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3 Reasons to Hope for the Future

Needed: A psychology of guarded (but proactive) optimism.

Clip from interview with Kenrick, cover of book reviewed reviewed here used with permission
Thomas Homer-Dixon discusses the reasons we should be actively hopeful about saving the planet.
Source: Clip from interview with Kenrick, cover of book reviewed reviewed here used with permission

Is it too late to save the planet?

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found myself wondering why I don’t just resign myself to the realization that its over for Homo sapiens, that we’ve missed our chance not to self-destruct.

But I just finished a book that convinced me it’s not yet time to throw in the towel, but instead time to really start fighting. The book is Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril. Its author is political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, an expert on the links between international relations, environmental destruction, and overpopulation (Homer-Dixon & Thomas, 1994). (You can view my subsequent interview with Homer-Dixon here.)

First, the bad news.

When I was born, there were already 2.5 billion human beings on the planet, 12 million of them crammed into the New York metropolitan area, where I lived. In 1970, hoping to escape those New York crowds, I moved to Tempe, Arizona, with a population of 65,550.

Alas, Tempe has since tripled its population. Worse yet, the once-little town has become completely engulfed by the ever-expanding Phoenix metropolitan area. The population of the Phoenix area was 980,000 when I arrived in 1970. Now it’s at 4,573,310, and still rising. I find myself living in a densely overcrowded metropolis again‚except it’s a lot hotter: 144 times in the last 6 months, the daily temperature has broken 100 Fahrenheit. Every year, we seem to break a new record, helped along by all those people and all their roads and buildings, which create a heat island effect.

My experience reflects on a question people often ask Homer-Dixon: “Where can I go to escape the problems of overpopulation and environmental destruction?”

His answer: “Nowhere.”

In an article in Scientific American in 1993, and in a highly-cited 1994 paper in the journal International Security, Homer-Dixon presented a frightening scenario: If world governments did not begin cooperating to reduce overpopulation and its consequences, there would be immense environmental degradation, which would lead to massive population migrations. That would in turn result in tribal and territorial conflict around the world. This dire set of predictions was based on research by a distinguished team of prominent political scientists and economists (Homer-Dixon, Boutwell & Rathjens, 1993).

Sadly, world governments did not listen: The global population increased by 50 percent in the ensuing years.

Denying the bad news

Some people object to anyone worrying about overpopulation or environmental destruction. In his new book, Homer-Dixon addresses some prevalent misconceptions that underlie population and climate change denialism, including:

  • The presumption that human beings are so clever we’ll solve the problems later, when they get really bad. Despite all the ingenious “energy saving” technologies invented since I was born, though, there are now 7.8 billion people needing energy, and carbon emissions have gone up 7 times—twice as fast as population growth.
  • The doctrine that unlimited economic growth will solve everything. In reality, economic growth translates directly into greater energy consumption and indirectly into greater inequality.
  • The misconception that drops in the rate of population growth will soon translate into actual drops in the number of people. Alert: The population will reach at least 10 billion before that happens, and the problems will get a lot worse during our lifetime, and those of our children. Meanwhile climate change will get worse, resources will keep getting scarcer, and there will be a whole new set of problems from environmental change and massive extinctions of many species we now rely on.

There are now 150 million homeless people in the world, many of them lined up on the borders of Europe and North America, begging to be let in because conditions have grown so bad where they came from. Questions about how to deal with all those desperate refugees are already causing serious political conflicts within the United States and the European Union.

So we’re doomed, right?

Maybe not. Homer-Dixon’s new book has a (surprisingly) optimistic title—Commanding Hope—and a bottom-line message: There are some good reasons not to give up.

He makes a clear case against blind optimism, systematically laying out the very real problems, and how they’re getting worse. But like a good movie plot, after bringing us out on a thinner and thinner limb, he finally pulls us back in for a happy (or at least a hopeful) ending. Here are three of the reasons Homer-Dixon led me to think that things might still turn out OK.

Three reasons to be hopeful

  1. Heroes can make a giant difference. Homer-Dixon tells the story of Stephanie May, a mother in Connecticut who became concerned about the increasing amount of carcinogenic fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests in the United States and Russia. She began a letter-writing campaign, reaching out not only to other mothers, but also to world opinion leaders. She got ignored or politely rejected by most of those she wrote to, but a few important leaders noticed when tens of thousands of other mothers joined her, and started writing letters of their own.
  2. A lot can move if we can find the right levers to pull. Stephanie May didn’t just try to influence her neighbors; she reached out to world leaders and got coverage in national newspapers. In doing so, she influenced some of the world’s opinion leaders, including philosopher Bertrand Russell and prominent American politicians such as Senators Hubert Humphrey (later a presidential candidate) and Prescott Bush (the father and grandfather of presidents). Her efforts paid off: In 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed a historical ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, and radioactive fallout began dropping immediately.
  3. Non-linear dynamics may save the day. Complex systems often have mechanisms that make them self-perpetuating: Once everyone in a country is driving automobiles on the left side of the road, it’s awfully difficult to get them to switch to the right side. But sometimes there are self-correcting negative feedback loops. For example, as population gets more dense, people generally reduce their family size (see Sng et al., 2017). And sometimes there are unexpected dramatic changes, as in the contagious spread of democratic government and the abolition of slavery over the last couple of centuries. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement is an example of how a small initial event such as Rosa Parks's refusal to go to the back of the bus can lead to big changes like the massive protests led by Martin Luther King and the eventual passage of civil-rights legislation.

(In our interview, Homer-Dixon nominates his own set of 3 reasons for hope. He also talks about the 3 biggest obstacles to saving the planet. I’ll talk about those obstacles in a later post.)

Hoping that versus hoping to

When we say we “hope that” something will happen, it doesn’t have any action component: I hope that I’ll win the lottery. When we use the expression “hope to,” on the other hand, it typically includes an action component: I hope to plant my garden in early May.

Homer-Dixon believes that despite all the obstacles to saving the world, we are only justified in giving up if we are 100 percent sure that all hope is surely gone. If our ailing planet is to be saved, it’s going to take a lot of people adopting an active “hope to” attitude—and then, Stephanie May-style, doing as much as they can to change not only their own behavior, but that of family members, friends, neighbors, and elected leaders. Hope without action will just contribute to a hopeless ending, but commanding hope can turn any one of us into the next hero.

References

Homer-Dixon, T. F., Boutwell, J. H., & Rathjens, G. W. (1993). Environmental change and violent conflict. Scientific American, 268(2), 38-45.

Homer-Dixon, Thomas F. (1994). Environmental Scarcities and Violent Conflict: Evidence from Cases. International Security , 19 (1), 5-40.

Homer-Dixon, T. (2020). Commanding Hope: The power we have to renew a world in peril. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

Sng, O., Neuberg, S.L., Varnum, M.E.W., & Kenrick, D.T. (2017). The crowded life is a slow life: Population density and life history strategy. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 736-754.

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