Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 7: Environment and Human Civilization

We talk with Prof. Thomas Homer-Dixon and Paul Hanley about the civilizational change humanity needs to make in order to build a just and sustainable world. Prof. Homer-Dixon is Founder and Director of the Cascade Institute, and Hanley is an author and writer on environmental subjects.

Read the Transcript

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

DELARAM ERFANIAN (Communications Manager, Office of Public Affairs): As we enter into the second wave of this pandemic, we are increasingly thinking about its long-term consequences for Canadian society and humanity as a whole. In this second season of The Public Discourse, we have been looking ahead to the kind of society we want to create when we emerge from this crisis.  

An important dimension of this process is the need to make meaningful changes to our relationship with the environment. The climate crisis in our unsustainable exploitation of the earth's resources demand new forms of collective action if we are to build a new future for humanity. But how can we generate collective action on a large scale? Where can we find hope and inspiration to build a better future? I want to welcome Paul Hanley and Thomas Homer-Dixon to this episode of The Public Discourse. I'm delighted you are able to join us.  

PAUL HANLEY: Well thanks for having us. 

DELARAM: It's such an honour to have you both. Paul, you are the author of Man of the Trees about Richard St. Barbe Baker, and Eleven, which you describe as a call to consciousness to live in a world of 11 billion people. And Thomas, you have published a number of best-selling books, including The Upside of Down and The Ingenuity Gap. And your most recent book is called Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril

 On this podcast, we usually invite our guests to introduce themselves. Would you each please say a few words about where you're from, and anything else about yourself that you would like to share as we start our conversation? 

THOMAS HOMER-DIXON: Paul would you like to go first? 

PAUL: Oh sure. I'm Paul Hanley and I was born and raised in Saskatchewan. I've lived there all my life, and grew up in a city but became kind of enchanted with gardening and agriculture oddly enough. I took a real interest in environmental issues and then writing about them for a long time. 

Recently I moved to Molokai on Hawaii and I’m engaging with people here on some of the same issues: how we build a sense of community that I think then becomes reflected in the natural world around us.  

THOMAS: I'm "Tad" Homer-Dixon. And I'm currently on Vancouver Island, Southwest coast of Vancouver Island. And recording this from a little cabin on a cliff overlooking the sea.  

I grew up on Vancouver Island and then went out East for over 40 years to study and work in the United States. I did my doctorate at MIT in International Relations and came back to Canada to work at the University of Toronto running the program in peace and conflict studies at U of T for many years. Then in 2008 I went to the University of Waterloo where I focused on issues related to complex system science and how societies respond to the critical stresses they are facing; how they innovate or sometimes don't innovate.  

I've been very interested in societal failure to deal with major problems like climate change and the energy transition. And in the last year, my family and I have come back to Vancouver Island and I'm now running a new research institute that focuses on how to accelerate positive change for humanity. It's called the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. The intention of the Cascade Institute is to try to produce, to try to identify, what we call “high-leverage intervention points”, which are ways of shifting humankind's trajectory as quickly as possible; for instance, to respond to the climate change problem. 

DELARAM: Wonderful. Paul, if I may start with you. I wanted to ask about values and principles. In the book Elevenyou wrote about how our dominant global culture leads us to pursue perpetual material growth, and this demands a cultural transformation. So, what are the values and principles at that are needed for that transformation? And where do you see them in action today?  

PAUL: Well, I guess one of the things that I talk about in Eleven is the idea that our outer world, our natural environment, is a reflection of our inner world; of the kind of human world, the world of our relationships – the set of relationships we have and also our relationships with ourselves. I think when human societies are kind of fractured, and we’re governed by all these “isms” – all the prejudices, the racism, the inequalities, the classism, and also nationalism which is I think one of our last acceptable prejudices – when human societies are disintegrative and fractured in that way, then we see the same thing happening in the natural world around us.  

In order to restore the balance of the natural world, I think human beings really have to look at themselves and how we can transform our inner world and our relationships. I think when we have values built around unity – and unity is kind of a pivotal principle that everything else revolves around – we would create a sense of justice, a sense of equality, as priorities. And when we start to build those kind of profound relationships amongst people focused around unity, and love really, then we'll start to see the natural world around us transformed as well. 

I think you said where do I see those values happening today? I mean, I was an environmental columnist for 27 years and wrote thousands of articles, and it was kind of evenly split between this apocalyptic view of the future andeverything is falling apart. And then I'd see the other half of the articles were about people doing really amazing things all over the world to resolve these issues. And so I really think that everything that we need to do to make the world a better place, a sustainable and just place, is being done somewhere by somebody already. 

DELARAM: Thomas, I also wanted to ask you because you were known for many years as being a pessimist about various threats to global security and some of your predictions have come true, and yet, your new book is about hope and that's a concept that is often used in politics, but it is encountered less often in the social sciences. What does it mean to have hope for a different future? And what do you think should give us hope? 

THOMAS: It's true that in my earlier books – The Ingenuity Gap which came out about 20 years ago and The Upside of Down which came out in 2006 – using the best science available at the time, and the best social science, I laid out what I thought was likely to happen into the 2020s; and many of the forms of social breakdown, and radicalization, and environmental crisis that I anticipated then are starting to unfold now.  

I was called very often a “doom-meister”. I don't seem to get that label as often these days. Those books are really intended to be a diagnostic; try to unpack the underlying causes and mechanisms of the crisis that humankind faces on a planetary level.  

At this point though, I think the diagnosis is relatively clear and I felt that, especially for my children – Sarah and I have a daughter, Kate, who is twelve, and a boy, young man now, Ben, who is fifteen – especially for my children, I needed to focus on their future and how they could have a sense of positive possibility of hope for the future. I realized, actually, in this very spot where I am right now on this cliff, Southern Vancouver Island 2016 or so, that the thing that gave me the most anguish, the thing that gave me the most personal distress, was the possibility that my children would grow up, would emerge as adults into a chaotic, turbulent, and very violent world without a sense of hope.

And as a parent – and I think this is true for all parents – that was just unimaginable. I had been working on the book for many years at that point. I decided to change direction. I started it twice. I threw out tens of thousands of words. At that point I realized it had to be about hope.  

And I was not getting a lot of encouragement from folks at that point to write about hope. You know, because it's not only an idea that doesn't get a lot of attention in the social sciences – although it does I think within some certain segments of psychological science, especially positive psychology – but it has received kind of a bad rap recently in public discourse as an emotion that's passive, weak, it's distracting, maybe encourages us to fantasize about the future without actually engaging. And I decided that we needed to, in a sense, reinvent hope, to think about it in new ways, to reimagine it and make it a very powerful concept in our lives; which is why the book is titled Commanding Hope. It's a double entendre. The notion of hope that I developed is one that commands our attention, but also there is this underlying idea that hope is something that we can make do our bidding. It's an emotion that we can reformulate, we can re-cast and command it, in a sense, to be a powerful emotion that works on our behalf to help us address the challenges we face, and remain agents as we tackle probably the biggest crisis that the human species is ever going to face. This century is absolutely critical for our survival. 

I spent the last part of the book trying to try to identify why I think there are real grounds for hope, especially in the possibilities of new value systems  to link in what Paul has just been saying – new value systems, new understandings of our identity on this planet that could really galvanize large numbers, billions of human beings to push in new directions, to break out of this crisis that we are in right now.  

DELARAM: Speaking of hope, or reinventing hope, Paul, you have been also involved in a project that was recently selected as a finalist for the Rockefeller Foundation's Food System Vision Prize. Can you talk a little bit about some of these concepts and relationships that are at the core of this vision for food security and treaty for a territory? 

PAUL: Yes, well, interestingly this relates to what Thomas has been saying that the Rockefeller Foundation actually did a kind of a study of visions of the future, and most of them are found in science fiction, speculative fiction, movies, and books, and so on. And they found I think it was 94 percent of those visions of the future are negative. They were concerned about this same idea of having a hopeful vision of the future. So they created this opportunity for people to come up with food system visions and they got something like 1300 visions from all over the world; way, way more than they were expecting. So that was a good sign in itself.  

And our vision, which we focused around treaty for a territory which is in the Southern Canadian prairies, we focused around some concepts in Cree which are kwayeskastasowin wahkohtowin. And wahkohtowinis a word that, from the best I can understand it, is a word that relates to a law about the relatedness of all things. So they talk about how all human beings are related, but also we’re related to the “four leggeds”; to animals, to plants, to even to the mineral world. And so this idea of this unity of all things was central to the idea. And then kwayeskastasowinis about setting things right, or proper. So the concept is by kind of connecting to this concept wahkohtowin, of the unity of all things, and kind of making that central in our thinking, in our actions, we can make things right again.  

When we looked at our food systems in the province that are involved, we had to go right back to the period of colonialism. And it seemed that the colonial model that was imposed on the prairies really was the source of all the problems that we're having today in terms of creating a just and sustainable food system.  

We wanted to build a vision of hope; a sort of a systems vision. And it became a very complex map that we created, but it was really about this idea of changing the nature of human relationships; especially the relationship between settler populations and Indigenous populations. But we thought that undertaking a process of creating a profound conversation between people in the region would ultimately lead to ways of resolving our problems in our agriculture and food system.  

We actually came up with 140 lines of action and mapped them all out, and were successful. And there are ten finalists in this Food System Vision Prize, and interestingly they're all looking at, in different ways, at a similar kind of approach, many of them dealing with the relationships with Indigenous people in their areas. And so together they make really an exciting vision of hope for the future in this area of food and agriculture which is really central to moving forward as a society. 

DELARAM: Yes. It's really fascinating to hear more and more about things that give us hope as we also redefine it like Thomas mentioned. We look at it as a very broad and important quality that we all need to undertake.  

And Thomas, Paul spoke about connection and relationships. You wrote about something similar but on a larger scale in your book Commanding Hope. You wrote, “Humanity can't and won't address its urgent challenges unless enough of us from a broad range of cultures and societies recognize ourselves as one group with a shared sense of identity, facing these challenges, and developing solutions together.” Can you elaborate on this idea of 'we-ness' and how it relates to addressing our environmental challenges? 

THOMAS: So I'm so glad you asked that question, and it's one reason I was very excited about this interview today. I'm not a member of the Bahá'í Faith, but I have had very close friends over the years who are. And I have visited the gardens in Haifa, for example, and one thing I've always admired which Iunderstand is at the core of the Bahá'í Faith is this sense of unity of humankind, and a really profound sense of what I would call, like, started to call in my own work, “deep relationalism”: the connections among things.  

And I think that a part of the transition we're going through as a species, and it has to happen very rapidly – and it seems I think to be captured by Paul's project from the way he described it – is this connectivity; the connectivity among individuals, the connectivity of human beings to their natural world. I think that part of the power of Western civilization in becoming a dominant civilizational culture on the planet through its technologies and economic systems is basically seeing things as distinct, breaking things apart, severing some of those connections. The rational individual in the market, the scientific processes of analysis that reduce things to their part and then understand how they are and their intrinsic properties, and then combine them back together into systems. But this process of identifying the intrinsic properties of elements, of constituents of systems, has been very powerful within our institutions, within our scientific and knowledge systems, and has allowed us to create ways of manipulating nature and exploiting and dominating nature, and also, frankly, manipulating, exploiting, and dominating human beings to transform the planet. But I think we've reached perhaps the end of that process in some very powerful ways, because we are not just transforming the planet, we are now destroying the planet. And the divisions between us have become so deep and profound that we can't understand each other effectively anymore.  

One of the really striking things, for instance, about this political situation in the United States, and increasingly around the world, is how different groups live in their own, what I would call, 'epistemic bubbles'; basically, isolated knowledge systems. We need to develop new ways of connecting with each other.  

At the core of my notion of hope is a sense of understanding our relationships with each other that we can only really see who we are as individuals if we understand how we're embedded in larger communities and larger systems; including natural systems. Human civilization can't survive if those natural systems start to fall apart, and they are starting to fall apart now.  

I think, you know, to link to what Paul was saying, I think the Indigenous communities around the world have almost invariably had this very profound sense of connectedness to their natural environments, and we have much to learn from those communities about how to re-instill this sense of embeddedness in nature, cooperation/collaboration with nature, the importance of nature flourishing, that to the extent that nature flourishes we flourish. We have much to learn from those indigenous cultures, and we need to learn it fast. 

My biggest concern, which is to complete this comment, is that the problems are now happening so fast that the responses that we're engaged in – whether it's in Saskatchewan and food systems, or what we're trying to do with the renewable energy transition – are not happening anywhere near as fast as we need to. I think they're actually spiraling out of control. And while we are starting to make some of the critical changes we need to make, they're not going to be in place quickly enough to stop that death spiral which seems to already be underway. 

So that's where we now have to start thinking about more radical actions, and perhaps more radical transformations, for instance, of rethinking our global culture.

DELARAM: Just continuing with this idea of 'we-ness' and 'oneness' that you touched upon: Paul, someone who was inspired by this vision of 'we-ness', or what he may have called 'oneness', was Richard St. Barbe Baker. Baker was known as the Man of the Trees for his work addressing forest loss, and he was inspired by the Bahá'í Teachings. What do you think his life and work can teach us today about working towards a new relationship with humanity and the natural environment, just as Thomas was mentioning?  

PAUL: Yeah, well Baker was really a pretty remarkable human being on many levels. You know, I think that he was a scientist, but he was also a visionary; almost like a mystic and a person of action. And I think that, you know, I thought a lot about looking back on his life and what he accomplished and he was so far ahead of his time. I mean, he was talking about things like climate change, biodiversity loss, mass migrations of human populations, and so on, about a hundred years ago. And so a lot of the things that he was proposing and putting forward in the discourse, you know, it was difficult for people to relate to them. 

In his life, I think he had certain accomplishments, but also a lot of frustrations because people just weren't listening. As Thomas said, it wasn't happening fast enough. It was hardly happening at all at that time. But he could see from his experience in Northern Africa, he could see what was coming because there was already this expansion of the desert, and people were starting to migrate out of the dryer areas.  

There was a lot of frustration in his life. And related to this idea of hope, I think he never gave up on that hope. But I found it was interesting that if you look at his legacy forty years after he passed away, that it’s maybe some of the little things that he did that had the most impact. So I, in writing the book, I found out about a number of people who are active today who were inspired as youth, or as children, by, let's say, a radio interview they heard.This one fellow for example, he was an Australian, and he was visiting a farm; a neighbouring farm. His father was a farmer. And he saw an old pile of books in a shed that this guy had. And he went into the shed and he saw on top of this pile was a book called "Sahara Challenge" by Richard St. Barbe Baker. And just sort of randomly picked it up and decided to become a forester, and became engaged in forest reclamation and desert reclamation in Northern Africa, and is very successful in this pursuit. 

Other people like Felix Finkbeiner, who was a grade school student who heard about Richard St. Barbe Baker's work and wrote a paper for his, I think it was fourth grade class, and decided to start a children's movement to plant trees. And they now have something like 46,000 child environmental ambassadors in this organization called Plant for the Planet. And so they've taken over the United Nations billion tree program and now are planning to try to plant a trillion trees. 

So some of the little things that St. Barbe Baker did, like an interview or a little article he wrote, it seemed quite insignificant, turned out to have the most impact. And in a sense, I think, probably his legacy is actually his story; just a person who dedicates their entire life, puts everything they've got into this transformative process, "How can I contribute in some way?" And up until the time when he was 92 and he was doing his last world tour in a wheelchair trying to get children to plant trees and so on, and very, kind of, there was almost a pathetic quality to his heroic effort; I put it that way 'cause he was just a shriveled little man that wouldn't give up. And I think that's really an important quality, is just to be steadfast and to continue to work towards this goal of transformation. 

So for me he really epitomizes a quality that we really need today.

DELARAM: This is so true. And it brings together a lot of these elements that we've talked about that have also been brought up by either people that through time have taught us so much, and have helped us to act, and also now with the pandemic happening how things are being stirred. And I think there's more call to action than ever before.

And thinking about that, Thomas, in the epilogue of your book you say that the pandemic could catalyze an urgently needed shift in humanity's collective moral values, priorities, and sense of self and community. Do you have any final reflections that you would like to share on that?

THOMAS: Well the pandemic is an extraordinary moment in human history. And we aren't really sure what the ultimate consequences will be. I sort of think of the world up to the time of the pandemic occurred as being quite locked up; it's like all the pieces were kind of locked together and very rigid, and we seem to be on this inexorabletrajectory of increasing carbon emissions without any clear sense for how we could get off that trajectory. Inexorable trajectory of increasing damage to the natural systems of deepening polarization within our societies; widening gaps between the rich and the poor. And with the pandemic, it's almost as if all the pieces are suddenly in motion and things have become unlocked.  

We don't know how they're going to reconfigure themselves completely. I mean, we may go back to something – it's quite likely we'll go back to something that's somewhat similar to the way we were – with many of its same pathologies. But there are also possibilities now for some more radical reconfiguration and change. I mean, when you think about it, what happened between March, middle of March and the middle of April of this year, was unprecedented in the history of the human species. Within a period of a few weeks, almost 4 billion people were locked down on the planet. We've never seen anything like that in the past where such a large proportion of the human population has changed its behaviour more or less instantaneously like that. 

So it suggests that there are opportunities for change on the planet that weren't present before. This is a truly unprecedented moment in the history of the species. The pandemic has made it very clear we're in a situation of shared fate on this planet. We either have to fix this problem globally or it's going to continue. And if we don't eliminate the coronavirus, or control it in all parts of the planet, it will re-emerge in mutated form and re-infect us. 

The same with climate change, we're either going to fix it collectively or we're all going to suffer. People sometimes ask me, "Where can I go?" As in, "Where can I go when things start to fall apart?" When climate change gets so bad and the other problems get so bad that societies start to disintegrate. And you know what? I say, "Well there's actually no where you can go because climate change is going to affect the whole planet." It affects the whole planet now. So we either are going to – and this again gets us back to the point about a common sense of identity on this planet, a species-wide sense of unity, of 'we-ness' – we're either going to live together and prosper together on this planet, or we're going to die together. And I think that that recognition is starting to emerge in a much more powerful way in part because of the pandemic. 

And we are also connected together in extraordinary ways around the planet now in terms of our information and material transfers, but mostly our information transfers and communication around the planet. And we have additionally, finally, this quite clear scientific understanding of the nature of the challenges we face, as opposed to, say, what was true during the Black Death in early modern Europe when people really didn't understand what was going on devastating their societies. We actually have got that pretty well worked out, and we know kind of what we need to do to solve these problems. 

So we have this situation of shared fate, we have this extraordinary connectivity, and we have scientific knowledge of what we need to do. That puts us in a completely unprecedented situation which I think creates the opportunity for a major transformation of human civilization. If we take that opportunity, I think that's still very much an open question, but it's available to us in a way that's never been true before. And for me that's a real reason for hope. 

DELARAM: Well I agree. And as we're coming to the end of our podcast, I'm just thinking that, just like you shared Paul, sometimes the little things can go a long way. And I hope that our conversation today can, in a small or a very big way, somehow bring our listeners to think about these issues that we've mentioned and the things that are required for these changes and this hope to actually emerge in humanity, and to take this opportunity, like you mentioned, to make this much needed change and for us to be agents of it. 

I want to thank you both for your time today. And I don't know if there's any final thoughts that you would like to share before we end.

PAUL: Thanks so much. Yeah. I feel that there are amazing movements happening. I'm on the island of Molokai, which is the most Hawaiian of the Hawaiian Islands now. And just kind of looking at this movement percolating in the community on several different levels. The people are really trying to examine, “How can we make our community sustainable?” “How can we build the kind of relationships that we need?” “How can we deepen the conversations about these concerns that we have about the future, especially around the question of children and youth?” And I find that that's the thing that really grabs people's attention, is “What are we going to do for our children?” “What's happening with our children? 

So I think there's a great opportunity to focus around the welfare of children and their future. And that kind of wakes people up a little bit as Thomas was saying earlier with regard to his own family and how that motivates him. So I'm just at the level of a small community, I'm seeing that as an issue that animates people. And I think that's a hopeful sign.

THOMAS: To add just two quick points. I think the Bahá'í community has an enormous amount to contribute here, and it's not well understood how the Bahá'í Faith and Bahá'í culture have kind of pioneered many of these ideas and concepts. And I think that there is an important role for Bahá'ís to bring this message to the larger world. And in fact I even considered writing about the Bahá'í Faith in Commanding Hope, but I was already way past the length I was supposed to write. So that's one. 

And the second, just to pick up on what Paul said, there's something very interesting happening on islands around the world. It's true on Vancouver Island where the progressive green movement seems to be developing much faster than anywhere else; except perhaps Prince Edward Island on the other coast of the country. And then in Hawaii, as Paul was suggesting on some of the islands there, even in, interestingly enough, the United Kingdom is way ahead in some ways in terms of its plans on climate change.

So there's something about being on an island that gives people a sense of their, perhaps, their vulnerability, but also their sense of common community in facing these issues, which could be, potentially, again, communicated more broadly. But thank you very much for this wonderful conversation. 

PAUL: Yes.

DELARAM: Thank you again.