Thomas Homer-Dixon, system failure, 2002

Thomas Homer-Dixon's 2002 speech on system failure anticipated the coronavirus pandemic by 18 years
Thomas Homer-Dixon

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. His research, writing and speaking is focused on threats to global security including economic instability, climate change, and energy scarcity. He believes that human society and ecological systems are under multiple stresses occurring at a rate that is too rapid and extreme to be met in customary ways. He gave this speech to the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in 2002. It is in many ways a prescient message anticipating the global coronavirus pandemic which is occurring eighteen years later in 2020.   

“We have to be aggressively proactive on multiple fronts”

The Speech

Humankind, I argue, is on the cusp of a planetary emergency. We face an ever-greater risk of a synchronous failure of our social, economic and biophysical systems, arising from simultaneous, interacting stresses acting powerfully at multiple levels of global systems . . . The first [stress] is human population growth and the demographic imbalances that this growth is producing around world. By the time our population stabilizes, we will see, almost certainly, at least 50 percent further growth from the current six billion. We will see, in fact, as much absolute growth in the next fifty years—about three billion people will be added to the world’s population—as we saw in the last forty years. Conservative commentators are wrong: the population explosion is not over, by any means; indeed, we are probably just past its halfway point . . .

Climate change

The second tectonic stress is the rising capacity of humanity to fundamentally perturb its natural environment and earth’s biogeochemical systems . . . I’m going to talk about climate change for a moment. There is evidence, most notably in high latitudes, that climate changes are starting to occur very quickly. The signal of human-induced warming appears to be emerging from the noise of regular climate variations. For example, upward-scanning sonar used by the American military to determine the thickness of Arctic ice shows that the icepack has thinned by about 40 percent in the last forty years. The average thickness is now about 2 metres, and the thinning appears to be continuing at the rate of about a tenth of a metre every year.

Straightline extrapolation suggests that we could see in three decades or so the appearance of wide swathes of open water in the Arctic. Given that open water absorbs about 80 percent more solar energy than sea ice, this development alone could change the energy balance for the whole northern part of the planet.

But straightline extrapolation is a dangerous game in the climate business. One thing that we do know is that climate change, if it occurs, will likely come in sharp, nonlinear jumps, a form of change that human societies have great difficulty anticipating or adapting to.

Furthermore, the costs of climate change will be disproportionately borne by those who can least afford them, especially those in poor regions and areas of marginal agricultural productivity. Rapid climate change produces adjustment problems, and poor societies are least able to keep up.

Energy, disease, inequality

The third tectonic stress is the critical problem of energy supply, especially of hydrocarbons, for a rapidly growing world economy . . . The fourth stress is disease. Although not readily apparent to those of us in rich countries, the world is facing ferocious pandemics of tuberculosis and AIDS. Tuberculosis, the top killer among infectious diseases, had infected nearly a third of the human population; it kills three million people a year (a remarkable 5 percent of total deaths from all causes), and its incidence is growing fast.

The fifth stress is the widening wealth gap between rich and poor around the planet. UN data suggest that this gap has, in crude terms, roughly doubled in size in the last forty years. In 1960, the income of the richest 20 percent of the world’s population was thirty times that of the poorest 20 percent; today, it’s over eighty times greater. Research shows that highly unequal societies tend to be violent. Humankind is creating a grotesquely and increasingly unequal global society, and we can expect it to be increasingly violent . . . The destabilizing social, economic, and political effects of these five tectonic stresses are powerfully boosted by two other factors that I call multipliers.


The first of these is the rising complexity, connectedness, and velocity of human technologies, institutions, and social interactions . . . This increase in connectedness and interdependence produces many benefits, but it can also result in unexpected system behavior, including cascade effects as damage in one part of a global network, whether caused by a new pathogen, a computer virus, or a financial shock, multiplies and spreads rapidly to other parts of the network. Good examples of such destabilizing cascades in the international economy include the Mexican peso crisis in 1994 and the Asian crisis of 1997 and 1998.

The second multiplier is the relentlessly escalating power of individuals and sub-groups, like terrorists and insurgents, to destroy things and people. Put bluntly, the bad guys are getting stronger, fast. They have better weapons: the trend over the centuries has been towards unremitting improvement in the lethality of all weaponry, which generally has meant that steadily fewer people could kill steadily larger numbers of people more quickly than ever before . . .

Upheaval and violence

The bottom line of the preceding analysis is the following: Demographic, environmental, technological, and economic pressures are producing two outcomes that have immense implications for global political stability. First, these pressures are contributing to social upheaval, dislocation, and unmet expectations that boost the grievances of a large fraction of the human population. Second, by undermining the capacity of governments and states, these pressures also boost opportunities for violence by aggrieved groups. In short, they produce exploitable resentments, political instabilities, and radicalized societies . . .

What to do?

So what should we do? What are some possible policies or plans to prevent such an outcome? I believe it’s entirely within human ability to prevent any form of synchronous failure. We must first recognize, though, that for the first time in our species’ history, we have to be aggressively proactive on multiple fronts simultaneously. Each of the five tectonic stresses and two multipliers I’ve identified requires its own policy responses. There’s no magic bullet, no single solution or institutional response that will cover all these problems.

Family planning

We need to be increasing, not decreasing, our support for worldwide family planning; we need to boost efforts around the planet in soil, forest, and water conservation; we need to take climate change far more seriously and begin planning for a global transition to a suite of new energy technologies (including carbon sequestration, geologic storage, and hydrogen power) that will dramatically reduce our carbon emissions; we need to work out reasonable protection for intellectual property rights and then get antiretroviral drugs into the hands of the millions of people infected with AIDS around the world; we need to reform the international financial system so that it no longer wrecks the economies of major countries like Indonesia and Argentina in response to the corrupt economic policies of their elites.

Rethink globalization

We also need to reduce the vulnerability of our complex economic and technological systems to cascade effects and nonlinear failures. This may require a radically different way of thinking about economic development and globalization. Sometimes the best policies may not be those that increase integration, interconnectedness, speed, and efficiency. Sometimes, in order to boost overall system resilience, it might be necessary to loosen the coupling within our economic and technological systems, for instance by making greater use of decentralized, local energy and food production, and by slowing the connection speed between system components, so that people have time to think before they act. And it might be necessary to increase buffering capacity of these systems, for instance by moving away from just-in-time production processes and by increasing inventories of feedstocks and parts for our factories.

Good governance

We especially need ideas on how to build governance capacity at the national and global levels, because, most fundamentally, the challenges we face are about the provision of public goods, like health infrastructure, well-functioning markets, protection of our common environment, and security from violence. The adequate provision of public goods requires capable institutions of governance . . .

We are clearly faced with immense political and intellectual tasks, in public policy, in public education and mobilization, and in scientific research. We need to be investing vastly greater resources in these areas. But if we’re prepared to invest the necessary resources, and if we are prepared to back the right policies with the necessary political will, I’m convinced that my vision of synchronous failure will never be realized.


Photo: Peter Lee
More information: Thomas Homer-Dixon’s March 7, 2020 article in The Globe and Mail newspaper about the corona virus. 
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His latest book is Speeches That Changed Canada.





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