer-Dixon contradicts many statements made by techno-optimists who claim that significant progress has taken place in almost all sectors of the economy thanks to advances in technology. Many of these advances cannot be denied. A few examples: large flat-screen television sets and computer monitors are now everywhere; wind turbines and solar photovoltaic panels are expanding their presence at a remarkable rate; rapid progress in microbiology, especially in genomics, has improved medical practice and is promising more. The new vaccines against the coronavirus of the Covid-19 pandemic are an outstanding success story. For the future, another success story that people are striving for is the protection of our planet from large asteroid impacts, a field in which the B612 Foundation is active [3].

But there is a darker side, as the author points out. Because of our production of green-house gases the Earth’s atmospheric temperature has gone up by about one degree Celsius over that of 1850 and is likely to increase by an additional 1.5 degree by 2040, and perhaps by two degrees by 2068. Many consequences of this temperature rise can already be seen: most glaciers have shrunk significantly, the arctic ocean now has much less pack-ice in the summer, the sea-level has been going up by about three millimeters per year, coral reefs have been heavily damaged thus endangering many species of fish. By 2068 the sea-level rise could be as high as one meter, thereby forcing the evacuation of many coastline residences and hotels.  Already, severe weather events like droughts, floods, wildfires and giant storms are more damaging and frequent than they were previously.  At the level of societies, there are still several regions in the world where people are divided by ethnic and religious hatred and where they suffer from severe poverty. Many corrupt governments are in power.

In search of a better worldview to work towards, the author describes Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, a widely accepted concept. Going up from the base of Maslow’s pyramid one sees at successive levels: physiological needs for survival (air, shelter, water, food, sleep, sex), safety and security, social needs (friendship, family), esteem (self-esteem, confidence, achievement), self-actualization (creativity, problem-solving, authenticity, spontaneity). The author notes that in the last 500 years the Earth’s population has increased fifty-fold and the gross domestic product 150-fold. The author notes that the lack of education and other problems affecting young women continue to propel demographic expansion beyond what national economies can sustain.

Tectonic stresses in biophysical systems

Homer-Dixon has found a compelling analogy between our planetary problems which are growing slowly on an annual scale, and the slow inexorable build-up of tectonic plate stresses under our feet. At one point, like on March 11th 2011 near Fukushima in Japan, a huge tectonic plate suddenly sprang forward and induced a gigantic tsunami wave that devastated shoreline constructions, causing a core melt-down in three nuclear reactors. As a social scientist professor Homer-Dixon makes the following ominous prediction [p. 151] : ‘’ And just as these geological forces can erupt into city-shattering earthquakes, so can today’s social tectonic stresses erupt into society-shattering earthquakes, such as political revolutions, pandemics, food crises, financial panics, and wars.’’

In the author’s judgment, the most important social tectonic stress is human population growth [italics are his, pp. 152-153]. As an example, the present 1.1 billion population of sub-Saharan Africa could double by 2050 and triple to 3.8 billion by 2100. Together with the weather problems intensified by a two-degree temperature rise, this demographic expansion could cause vast suffering and add enormous pressure on emigration to Northern countries.

Regarding other living organisms, the problem of on-going extinction of many species has led scientists to talk about the world’s Sixth Mass Extinction. During the first five mass extinctions, about three quarters of Earth’s species vanished. The fifth mass extinction took place 66 million years ago when a 10-km diameter asteroid impacted the Earth in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. This type of event is a big challenge for the B612 Foundation program. [3]

Tectonic stresses in social systems

In Homer-Dixon’s mind the most important social tectonic stress building up is the widening economic inequality between the world’s less wealthy classes and the upper few percent which constitute the very wealthy class. According to the Oxfam charity, in 2017, ‘’82 percent of growth in wealth worldwide went to one percent of the world’s population. …… [and] the wealth of just 61 people equaled all the wealth of humanity’s poorest half, nearly four billion people.’’ [p. 159]

Another clearly visible social tectonic stress is the rising migration of people within countries and across borders. It’s driven by overpopulation, economics, and extreme weather events like prolonged droughts wrecking farmers’ crops. The author describes the consequences [p. 161]: ‘’ all factors that escalate poverty; worsen violent crime, ethnic discrimination, and political dissension; weaken governments; and even generate civil war – in turn forcing people to leave their homelands.’’ According to the United Nations in 2017 about 70 million people worldwide have been forced so far from their homes. The author concludes: ‘’Migration pressure will affect every country to a greater or lesser degree.’’

Lifeboat ‘’We’’

In the last section of chapter 9, professor Homer-Dixon, returns to the idea that we are all in a lifeboat together, and we will stand a better chance of resolving our major planetary problems if we identify in our lifeboat with an all-inclusive ‘’we’’. The author declares [p. 164]: ‘’ ‘’We’’ are everyone in the boat. ….. Today, creating such a species-wide feeling of ‘’we-ness’’ – even if it’s embryonic, or initially shared by only a fraction of people on our planetary lifeboat – is among our most urgent collective tasks.’’​

After a few remarks on the obstacles on the road towards a ‘’global identity’’ Homer-Dixon concludes chapter 9 in these words: ‘’But in the next chapters I’ll argue that a rapid shift towards a global identity is not only essential – it’s entirely feasible, too.’’

A contest of WITs

This title of chapter 10 is accompanied by the following sub-title where the author quotes the well-known biologist Edward O. Wilson, formerly at Harvard University: ‘’The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.’’

WITs stands for worldviews, institutions, technologies. Homer-Dixon’s main thesis is that worldviews play a central role in how people and elites direct their economic and social lives. The author sees us involved in a race between progress in all realms and the challenging problems facing us, four of which are: climate change, biodiversity collapse, worsening economic inequality, and the risk of nuclear war. To these four challenges I would add cyberattacks, pandemics such as the current Covid-19, and the threat of a large asteroid impact [3].

The author has explained in detail what is meant by a worldview in the present context of planetary problems; he wrote ‘’ …. we create a scaffolding of shared ideas through which we can, together, invent and deploy more complex institutions and more technologies’’. His explanations are based in part on an article published in 2009 on this topic [4]. A Ph.D. thesis by Annick de Witt also provided inspiration for his work [5].  The author wrote: ‘’What really struck me most in the article was its novel argument that WITs are the primary ‘’unit of selection’’ in the evolution of our societies. In other words, by carrying a society’s information and structure through time, a dominant WIT plays a role in society analogous to a gene in a biological system. Homer-Dixon concludes: ‘’It looks increasingly likely that today’s dominant worldviews, institutions and technologies will soon lose the unforgiving evolutionary contest to other WITs, still to be determined, that are better-adapted to our ever more extreme situation.’’

Why is Positive Change So Hard?

The author starts chapter 11 with a quote from historian Barbara Tuchman: ‘’Governments do not like to face radical remedies; it is easier to let politics predominate.’’ He then proceeds to explain why so many people do not strongly respond to the dangers being aired to various degrees. He puts the blame on various forms of denial, like the following: ‘’the problem is too large, I cannot solve it’’; ‘’the problem will manifest itself far in the future (like climate change), I can wait’’; ‘’other people will solve the problems’’.

The author focusses on corporations, especially in fossil fuels, which make large profits because they don’t have to pay for the economic losses attendant to the use of these sources of energy. Economists call this situation a ‘’market failure’’ because market forces do not impose a price for polluting the atmosphere. It is well known that atmospheric pollution results in a large number of people suffering from negative health effects due to this pollution. Homer-Dixon points out that this atmospheric pollution is long-lasting and will affect negatively future generations. These are visibly represented by our children and grand-children.

The author makes claims that ‘’the blocking power of strong vested interests’’ hinders the supply of solutions to our critical problems. On page 183, Homer-Dixon asserts: ‘’Too often, when it benefits them, they promote lies: fossil-fuel companies, for example, have spent millions upon millions of dollars propagating phony science on global warming ….’’.  The author also mentions the military-industrial-techno-science complex, ‘’which President Eisenhower declared ‘’held the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power’’. ‘’Many people find that the 740 billion-dollar US defense budget is an example of misplaced power. The author concludes this section with the following grim statement [p. 185]: ‘’Social scientists have studied how the influence of vested interests has contributed to ineptness in bureaucracies, the failure of large corporations, the decline of nations, and even the collapse of history’s greatest empires.’’

Shock Cascades

Hope for a prosperous future can be perceived in the high degree of connectivity that has come into play in the last 50 years thanks to technologies like computers, smart phones, the Internet, tourism and the globalization of the economy. This heightened connectivity has led to more uniformity in the ways of doing business the world over. This applies to the financial sector, to the transport of goods, to sharing newly acquired knowledge in agriculture and in medical practice. The increased connectivity and uniformity will likely lead to more innovation in solving our problems.

But we have to be prepared to face ‘’shock cascades’’ as happened September 2008 when the financial firm Lehman Brothers failed. This created a shock that abruptly cascaded into a global crisis. The author wrote on p. 203: ‘’In a matter of weeks, world financial markets seized up, liquidity vanished, and international trade collapsed.’’ One result was increased unemployment or underemployment for the youth in many countries, stagnating incomes, and chronic economic insecurity.

Chapter 13 starts on p. 208 with an interesting quote from the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg: ‘’ Until you start focussing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope.’’

The author insists on a choice of bedrock values. On page 231 he wrote: ‘’Here is a good first step: identify a choice of bedrock set of pertinent values and goals that most people around the world share, that we generally believe we won’t compromise under any circumstances, and that can constitute the foundation of our vision of the future and the object of our hope.’’

Among the shared values, every item on Maslow’s pyramid needs to be included. Homer-Dixon adds the following: ‘’And all parents want their children to be secure in the present and to have good prospects for the future. These needs are humanity’s deepest shared values.’’ These shared values suggest the following ‘’three bottom-line injunctions for the future:

  1. Don’t wreck our planetary home.

  2. Don’t commit mass suicide by fighting among ourselves.

  3. Protect our children.’’

The author then comments on these injunctions on page 233: ‘’We need to do at least this much to survive.’’ On page 234, in the context of the three injunctions he eloquently writes: ‘’Perhaps their biggest shortcoming, though, is that they’re simultaneously too elaborately technocratic and too blandly anodyne to truly motivate us. If we’re going to pull together, we need principles and goals that combine to form an inspiring and coherent vision of the future that people everywhere can take to heart, affirm in conversation with each other and rally around, and then work with excitement together to reach.’’

Virtuous cascades of transformative change

With chapter 14 Professor Homer-Dixon begins to explain in detail his favored strategy to bring about a new WIT triad of worldview, institutions and technologies. The fact that our global system is highly interconnected and nonlinear offers the possibility of finding intervention points in this complex system where a small change can have a large effect. The author espouses the theory worked out by the renowned environmentalist and systems theorist Donella Meadows [6]. Meadows saw a hierarchy of 12 intervention points in a complex system. The first point in her list is described as ‘’The power to transcend paradigms’’. An example of the Meadows leverage point strategy is Stephanie May’s saga in her efforts to have nuclear powers stop testing nuclear weapons. On page 247 the author widens the goal to the planetary problems mentioned earlier and comes to this conclusion: ‘’ …… her model implies that if we want to reach a desirable future, we’d be wise to give much greater priority to possibilities of worldview change.’’

Author Homer-Dixon notes that each person can explore in his own mind what the world might look like if an alternative worldview were adopted. As  an example of a worldview change recall that in going from naked-eye observations of the night sky to astronomical observations through a telescope, Galileo’s initiative, humanity began to discover the immense depth of the universe.

On page 249 the author writes that by working together we will scaffold concepts, beliefs and values, and transform our planet’s institutions and technologies. The fact that our planetary system is much more connected now than twenty years ago, when Donella Meadows published her work, will likely enable us to propagate a new worldview very rapidly. The virtuous cascade mentioned earlier is a possibility.

The author’s chapter 15, entitled Into the Mind, has this quote from Goethe as a byline to the title: ‘’Nothing is more frightful than to see ignorance in action.’’ In the field of nuclear weapons, we learned from climate scientists in the 1980s and 90s that the detonation of only a fraction of the existing atomic bombs could have precipitated a ‘’nuclear winter’’ over the Earth during which widespread famines could have killed one billion or more people. [7] The ignorance of this fact in the 1970s led to the fabrication of about 70 000 nuclear weapons in the Northern hemisphere, thereby creating the worst threat to life ever seen in our history.

In chapter 16 the author dives into ‘’Hero Stories’’ (the title) and has for the underline the following quote from cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker: ‘’Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.’’

In this chapter professor Homer-Dixon tackles an aspect of life that all of us have to frequently confront: individual death. Children begin discovering this concept at age five. Concern over individual death recurs frequently in one’s life. On page 277 the author writes: ‘’Still, we’re largely unaware that we’re always managing at one level or another the anxiety the prospect of death causes us.’’

On the same page starts a long and deep section entitled ‘’Immortality Projects’’. The author quotes the work of social psychologists Tom Pyszczinski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg who have further developed cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s ideas [8] into a framework called ‘’Terror Management Theory’’, or TMT [9]. The author writes: ‘’As early humans evolved their extraordinary intelligence, they started to use symbols in their minds to represent abstract ideas, like the ideas of the self and the future …… they combined these two symbols in particular to imagine the self in the future.’’ Recalling one’s self in the past, or imagining one’s self in the future is in some way a bit equivalent to travelling in time.  The author quotes psychologist Michael Corballis [1] : ‘’The most fateful consequence of mental time travel may be the understanding that we will all die.’’

   Further on, Homer-Dixon asserts: ‘’But the need to cope with the fear of death is common to almost all of us, and powerful. So we tell ourselves stories about who we are and how we should act that help us believe we can heroically transcend death.’’

Anthropologist Ernest Becker has suggested that this kind of heroic activity can be what he has called ‘’an immortality project’’. [8]. These projects can be giving birth to a child, constructing a building, setting up a company, writing a book, contributing to one’s nation, etc …. Homer-Dixon adds that these immortality projects will have a long-lasting value if they ‘’make sense within the common worldview’’ [p. 280]. On page 281 the author concludes: ‘’…… each of us still needs a hero story and immortality project, and our projects and stories must make sense within the shared worldviews of the groups that matter to us.’’

At the end of chapter 16, the author comes to the following conclusion in the context of much division of opinions and activities in the world: ‘’We need instead worldviews that are complementary enough to unite us around an immortality project for our entire species as we work to stop, and then reverse, the rapid deterioration of our planet’s vital natural systems – worldviews that help us surmount fear by inspiring rather than extinguishing the hope that motivates our agency.’’

Chapter 18 explains the two measuring tools that the author and his team have developed to compare the worldviews of different people and to evaluate and understand a given person’s mindset. The author and his team have sought to map in three dimensions (first tool) and in fifteen dimensions (second tool) the results obtained when a choice of questions is presented to various persons. The ‘’affective cognitive maps’’ so obtained are said to be in ‘’mindspace’’, the set of all possible maps. The author has been somewhat surprised by the narrow spectrum of the maps obtained in this research. On pages 311-312 he wrote: ‘’Overall then, humanity’s conversation about alternative worldviews is astonishingly impoverished – and dangerously so, too, because we desperately need new ideas about how to live together on our imperiled planet and redefine our relationship with Earth’s material environment.

Nevertheless, the author is optimistic about the outcome. On page 316, he wrote: ‘’Now, the extraordinary – and historically unprecedented – connectivity, uniformity, feedbacks, and emergence in today’s global systems could make possible a deep and rapid transformation in humanity’s belief about itself and its future – sweeping nonlinear shifts in worldviews that could lay the foundation for a prosperous, just, and even exhilarating new era of human civilization.’’

Chapter 19 is well described by its title ‘’Hot Thought’’. The byline quote from French author Blaise Pascal explains this title: ‘’We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’’ Pascal was by profession a mathematician, a physicist and a philosopher.

The cognitive affective maps (CAMs) developed by the author and his team has benefited from recent research in psychology and neuroscience which ‘’shows that emotions play a central role in human perception and decision-making – far greater than previously understood — and are an essential part of almost all the concepts we use when we think and communicate with each other. The author’s colleague, Paul Thagard has written: ‘’Emotions are central to human thinking, not peripheral annoyances.’’ [10]

The author goes on to explain how the CAMs are built starting from the answers given by various people to his many questions. He applied this method to Stephanie May, a celebrated anti-nuclear activist. His questions  dealt with positive social concepts like motherhood, Christian values, hope, liberty, etc… on the one hand, and negative social concepts or situations like nuclear weapons, war, illness, radiation and death on the other hand. The CAM diagram for May comprised two central nodes, one labeled ‘’children’’, and the other labeled ‘’nuclear weapons’’.

Renewing the future

Chapter 20, the last one, is entitled ‘’Renewing the future’’ and is followed by the following quote from John F. Kennedy: ‘’For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.’’

Homer-Dixon points out that ‘’now, around the world, fear is causing many of us to pit our stories against each other, eroding humanity’s already diminishing sense of collective purpose and feelings of common identity.’’ There are several antidotes to fear, and one that the author relies on when speaking to his young children is this one, voiced by US climate activist Joe Romm: ‘’ …. Humanity is in fact doomed only if we collectively choose to be doomed.’’  The author points out that in times of crisis, people discover within themselves a large energy that was not clearly visible in other times.

Starting on page 335 the author outlines his own idea for his vision of a future world. Three aspects are important in his vision. The first one concerns moral values, the second one is a set of ‘’oughts’’, like the ‘’golden rule’’. While many people attribute the origin of these principles to some higher authority like a deity, modern science, especially genomics, attributes these principles to evolution. The work of Nicholas Christakis [11] and Matt Ridley [12] is especially pertinent in this connection. Finally, the third aspect of high, and even, highest importance to the author is the realm of existential values. One existential value is our relationship to the cosmos. The author goes back to Maslow’s pyramid and focusses on its vertex which he identifies with our existential values. He wrote: ‘’We derive our moral and existential values mainly from the worldviews of the groups that matter to us, and we use them to create our vision of a desirable future and the hero stories and immortality projects we construct for ourselves within that vision. They are fundamental to the meaning of our hope.’’

References

-1. Michael C. Corballis, The Recursive Mind: The Origins of Human Language, Thought and Civilization (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 6.

-2. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 371.

-3. B612 Foundation web site: https://b612foundation.org/our-mission/

-4. Rachael Beddoe, Robert Costanza, Joshua Farley, Eric Garza, Jennifer Kent, Ida Kubiszevski, Luz Martinez, Tracy McCowen, Kathleen Murphy, Norman Myers, Zach Ogden, Kevin Stapleton, and John Woodward, ‘’Overcoming Systemic Roadblocks to Sustainability: The Evolutionary Redesign of Worldviews, Institutions and Technologies,’’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, no. 8, (February 24, 2009): 2483-89, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812570106.

-5. Annick de Witt, Worldviews and the Transformation to Sustainable Societies: An Exploration of the Cultural and Psychological Dimensions of University, 2013), doi: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4492.8406.

-6. Donella Meadows, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (Hartland, VT : Sustainability Institute : 1999), I, http://www.donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf

-7. Joshua Coupe, Charles G. Bardeen, Alan Robock and Owen B. Toon,

‘’Nuclear Winter Responses to Nuclear War Between the United States and Russia in the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model Version 4 and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies ModelE’’, Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres  Volume 124 Issue 15,  16 August 2019, pp. 8522-8543  On line reference https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1029/2019JD030509

-8. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, New York Free Press, 1973.

-9. Tom Pyszczinski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg, ‘’Thirty Years of Terror Management Theory: From Genesis to Revelation’’, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 52, (December 2015).

-10. Paul Thagard, Brain-Mind: From Neurons to Consciousness and Creativity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), p. 155. See also Thagard, Hot Thought: Mechanisms and Applications of Emotional Cognition (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2006).

-11. Nicholas Christakis, Blueprint, The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Little, Brown Spark, 2020.

-12. Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue, The Evolution of Cooperation, 1996.

[Image by enriquelopezgarre from Pixabay]

Michel Duguay studied physics at the Université de Montréal and at Yale University, graduating in 1966 with a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. He worked for 21 years at AT&T Bell Telephone Labs, then at Laval University from which he retired in January 2020. He has a keen interest in belief systems underlying major decisions made by political leaders and their social support groups.

#extinction #resourcescarcity #empathy #inequality #worldcrisis #climatechange #nuclearwar

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