Leveraging Possibilities for Global Transformation

Thomas Homer-Dixon is an internationally renowned intellectual activist and entrepreneur. His research is focused on threats to global security in the 21st century and how people, organizations and societies can better resolve their conflicts and innovate in response to complex problems. After 40 years in Eastern Canada, he has returned to the West Coast where he grew up, bringing with him a lifetime of research and an appetite for making connection.

Thomas Homer-Dixon
In his most recent book, Commanding Hope, Thomas Homer-Dixon describes the view, transformed by distant forest fires: “Standing on the same cliff, I could see smoke creating a faint horizontal line above the mountains across the Strait, tracing a previously unseen boundary between atmospheric layers. Photo by Michelle Proctor.

A year ago Thomas Homer-Dixon, Tad to friends, moved across Canada and into the home his father built in Metchosin in 1976. Not only did he bring his family, he also brought a lifetime of research that led to the foundation of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads. Many of his ideas are presented in his most recent book, Commanding Hope, published in September 2020.

Growing up in Victoria, his father was the chief forester for the Greater Victoria Water Supply Area, and Homer-Dixon gained an intimate knowledge of how Victoria’s virtually untreated and uniquely sweet-tasting water is gathered, treated and processed.

“Whether people realize it or not, they are deeply grounded in the landscape,” says Homer-Dixon. “Especially the landscape of their childhoods, whether it’s an urban landscape or a rural landscape.”

As a student at Carleton University, he founded the national student pugwash organization, which attracted 30,000 members before he handed off leadership. That set him on a path: “I’m a serial founder of things,” says Homer-Dixon. “I’m fundamentally an entrepreneur, an academic and intellectual entrepreneur.”

He established the Trudeau Center for Peace, Conflict and Justice at the University of Toronto and the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation at the University of Waterloo.

“[At Waterloo] I really wanted to draw together a team of people, nationally and internationally, working on complex systems issues,” says Homer-Dixon. “I’d increasingly become a complexity scientist in my own work, and I wanted to connect with others doing that kind of work.“

The Cascade Institute is an outgrowth of all of these things. It’s the next stage in my own evolution as an intellectual activist and entrepreneur, trying to take this accumulated knowledge and make it usable for society at large … One of the things I’ve tried to specialize in is communicating scientific ideas to a broad public in ways that don’t water the ideas down.“

What is the Cascade Institute?

We’re trying to leverage possibilities for rapid shifts in positive directions, rather than negative directions. To accelerate, for instance, the zero-carbon energy transition, or to move more aggressively on issues of injustice: economic, racial, social injustice in our societies. Complexity science tells us that these possibilities are there, but often we can’t see them. The Cascade Institute is intended to use the lenses of complexity science as a way of revealing those possibilities, and then telling people about them so that we can act on them.”

Who are you speaking to?

A big part of our agenda is to take these tools of complexity science and make them understandable and usable by everybody. We also understand that in today’s world, change comes from multiple directions — governments can’t get a long way ahead of the mass public and there are these deep divisions within society. So we’re speaking to people who are engaged in those debates, to provide them a tool so they can be better resolved or move beyond these divisions.

We will be speaking to business leaders, governments, community leaders, faith leaders and everyday folks who are just really concerned about the direction of the world.We have a significant program to develop educational materials, where we take our tools, our methods and show people how they can use them in their own lives; how they can apply systems mapping, cognitive affective mapping and state space modeling, among other things, to their everyday problems, and understand … how they might change things in positive directions.

How do you distinguish between your own research and your work within the Cascade Institute?

My new book, Commanding Hope, is like a 200,000 word pitch for the Cascade Institute. The overlaps are extraordinarily close.

I have an omnivorous appetite for ideas. And I’m quite happy to let a lot of folks share the stage. This is a big operation. There’s no way one person could establish the entire intellectual framework; I’m just providing the starting points for it. These little things can make a big difference — it might be a paper that’s published by one of our junior researchers. The Cascade Institute has created a foundation or an environment in which that idea could flourish and take off.

Why here, why now?

I had a huge interest in making this work here. But I don’t actually think there are other places where I could do this effectively. Just look at the daily letters in the Times Colonist. The conversation is an order of magnitude more advanced than you’d find even in The Globe and Mail. People get it. People are buying electric vehicles and come here because they love the outdoors and they love the natural environment. Vancouver Island is now kind of this crucible of ideological evolution when it comes to green politics in the country. And it’s a cool place to be for that reason.

Your work seems very much a calling, and a call to action for others. How would you describe your purpose?

I realized as I came to Ernest Becker’s work and all the work surrounding terror management theory … this is what gives my life meaning. This is what allows us to transcend the terror of our recognition of our own mortality. Of course, having children changes everything. It kind of rewires you.

I got to this last stage of my career — I’m just about to turn 65; I’ve got all this stuff that I’ve accumulated in my head. It’s not just knowledge but connections and social capital and people. How can I put this to the best use possible, while at the same time being in a place where I’d like my family to be because I think it’s healthy, safer, more supportive and gentler. The world is becoming fearful and dangerous in all kinds of ways. And yet, on Vancouver Island, there’s still this sense of a certain gentleness in the community.

You talk a lot about intersections. What do you think are the axes to the intersection we are in now?

Prior to the pandemic, it was like everything was locked up. Suddenly, the pieces of the puzzle are all in motion, and you’re not sure how things are going to reconfigure themselves; how our economies are going to work; what our social norms are going to be; or exactly what the political reality is going to be in the future. Now we have an explosion of possibilities, both positive and negative, in front of us.

In the middle part of my book [Commanding Hope] I have to go through the process of saying, the situation, folks, is really bad; these are the empirical facts of the matter. I call them the slow process constraints: that we’re going to lose all the coral reefs on the planet, we’re going to lose most of the forests and the sea levels are going to probably be five to six metres higher.

We have to understand those [slow process] constraints and figure out how we can build a positive world within [them]. Maybe some of them we can reverse. We don’t want to give up on that. But we also have to anticipate the high likelihood that those are the boundaries we are going to live within. But within those boundaries, there’s still an almost infinite range of possibilities, many which are still quite positive. Prior to the pandemic, it was like everything was locked up. Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle are all in motion and you’re not sure how things are going to reconfigure themselves.

How big of a role does chance play in all this?

There was a slim vote balance between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The whole world would have been different; Gore would have moved aggressively on climate change issues. Part of the concern about Trump is that we can’t go back to where we were, we can’t reverse everything.

I look at this uncertainty, as it’s scary: the possibilities, small things and chance making a huge difference. But it’s also a reason for hope. If somebody had said in 2018 that a girl of 15, [who is] on the spectrum, is going to sit on the steps of the Swedish Parliament building with a little sign saying “School Strike,” and catalyze a global movement of protest against climate inaction, we would have said that’s ridiculous.

It seems like, at this stage in your life, you’re kind of a facilitator. What do you do in this role?

I’ve got people who come to me to say, “We’re looking at ways of either reducing or stopping or managing this process, and we would like a platform.“ We create this home for people who are thinking about high leverage interventions. Maybe we can figure out a way where we can lock down billions of tonnes of carbon in the permafrost in Canada. We can provide facilities, some legitimacy, in terms of a research frame.

Where do you sit on technology — optimistic or pessimistic?

I’m a techno-realist. I actually don’t believe in optimism or pessimism because the terms imply that you’re selecting data in a biased way to reinforce a preconception of the world. You have rose-coloured glasses or grey-coloured glasses — I think you should just have clear glasses. Within that techno-realism, I think that technology is going to play a very important part in getting us out of this terrible spiral.

You must have an amazing network across Canada, at a high level of influence. How do you make those introductions and put people together?

I came back with a pretty good Rolodex from Ontario, across a lot of different social sectors. I enjoy working with people, and so a lot of those relationships are good, friendly relationships. As necessary and appropriate, I connect and put people together, or I try to bring them into the team or into the project. I just let a lot of this stuff percolate in my mind, and see what connections arise. All those folks on the scientific advisory board for the Cascade Institute, they’re all people I’ve worked with at one point or another. It’s an extraordinary group of people; we have so much talent in this country. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be hitting way above our weight globally on issues like this.