We…must come to terms with nature, and I think were challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves. – Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring
In the past the December holiday season and the coming New Year imbued many of us with a vision of a prosperous and loving future. For most of us the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster: people we love have died, how we work, learn and communicate has been severely hampered, daily comfortable schedules have been uprooted, financial woes have been exacerbated, our mental health has suffered through unprecedented isolation, and our sense of overall security in a world we thought we could have some control over has been smashed. Those who could choose to take cruises and planes at a moments notice have found themselves sitting at home. Even moneys perceived ability to fix any problem will not loosen the grip of this virus. A cure-all vaccine is trumpeted, but it seems that many people will refuse it, questioning its efficacy and the motives of governments and the pharmaceutical companies that produced it; some even speak of dark and tyrannical objectives. Fear and trepidation permeate our daily lives.
At last humans are realising that we are part of Nature, which we have abused for so long. But is this reluctant and grudging acknowledgement coming too late for us? Our ever-increasing encroachment into natural habitats and refusal to respect the notion of limits to growth for humanity, characterized by global unethical capitalism run amuck, is now in the process of ruthlessly pursuing climate breakdown. Covid-19, it appears, represents one more landmark on the road to devastation that we collectively continue to encourage.
Thomas Homer-Dixons recently published book, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, comes at a time when many people believe humanity is soon to be forced to its knees. But Homer-Dixon states: Real social and political change only happens in times of crisis, because crisis is needed to discredit existing systems of worldviews, institutions, and technologies, and the structures of power that sustain them.
Commanding Hope is dedicated to Homer-Dixons two young children, Ben and Kate, who are continually alluded to throughout the book, whether that be in a drawing of theirs or in dialogue between them and their father and mother. To put it succinctly, Homer-Dixon wrote this book as if his childrens lives depended upon it. It took him eight years, and nothing will stop him from finding a non-magical elixir of knowledge and informed action to save his children and ours.
He begins with an account of the heroic efforts of Stephanie May, a young Connecticut woman, making phone calls in 1957 asking people to protest against atmospheric nuclear testing. In 1961 she goes on hunger strike while walking up and down in front of the Soviet Unions Manhattan UN mission, asking them to save the worlds children by eliminating the tests. To her amazement the press takes notice and ultimately her efforts bear fruit. Against the odds, the powerful determination that she displays is in its essence what Homer-Dixon calls commanding hope. And this is the same engaging hope that teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg displayed in 2018 when she sat outside the Swedish parliament with a handwritten sign.
Homer-Dixon contrasts this positive renewal of the world with the Mad Max apocalyptic films, where the world is drawn down to the lowest ecological and civil possibilities. But juxtaposed with that nightmare he discusses J.R.R. Tolkiens Lord of the Rings and the unlikely push by the communities of Middle-Earth to forge again lost alliances that will bring about a cessation of grotesque hostilities and a renewal and affirmation of an alternative worldview that cherishes life and happiness. The long quest to find a way to finally dispose of the Ring and bring about an era of peace and harmony finds its greatest strength in an unassailable sense of hope; it is a hope to create a better world around which Homer-Dixon weaves his book. We recall all the tribulations and faltering ambitions to create a just society in The Lord of the Rings, and Homer-Dixon reminds us that our present-day world far exceeds the dangers expressed in Tolkiens book. Humanitys struggle to stop climate chaos, an ecological catastrophe, nuclear destruction and the rise of authoritarianism constitutes an almost impossible task compared to the ascent of Mount Doom, a goal for the Fellowship of Middle-Earth that will become achievable, if immensely difficult. Homer-Dixon calls it a superordinate goalone thats clear and specific, that everyone shares, that overrides all others, and that cant be achieved without cooperation, and he repeatedly cautions us that we might not be so fortunate but we have too much at stake not to vigorously pursue safety for our children.
True, our challenges far outweigh Frodos, but Homer-Dixon affirms that we can push back the darkest elements of humanity and flourish. But how do we get there? By intensely reviewing and modifying our personal and public worldviews as well as understanding that our institutions and technologies are tightly interdependent: they influence each other, depend on each other, and usually hang together in a cohesive way. Stereotypically a western worldview might include a commitment to personal freedom and free enterprise, while its institutions support free economic markets and a communitys rules, and its technologies let us feel were independent by, for example, driving cars. Homer-Dixon strongly recommends that we immediately set about transforming our mindsets and ultimately the mindscape of humanity to establish meaningful change that will let coming generations of sentient life succeed, but to do this we must enable our capacity to establish a bedrock of values that must never be forsaken when we investigate what is feasible in this unabashedly unsentimental quest to save the planet.Commanding hope comprises three strands. Honest hope means rigorously applying scientific methods and moral truths, and not thinking ourselves into a spiral of fantasy about what is possible. Astute hope recognizes the need to understand diverse peoples worldviews and aspirations. Powerful hope motivates us to work together, as agents with a compelling common purpose, to solve our problems.
Furthermore, we must diligently and deeply understand what is enough and combine it with what is feasible in our quest for a renewal of a world in peril. Feasible is no longer what the corporation, business-as-usual elite will chance, but rather it is tempered with imagination that fuses it to an enough that has solid principles of justice that include all of us; choosing what part of civilization is to be saved over another in a crisis is not an acceptable response, even in desperate times, Homer-Dixon warns us. We do not, however, give up on what has inherent value but is not immediately important, because we then lose the core of an authentic future. At the same time, honest hope prevents a turn towards unsubstantiated, unscientific decision making. Commanding hope creates the pathways we vitally need for this new world of equality and respect for Nature; it is gritty and resolved in its determination.
Sometimes an individual can instantly flip their worldview. At the age of 20, while hitchhiking abroad, I stopped to buy a drink of milk from a vendor. He poured the milk from an already opened carton. When I said I wanted it from a sealed carton, he furiously refused, saying how selfish and entitled North Americans were. I felt ashamed and realized he spoke the truth. That two-minute conversation changed my worldview with regard to wealth, food scarcity and inequality.Unfortunately, groups and nations modify their worldviews far more slowly than an individual can, and that change comes for the most part incrementally. Our worldviews connect us with our communities, stabilize our sense of who we are as individuals and groups through time, anchor our visions of a desirable and hopeful future…so were terrified when theyre threatened, explains Homer-Dixon. In response to potentially overwhelming crises, it is humanitys primary responsibility to push those static and seemingly intransigent destructive worldviews to the side and strive for migration to an entire world participating in renewing the future. Through learning about universal human temperaments, asking what Homer-Dixon calls binding questions, conducting thought experiments whereby we put ourselves in an opponents worldview, new cognitive-affective tools, and supporting our world values, humanity can forge positive worldviews that embrace a world-inclusive identity that makes perfect sense, as our greatest concerns are global in nature. Cultural identities are not sacrificed by doing so. Social order, fairness, opportunity and identity remain at the core of our worldviews and commitments.
Climate breakdown will challenge all of us and our worldviews, but how we respond to the possible chaos will determine our success in preventing the worse outcomes. Worldviews that help us surmount fear by inspiring rather than extinguishing the hope that motivates our agency have a great chance of flourishing.
Alternative worldviews and not rehashed older ones help us forge a better tomorrow. Worldviews that recognize human temperaments such as empathy, prudence and exuberance as well as commitments to opportunity, safety and justice and a shared global identity preserve not just a space for some form of democracy, but for all life too! Homer-Dixon speaks of an immortality project…that gives people and groups around the world broad possibilities to imagine, tell, and weave together their own hero storiesand to live them togetheras we move towards a shared vision of the future.Commanding hope becomes the emotional and rational energy and agency humanity must maintain to steadfastly leap through the inevitable dangers ahead of us. Homer-Dixon believes this jump is feasible and, he maintains, enough if we succeed in the transformation of our institutions, particularly our carbon-based energy system and our model of economic growth. This must be our aim in moving towards a sustainable and equitable future.
Please listen to the CBC Ideas interview with Thomas Homer-Dixon.