Thomas Homer-Dixon

Professor, award-winning author, environmentalist and Bullfrog Founders Club member

Thomas Homer-Dixon holds the Centre for International dixonGovernance Innovation Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario, and is a Professor in the Centre for Environment and Business in the Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo.

Homer-Dixon’s books include the recently released Carbon Shift, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization, winner of the 2006 National Business Book Award, and The Ingenuity Gap, winner of the 2001 Governor General’s Non-Fiction Award.

One of the most influential thinkers of our time, Homer-Dixon has been invited to speak about his research at Ivy League universities, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He has also provided briefings to the Privy Council Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs in Canada, and the CIA and the National Security Council in the U.S.

Homer-Dixon’s work is interdisciplinary, drawing on political science, economics, environmental studies, geography, cognitive science, social psychology, and complex systems theory.

Your research has focused on how societies adapt to complex economic, ecological and technological change. What draws you to this field?

It’s one of the most important questions humanity must address at moment. We are experiencing extraordinary changes in the world around us—in our natural environment, our institutions, and our technologies. We need to learn how to adapt faster and in ways that maintain our prosperity and also reduce our impact on the natural world.

What are three things societies can do to best adapt to change?

First, rather than assuming changes are inevitable, we should determine if we can make changes less demanding. For example, if we reduce our carbon emissions, we can make the effects of climate change less severe. Also, we should change incentives within our societies, marketplaces and economies to encourage entrepreneurs to find new technologies to respond to the changes around us. Finally, we can change the way we educate ourselves and our children. Elements of change and the modern world are interdisciplinary—we must train individuals to develop skills to do interdisciplinary work effectively.

How have your studies shaped your perspective on the environment?

I started out with a conventional understanding of the environment. I was awed by the wonders of nature but regarded it as separate from human beings. Now, in the sense that humans are inflicting on perturbing the natural world, I realize that there is no nature independent of human beings.

Secondly, I understand natural systems as very complex. Ecologists have helped me understand natural systems can behave in very surprising ways and often cannot be managed precisely because we don’t understand them completely. That’s a perspective of humility I’ve developed over time.

What’s your perspective on climate change and the threat it now poses?

I think climate change is a truly unique challenge because it is global and caused by human beings. It’s also unusual because of the following three things: the high degree of uncertainty about what’s going to happen; the time lags in the system between the changes we make and the response of the climate system; and, because the climate change is likely to be non-linear. Earth’s climate has the capacity to shift suddenly from one state to another. These factors make climate change a daunting challenge for mankind.

Your book, Carbon Shift, was released in April 2009. What issues does the book address?

The book is about the relationship between the two problems of oil depletion and climate change. It addresses the fact that if we focus on solving one issue in isolation of the other, we’re liable to negatively impact the other. For example, to address our serious oil depletion problem, we could liquify coal, producing diesel out of coal. However, this approach would increase our problems related to climate change as coal is the dirtiest fuel around; it releases a significant amount of carbon for every unit of energy generated. To address our climate change problem, we should restrict the use of carbon-rich fuels, like coal; but this approach would simply make the economic impact of peak oil worse.

Ultimately, each of the problems constrains the options we have to address the other. The common element across both our energy and climate problems is carbon. Focusing on reducing carbon can be a central organizing principle that will help us address both our energy and climate problems simultaneously. I believe the solution is going to be a technological leap—and involve the wholesale decarbonisation of our energy economy.

How important is renewable electricity in the world’s future energy mix?

Renewable energy will play an absolutely central role in addressing these problems. It will be most useful for distributed energy production—especially electricity production at the level of regions, communities and households. We can likely meet 30 to 40 per cent of our total energy requirements with renewables.

How important is conservation and changing our consumption routines?

Conservation/efficiency and renewables will give us 60 to 80 per cent of what we need in terms of our energy output. They are significant components of any solution to the challenges we face. Our conservation efforts need to be aggressive, however, and involve economic incentives, restructuring our marketplace and increasing costs related to using carbon-intensive fuels.

What roles do professors and environmental/economic/political experts have to play in encouraging a carbon shift?

They are important in that they’re a repository of ideas that can be communicated to the general public. If individuals are better informed on these issues and challenges, they are going to be more effective voters, and will have more effective influence on government and leaders.

Why did you choose to bullfrogpower your home?

I think change has to start in one’s personal life. I’m a strong advocate of various kinds of pro-environment policies and have been for a long time. Naturally, this is reflected in my personal life. Bullfrogpowering our house is one of many initiatives we’re implementing to support the environment. Other initiatives include using bicycles as much as possible for commuting in the community, increasing the insulation within our home to conserve energy, and, eventually, using solar power.

>> Mr. Dixon’s interview was originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of the Bullfrog Buzz.