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Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril

by Thomas Homer-Dixon

“We’re doomed.” Thomas Homer-Dixon, a university research chair in the faculty of environment at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in Victoria, B.C., has been hearing these words from his students more often these days. Labelled a “doom-meister” himself, Homer-Dixon has spent 40 years studying our growing global challenges – economic insecurity, climate change, pandemics, scarcities of resources, incompetent governance, and barriers to innovation among them – and watching his downbeat analyses and predictions prove largely accurate. In his third book, he doesn’t stop by defining our current problems and noting their causes. Instead, he provides a set of scientific tools to help us imagine a possible way through the apocalyptic mess we have created (the COVID-19 pandemic included).

Based in historical and scientific knowledge of how hope works, Homer-Dixon’s book is a sober but invigorating look at where we stand, how we got here, and how we can get moving – beginning with the human mind. Imagination, Homer-Dixon posits, is key to solving our most pressing problems.

The prologue opens with the words of the author’s four-year-old daughter, who has discovered a science article on her mother’s desk and asks what it is about. The article is a 2012 piece from the journal Nature that posits a level of 50 per cent biodiversity loss before the remaining biosphere crashes. The article’s 22 authors estimate that at our current rate of biodiversity reduction, the Earth will reach that point by 2045. A vividly rendered scene unfolds, grounding Homer-Dixon’s book in precise and memorable detail. It also kicks off a story of a potentially positive future.

This prologue leads into an equally evocative scene set in 1957. A three-year-old girl plays with a toy phone at the feet of her mother, who is calling community leaders in an attempt to encourage them to circulate a petition to end atmospheric nuclear testing. The woman working the phone in her home began as an activist by writing letters to the editor, then participated in the Connecticut Committee to Halt Nuclear Testing. The woman, who ultimately went on a hunger strike in service of her cause, was Stephanie May; the three-year-old girl is future leader of Canada’s Green Party, Elizabeth May.

In addition to having the imagination to envisage a better world, Homer-Dixon argues that another challenge facing us is our inability to understand our own views, how and why they differ from those of others, and how they relate to institutions and technologies. Growing political polarization, related social disintegration, and what he calls “social earthquakes” are evident everywhere, but positive ways through them are hardly apparent at this point. The cognitive-affective mapping tool Homer-Dixon shares in his final chapters is intended to help us better understand ourselves, our adversaries, and the conflicts in which we are embroiled.

Homer-Dixon marshals a vast background in complexity science and also uses pop-culture touchstones such as The Lord of the Rings and Mad Max to help his reader better grasp the workings of social power, death anxiety, the role of hero stories, and the impetus for immortality projects in our lives. His overall aim with this book is the development of strategic intelligence – a laudable pursuit, since Homer-Dixon demonstrates that never have we needed such intelligence more.

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.