Thomas Homer-Dixon Lecture (Sept. 18, 2007)

Resilience. In essence, this is what Homer-Dixon’s lecture was about. Using his latest book “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Society” as the guide for his lecture, he detailed five main stresses currently growing throughout the world and ways to combat them… sort of.

The first half of the lecture detailed five global stresses: population growth (especially in developing countries), energy scarcity, environmental degradation in developing countries, climate change, and the ever-growing gap between rich and poor (both regionally and globally) all of which create vulnerability and instability. Homer-Dixon sees these as “tectonic stresses” that grow and create friction under the surface, while everything on the surface seems fine (this is where we are currently). That is until the energy and friction of each stress combine to create a catastrophe. There are also two factors that exacerbate these stresses: the increasing connectivity of people and places throughout the world, and the increasing ability of small groups of people to cause great harm to many (i.e. terrorists). Homer-Dixon’s point in detailing these stresses is that many people want simple answers without really knowing the underlying problems, and one cannot come without the other. The last half of the lecture was not solely dedicated to solutions, because in many of these cases solutions for the immediate future are not a reality (i.e. climate change impacts over the next 50 years). Instead Homer-Dixon stressed in his lecture that out of catastrophe could come great opportunity for positive change and reorganization, if we are ready to take advantage of the opportunity. The term he used is called catagenesis (cata = down, genesis = rebirth), but it is the same as the reorganization phase in an adaptive cycle: the ability to adapt and start renewal in the event of catastrophe or breakdown. In society, our ability to build more resilient communities and societies is what will determine how we get through the stresses placed upon us and how we rebuild after catastrophes occur.

This lecture was prepared for a public audience, not an academic one. If I am to criticize it on the basis that it did not go deep enough into the issues, I also have to acknowledge that it may be the audience and not the speaker that required that. However, regardless of the audience, I feel that Homer-Dixon’s lecture should have focused more on the concept of resilience and how it could operate in society (how do we prepare and start creating more resilience?) – I left the lecture feeling that there are good ideas at work here, but that many will be a challenge to materialize. During question period, one person asked for examples of how people are looking forward, building resilience and being prepared to use catastrophe as the potential for future change. A large part of his answer was that people were “starting to talk about it”. This is frustrating, but again may be due to the fact that even though scientists have been studying the resilience of natural ecosystems for some time, this is a new concept to place in a social context. The way in which we have organized ourselves to date (in hierarchical and management frameworks) works against the principles of resilience and creates rigid structures susceptible to breakdown. This may be hard to change.

As for the implications of this presentation for environmental research, I feel that most of what was presented was more applicable to social science environmental research as it focused on how people and society should start to build up systems that will allow us to withstand major changes. That said this research might require knowing more about how resilient our natural ecosystems are to change. In this way, we can determine how future catastrophes (i.e. climate change) will impact ecosystem functioning and how to respond accordingly in the social arena. Knowing what impact the melting of arctic sea ice will have on coastal regions is important in determining what kind of social institutions (or new ways of thinking) are needed to handle the blow. I feel that there is much to be gained in discussing the idea of resilience across disciplines as our ecological, economic, social, and political systems all feed each other. Perhaps natural systems can be used as a guide for social systems to reduce their rigidity.

In all, I think that what Thomas Homer-Dixon presented is an important concept that needs to be further developed: we know that we cannot simply fix our problems, and indeed in some cases we will not be able to fully adapt to their consequences either. We can however, use catastrophe as the impetus for positive reorganization of our institutions and ways of thinking. I do not feel, however, that the idea of building resilient communities can be scaled up to the global level (I did not get a clear indication of what Homer-Dixon thought about this). Instead, I feel that creating smaller webs of connectivity is more feasible and would be more successful as it could avoid the rigidity that prevents resilient systems from building in the first place.

One Response to “Thomas Homer-Dixon Lecture (Sept. 18, 2007)”

  1. If you are interested in resilience, some sources to get into it are:

    Brian Walker’s book – Resilience Thinking

    The Resilience Alliance website

    The journal Ecology and Society

    My weblog Resilience Science

    And McGill I teach
    GEOG 380 – Adaptive Management
    which is largely about resilience ideas.