Looking for trouble
Tad Homer-Dixon s prophesies for a crowded planet have, created a stir in Washington
Soft-spoken, methodical and unfailingly courteous, Thomas Homer-Dixon is not the kind of person who flies off the handle at a perceived insult. But there is a noticeable edge to his voice as he discusses an article in the British magazine The Economist branding him an “extreme eco-pessimist” because of his belief that runaway population growth and disappearing resources will trigger wars and widespread civil strife early in the 21st century. To the University of Toronto political scientist, the implication is all too clear: The Economist might just as well have called him Canada’s answer to Chicken Little. “I can only assume,” he says, “that the writer of that piece has never even bothered to read one of my papers.” Like it or not, Homer-Dixon is getting used to the sometimes harsh glare of public attention. At 38, the boyishly handsome native of Vancouver Island has suddenly emerged as one of Canada’s most talked-about and controversial scholars. Last February, his ascendancy to the ranks of academic superstardom was heralded by a widely discussed 12,000-word cover story in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Coming Anarchy.” The author, journalist Robert Kaplan, drew heavily on Homer-Dixon’s work to argue that the primary threats to Western security in the coming decades will be surging populations, environmental degradation, mass migration and lawlessness in the Third World. Since then, the lanky young professor—Tad, to his friends and associates—has been besieged by calls from journalists and conference organizers throughout North America, as well as from publishers eager to sign him up as an author. More significant, he has twice accepted invitations to brief U.S. Vice-President AÍ Gore, a long-standing champion of ecological causes who is one of Homer-Dixon’s biggest fans.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the Clinton administration has embraced Homer-Dixon’s work as the intellectual framework for a new post-Cold War foreign policy—one that for the first time recognizes the environment and population growth as key national-security issues. ‘Tad is one of a fairly small circle of people who are trying to understand and respond to a whole set of global trends, rather than simply focusing on problems in particular countries or regions,” says David Harwood, whose boss, Tim Wirth, is Clinton’s undersecretary of state for global affairs. Adds Harwood: “The most impressive thing is that, no matter what you believe about Tad’s work, he is giving some intellectual context to a crucial debate. We think his research is immensely valuable and important.”
That research is bound to attract even more attention when the University of Toronto professor speaks at the unsponsored International Conference on Population and Development, to be held in Cairo from Sept. 5 to 13. In a speech starkly titled “Population and Conflict,” he will
g argue that high birthrates, scarce resources and shortages I of technical expertise threaten to plunge large areas of the § globe into a “downward and self-reinforcing spiral of crisis I and decay.” While acknowledging that technology and I human inventiveness can help to alleviate those crises, s Homer-Dixon says that many Third World countries face an “ingenuity gap” caused by a lack of trained scientists, shortages of research funds, social conflict and political mismanagement. All of those factors, he says, impede the ability of poor nations to take advantage of new technology. “A country with a serious gap will see higher social dissatisfaction and increased stress on marginal social groups,” he says in the speech he prepared for Cairo. “If this process continues unchecked, the country may fragment as the state becomes enfeebled and peripheral regions come under the control of renegade authorities and warlords.”
'The effects of Chinese civil unrest, mass violence and state disintegration could spread far beyond its borders’
But while policy-makers in Washington and elsewhere praise Homer-Dixon’s work, critics from a variety of camps have been quick to challenge his bleak vision of the future. Those on the right label him a prophet of doom whose goal is to block economic growth and resource exploitation in poorer countries. Taking issue with Homer-Dixon’s prediction of growing chaos in the Third World, the conservative view holds that life for people in most developing nations is getting better, and will continue to improve as more countries embrace capitalism and democracy.
Some of Homer-Dixon’s critics on the left also complain that he is alarmist, although not because they are optimistic about the prospects for economic growth in the developing world. Instead, they resent the implication that Western security is endangered by Third World birthrates and a potential influx of refugees. To them, Homer-Dixon belongs to a circle of “reactionary neo-Malthusians,” named for the English economist Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), who called for stem limits on reproduction in the belief that population growth among the underclasses inevitably resulted in famine, disease and war. “The underlying assumption,” Alexander Cockbum wrote in an assault on Kaplan and Homer-Dixon in The Nation, a leftist New York City-based weekly, “is that the Third World is incapable of reformation or improvement, and efforts to assist it are useless.”
Although Homer-Dixon rejects such criticism, he clearly is not surprised to find his views attacked from both left and right. Part of the problem, he says, is that his approach marries several disciplines: environmental studies, demographics, economics and the study of military conflict. “I’m an odd bird because I do not fit into any pigeonhole,” he says, surrounded by maps and charts in his University of Toronto office. “Some people label me a right-winger who wants to stop the poor from breeding, others call me a radical left-wing environmentalist. The bottom line is this: humans cannot survive unless we harvest the earth’s resources and exploit our environment, and yet we will not survive for long unless we use our resources sparingly. My whole approach is pragmatic.”
Pragmatism and a multidisciplinary approach are both qualities that Homer-Dixon inherited from his parents. An only child, he grew up on his parents’ 17-acre rural property near Prospect Lake, 13 km north of Victoria. His mother, who died of multiple sclerosis when
Tad was 13, was a gifted artist and writer with degrees in botany and zoology. His father, now retired, worked for the local government as chief forester for the Victoria watershed district, responsible for logging operations in a 55-square-mile area.
Growing up in the early 1960s, Homer-Dixon was fascinated by technology and science fiction. His favorite television programs were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and The Outer Limits', his favorite writers included Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allen Poe. Most of his spare time, however, was spent outdoors, hiking through the towering forests of southwestern Vancouver Island or fishing for coho salmon with his parents. “I would disappear for hours and go exploring,” says Homer-Dixon, who still tries to spend several weeks each summer canoeing in Ontario’s Algonquin Park. “There was a creek running through my parents’ property. I spent a lot of time damming that creek and flooding the fields. I was intrigued by how I could make the water do what I wanted it to do.”
That idyllic upbringing was shattered in 1970 by the untimely death of his mother at age 40. “She was an extraordinary person—something of a renaissance woman—and her death really threw me for a loop,” Homer-Dixon says. “I felt strongly about abiding by the values she had laid down, I guess partly because she died at the height of her creativity. I was young and did not know what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to become a rounded person. I consciously set out to get a lot of different experiences under my belt.”
His quest for knowledge and experience began in earnest after Homer-Dixon finished high school in 1973. Instead of going straight to university, he spent two years hopping from job to job: surveying for logging companies in the B.C. interior, building docks and wharves on Vancouver Island, laying pipelines in Alberta. One of his most memorable stints was as a laborer on a natural-gas rig in a harsh and remote comer of northern British Columbia. “Environmentally, I saw things that were appalling by today’s standards—the way they tore up the landscape and dumped waste cavalierly. But working on the rig also gave me a lot of respect for the resource industry—the courage of the men who worked there and the risks they took. They spent well over a million dollars on that project and didn’t get any gas.”
Eventually, Homer-Dixon enrolled in political science at the University of Victoria, but after his second year he quit to spend six months backpacking around Europe. When he returned, he transferred to Carleton University in Ottawa, “because I was interested in government and wanted to be where the action was.” It was there that he took a course on the causes of war and developed an abiding interest in the subject. “Growing up in a very tranquil, peaceful environment, I guess I found it bizarre when people started shooting at each other. That course really started me thinking.”
At Carleton, the young political science major also became involved in the Pugwash movement, an organization of scholars concerned about the arms race and the impact of science on society. After attending one of the group’s meetings, he founded an offshoot group, Canadian Student Pugwash, and spent the next three years as its national co-ordinator—in the process acquiring skills that would later prove invaluable. “Pugwash taught me a lot about practical organization—raising money, trading favors and getting things done,” Homer-Dixon recalls. “I learned how to do things in an entrepreneurial way.”
Pugwash, in fact, was the first step in what became a kind of decadelong work-study program. In the fall of 1982, determined to experience the developing world firsthand, he embarked with a friend on an eightmonth trip through Africa and Asia. “It was like a rolling immersion course—we deliberately chose countries that were as different as possible from what we had known before.” By the time he returned to Canada, he had been accepted as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a place Homer-Dixon likens to “an army boot camp—they strip you down and then gradually rebuild you.”
She years later, having completed his doctorate and anxious to return to Canada, he heard through the grapevine that the University of Toronto had a small Peace and Conflict Studies program that was essentially dormant, with no one in charge. Armed with a $26,000 grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, he cut a deal with the university: in exchange for an office and a phone, he offered to run the program for free.
Success was not long in coming. Drawing on the fundraising abilities he acquired while running the Pugwash organization, he soon raised $260,000 for the prdgram from private donors— enough to hire an assistant and to underwrite a series of conferences and workshops in collaboration with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. That resulted in a groundbreaking article published in the fall of 1991 in the journal International Security. Titled “On the Threshold: Environmental Changes as Causes of Acute Conflict,” it hypothesized that bulging populations and the depletion of resources would impose increasing stresses on poor countries, triggering clashes between ethnic groups, civil strife and insurgencies, “each with potentially serious repercussions for the security interests of the developed world.”
With that paper, Homer-Dixon’s reputation took off. “I guess you could say he had the right idea at the right time,” says Jack Goldstone, a sociologist at the University of California in Davis, Calif. Added Goldstone, an expert on the historical impact of population growth: “His work appeared at a time when people were desperately trying to make sense of all the crises breaking out in places like Somalia and Haiti. And Tad is remarkably good at pulling together a range of ideas and presenting it in a way that is accessible to people in the international-security field.”
One recent illustration is the research Homer-Dixon and others have done on China. After Goldstone published a book on his histori-
cal findings in 1991, the University of Toronto professor invited him to apply his thinking to modern-day China, based on the latest predictions of population growth in that country. To complete the analysis, he called on Václav Smil, an expert on Chinese environmental problems at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
Their findings, summarized in Homer-Dixon’s latest paper, “Across the Threshold,” published this summer in International Security, sharply contradict the conventional wisdom that China’s current 12per-cent annual economic growth rate is propelling the country into the ranks of the developed world. In reality, he says, the economic expansion is confined to coastal regions. The increasing disparity between regions, combined with a still-growing population and shortages of water and cropland, appear capable of sparking large-scale migration and worker uprisings—even the collapse of central authority. Writes Homer-Dixon: “The effects of Chinese civil unrest, mass violence and state disintegration could spread far beyond its borders.”
To some, that scenario might sound overly pessimistic. But HomerDixon’s conclusions are having an impact. Last spring, after reading the Atlantic Monthly article, Vice-President Gore invited the political scientist to dine with him and several senior advisers at his official residence. The session went so well that Gore summoned Homer-Dixon
‘Growing up in a very tranquil, peaceful environment, I guess I found it bizarre when people started shooting at each other’
back for a breakfast in early August, this time with Goldstone and Smil. Other guests included CIA director James Woolsey, Brian Atwood, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), and Jack Gibbons, Clinton’s science adviser. Says Goldstone: ‘What was amazing was to have the head of the CIA and AID in the same room, being told by the vice-president that they should pay attention to this research.” Homer-Dixon, too, is obviously pleased that his ideas are being discussed at the highest levels of power in Washington. Still, he admits to pangs of self-doubt. “It’s flattering to be well-known, but I feel like a band with one hit.” Although he is working on another paper and toying with the idea of writing a piece of his own for The Atlantic, he also worries that the publicity he is getting will cut into the time available for scholarly work. “I just turned down a great offer to do a book for a big American publisher—they wanted something that would get a lot of attention. I was flattered, but I said no. If I do a book, I want it to be rock-solid, something that will bring me the academic recognition.” After all, he may be one of Canada’s best-known academics, but he still has to make tenure. □