4 Knowledge, Activism, and Hope: Finding Balance
Most of us understand intuitively that if we try to live without hope, we won’t flourish; we’ll exist only in the most basic physical and psychological sense. As the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel marvelously said: “Hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.”
But problems like climate change are now hope’s most formidable enemy. Global warming isn’t even bad yet—we’re experiencing today just the leading edge of its disruption—but the threat of climate catastrophe is already causing thousands of women to forgo having children. It’s driving a worldwide surge in anxiety and depression, especially among young adults. And it’s energizing misguided discussion of whether human civilization is destined to collapse.
This loss of hope can be self-fulfilling, because it fatally weakens our agency. The absolute best way to ensure we’ll fail to solve our problems, is to believe we can’t. I argue for “honest hope”—a moral attitude that starts from a presumption about the importance of a commitment to truth and that’s anchored in resolute scientific realism about the gravity of the dangers we face. Honest hope can motivate our agency, and that agency can be a catalyst for action to solve our most critical problems.
Thomas Homer-Dixon is Director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Road University, and he holds a University Research Chair in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Canada. Between 2009 and 2014, he was founding director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation and prior to that the Director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto.
Born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, he received his B.A. in political science from Carleton University in 1980 and his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in international relations, defense and arms control policy, and conflict theory in 1989. He then moved to the University of Toronto to lead several pioneering research projects investigating the links between environmental stress and violence in poor countries.
Since joining the University of Waterloo in 2008, his research has focused on threats to global security in the 21st century, including economic instability, climate change, and energy scarcity. He also studies how people, organizations, and societies can better resolve their conflicts and innovate in response to complex problems. His work is highly interdisciplinary, drawing on political science, economics, environmental studies, geography, cognitive science, social psychology, and complex systems theory.
He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on topics ranging from environmental security to international relations and complexity theory. In 1999 he received the University of Toronto’s Northrop Frye Teaching Award for integrating teaching and research.
Dr. Homer-Dixon’s books include Commanding Hope, The Upside of Down, which won Canada’s 2006 National Business Book Award, The Ingenuity Gap, which won the 2001 Governor General’s Non-fiction Award, and Environment, Scarcity, and Violence, which won the 2000 Caldwell Prize of the American Political Science Association.
His academic writing has appeared in leading journals, including Ambio, International Security, Journal of Peace Research, and Population and Development Review. He has written for non-academic audiences in Foreign Policy, Scientific American, The New York Times, and the Financial Times. He now writes regularly for the Toronto Globe and Mail in Canada.
A widely sought speaker, Dr. Homer-Dixon has delivered addresses on his research to academic and general audiences around the world. He has also consulted to senior levels of government in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.