A commentary by the executive director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University.
How can we sustain our hope in a world where everything has gone wrong all at once?
Problems seem to be coming at us from every direction. Locally, we see more homelessness, toxic drug deaths, and random violence in our lovely cities.
Nationally, inflation is eroding our buying power, while the pandemic, underfunding, and health-care worker burnout have pushed our treasured medical systems to the brink of collapse.
At the same time, the divide between rural and urban zones has become a chasm, trust in government and political leaders has declined to record lows, and citizens’ commitment to the national project called “Canada” is on life-support.
And globally, things look even worse. Climate change is wreaking havoc with extreme storms, droughts, and wildfires; nationalistic authoritarianism is resurgent; a brutal war in the heart of Europe threatens to go nuclear; and scientists tell us that it’s just a matter of time before humanity is hit by another pandemic that could make COVID-19 look like a walk in the park.
It’s a profoundly disheartening mess — what some experts have recently called a “polycrisis” of problems. So it’s no wonder that despair and hopelessness about the future are rife, especially among young people coming into adulthood.
At a time in their lives when countless exciting possibilities should stretch before them, those possibilities seem to be disappearing behind dark clouds.
An entirely understandable reaction — and not just by young people — might be to turn away. The problems seem so big, while each of us individually seems so small.
What can any one of us really do? Let’s focus instead on things we can control in our small circles of families, friends, and community, or on the genuinely good things that are happening around us and ignore — as best we can — all the bad stuff.
But if we all turn away, how will these problems get fixed? Ignored problems almost always just get worse.
And when it comes to challenges like climate change, scientists tell us that ignoring or downplaying them — which means doing little or nothing to fix them — will ultimately lead to a horrific future.
Avoidance and denial may be understandable short-term coping mechanisms, but they’re not going to get us to a future worthy of our hope.
The Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University is founded on the idea that there’s a better path to hope.
First, we need to ensure that our hope is “honest” — that it’s grounded, not in avoidance and denial, but in the best scientific understanding of the polycrisis.
Scientists know that our world is under rising pressure from multiple stresses — environmental, economic, demographic, technological and political. These stresses range from climate heating that lowers crop yields to technological changes like AI-guided robots that tend to shift wealth from labour to capital.
But we don’t fully understand yet how these underlying stresses link together and possibly reinforce each other.
At the Cascade Institute, we’ve found evidence that various “feedback loops” are causing global stresses to synchronize: key global systems seem to be “tipping” in a harmful direction simultaneously.
Here’s an example: A malign mix of stagnant economies, extreme weather due to climate change, civil and international violence, and repressive governance is driving people to leave poor regions around the world and migrate to wealthier regions. In fact, the number of forced migrants globally is now a record.
These migrations can stimulate a rightward, populist shift in receiving countries’ politics, as resistance grows to newcomers.
This shift then often causes wealthy receiving countries to decrease development assistance — foreign aid — to the sending regions, which only exacerbates the economic hardships of those regions and further encourages outward migration.
In this case, a feedback loop helps to synchronize economic, climate, migration and populist stresses. But it’s not all bad news: the complex hyper-connectivity that can sometimes synchronize harmful stresses in today’s world can also supercharge positive, beneficial change.
Between mid-March and mid-April 2020, almost half the world’s population locked down in response to COVID-19’s spread; during the same period, the simple concept of physical distancing went viral, changing people’s personal actions in every corner of the planet.
Never before has such a large fraction of our species altered its behaviour so fast.
And the global vaccine rollout — unfair though it was in many respects, with the poorest regions left behind — was also entirely unprecedented: previously, the average time from microbe isolation to vaccination of 40 per cent of the global target population was 80 years; with COVID-19, it was less than two years.
This combination of lightning-fast behavioural change and vaccination certainly saved tens of millions of lives worldwide.
So the second thing we can do to find honest hope in our complex world is to identify, and work together to leverage, opportunities for rapid, beneficial change.
All of us can participate, because no one can know in advance exactly which new technology, scientific insight, social meme, symbolic moral stand, or new organizing concept might fundamentally change things in a positive way, as it cascades outward through humanity’s dynamic connections.
We still have time to put humanity on a better path, but only if we hope, and believe, we can.
Thomas Homer-Dixon is speaking on “Hope in the Polycrisis” as part of the Changemakers Speakers Series, sponsored by the Times Colonist, on Wednesday, May 31, at the Victoria Conference Centre. Tickets are $20 and are on sale now.
> For tickets: royalroads.ca/events/changemakers-speaker-series-hope-polycrisis
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