Book author, professor says big changes are coming
The future social impacts of climate and energy was a subject addressed by award winning author and teacher Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon in a presentation entitled Community Resilience in a Turbulent World at the Augustana campus of the University of Alberta Nov. 28.
Dr. Homer-Dixon said that something economists are calling a general purpose technology transition is almost inevitable.
"We either do it or our economies start to collapse basically. This transition will be the same magnitude of those that accompanied the introduction of steam power, the internal combustion engine, electricity and, more recently, the IT revolution. It is going to affect every aspect of our society and it is going to have a huge impact on Alberta because Alberta is a resource energy driven economy."
Dr. Homer-Dixon touched on the role of human capital and the quality of that human capital, levels of education, the resources available to individuals and communities, the kind of connectivity between individuals, and the nature of that connectivity, and stressed the need to explore new ways of doing things that are relevant to our communities.
"It doesn't have to require grants or heavy investments in industry," he said. "It could be in the form of a particular arrangement for local food production or a co-op, a particular cooperative arrangement for dealing with say homelessness. You have to get a lot of experimentation going that is right and communities that pull together and encourage experimentation and listen and learn from what works and what doesn't work are going to do way better. It is about leaning forward rather than getting scared and leaning back."
Dr. Homer-Dixon provided examples of how communities have been resilient in the face of climate shocks like Sandy, which just recently battered the east coast.
"The capital of Rhode Island, Providence, went through a very significant process of developing its defenses for storm surges a number of years ago. They knew this was a problem they have to face and think about in creative ways, so they did a whole bunch of things, and when Sandy hit they were virtually untouched. That was being proactive and an investment in some sort of resilience."
Dr. Homer-Dixon's 2006 Canadian best-selling book The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization, focuses on the relationship between shock and response, between crisis and creativity.
"It sort of extends the innovation argument and elaborates in some detail the theory of social crisis," said Dr. Homer-Dixon. "It basically says we are in trouble and people can paper over this and not pay attention, but there are going to be major social disruptions in this country."
In the book on which he is currently working, Dr. Homer-Dixon focuses on the minimum set of things humanity has to do to get out of crisis.
"We are all in this boat together," he said. "This is a really small planet now. There are going to be nine, ten billion of us on it and we better start thinking of ourselves collectively, rather than on fragmented terms."
Dr. Homer-Dixon is particularly interested in the psychological and cognitive processes that influence how people react to climate change and the role of ideology.
"We have seen this terrible polarization in many western societies, for instance, in the United States, over climate change," he said. "We need to understand why that is happening and what is really going on underneath the surface in people's heads."