November 13, 2000

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Director of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program and Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Toronto

Between 1990 and 1998, 100 experts from around the world collaborated to explore the relationship between environmental degradation and security. The core issue of the research project revolved around why some societies can adapt to scarcities in environmental resources in a relatively easy manner, while in others, similar conditions lead to instability, dislocation, and violence. According to Dr. Homer-Dixon, the varying abilities of societies to adapt were related to the size of each society's "ingenuity gap."

The "ingenuity gap" is an idea used to understand how well societies can manage their problems at the global, national, and individual levels. The greatest problems that face society today occur under rapidly changing and uncertain circumstances. At the global level, we are challenged by climate change, international financial crises, and chronic "zones of anarchy" in the developing world; at the national level, by rising antibiotic resistance, chronic health care crises, persistent homelessness, and widening gaps between the super-rich and everyone else; and at the individual level, by information overload resulting from the information revolution.

Ingenuity itself is defined as ideas applied to solve problems, or specifically, sets of instructions on how to arrange the constituent parts of our physical and social worlds in order to achieve certain goals. There are two types of ingenuity: social and technical. Social ingenuity involves the arrangement of human relations and the creation of institutions, such as markets or banking. Our technological and scientific innovations comprise technical ingenuity. It is important to note that while we are often more attuned to advances in technical ingenuity, social ingenuity is a precursor of and oftentimes, prerequisite to technical ingenuity. For example, because the profit motive fuels research and development, properly functioning markets in which property rights are enforced are prerequisites to technological advancements.

Thus, the ingenuity gap occurs when the requirement for ingenuity - the amount of ingenuity needed to maintain a certain standard of living - rises faster than the supply of ingenuity. The ingenuity gap idea does not imply an "end to science." Rather, although the supply of human creativity and ingenuity is nearly infinite, the shortfalls in the creation, implementation, and delivery of ingenuity lead to an ingenuity gap.

Our requirement for ingenuity has soared as our problems grow bigger and faster than we can manage and while our expectations of what we want and what we think we can do have increased. Problems have risen so quickly for a number of reasons. The billions more people on the planet today consume more energy and materials than ever before. They have more technological power today to produce, invent, communicate, travel, and destroy. Vastly expanding our agency horizon, these technological developments have sharply increased the density, intensity, and pace of human interactions and have contributed to environmental and epidemiological stresses. In addition, the information revolution has contributed to a shift in power from states and governments to individuals and subgroups, complicating the abilities of governing powers to coordinate and enforce solutions to problems. From international financial crises to global climate change and the AIDS pandemic, these technical and social issues require us to make quicker and more sophisticated decisions about our political, institutional, and technological arrangements. In our relationship to each other and to our environment, we have created extremely complex systems that work in rapidly changing and often unpredictable circumstances, challenging our abilities to make policy decisions.

Indeed, the factors that have increased our requirement for ingenuity may also stimulate our supply of ingenuity. The trend toward urbanization develops cities, hotbeds of creativity where a high density of people can exchange ideas and entrepreneurial ability. Better transportation and information technologies allow people, goods, and ideas to flow faster around the world. Nongovernmental organizations, empowered by the Internet, now have increased powers at work to reform our institutions and to solve environmental degradation, labor and human rights violations, and other such problems.

However, we may not always be able to supply the ingenuity we need. Five factors may limit our supply of sufficient ingenuity. First, the human brain is physically and biologically limited. While the human brain has evolved over millions of years to be highly adaptable, it faces certain cognitive limitations in its ability to process and analyze complex systems. Second, markets, often used by policymakers as a tool for problem solving, are riddled with failures. Especially true when dealing with the natural environment, when the true costs and benefits of goods and services are not reflected in their market prices, the ingenuity response of our economies is skewed. Third, physical constraints on science limit our technological capacities. There is a tendency to extrapolate fantastic advances in information technology to other areas of science. However, as seen in the difficulties of developing nuclear fusion technology or cures for cancer over the past few decades, science sometimes faces considerable obstacles. Fourth, the dark side of the communications revolution is that it has increased the power of subgroups and special interests to obstruct and hobble creative legislation. When these new technologies are coupled with new techniques, such as scientific polling, direct marketing, and image management, elected policymakers may be more likely to make decisions based upon polling results rather than engaged deliberation and democratic consultation. Fifth, the supply of ingenuity may be limited by the combination of today's frenetic pace of social change and democratic decision-making. In democratic societies, decision-making is built upon the slow process of consensus building. However, when the pace of change increases, the time available to build consensus narrows, and small but powerful interest groups can more easily derail political agreements.

The ingenuity gap has significant meaning for our future. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens around the world, the shared reality of human beings is increasingly fragmented. Two hundred years ago, most societies around the world were agrarian, and the lives of human beings were bound to and significantly affected by the natural environment. For many of the poor in developing countries, they still live in a close daily relationship with nature. For others, especially the world's rich "super-elite", they are separated from the natural world and live in an artificial reality of concrete and climate controlled buildings. The planetary super-elite, while extremely educated, knowledgeable, and cosmopolitan, is self-enclosed, self-referential, and largely homogeneous in its values and aspirations. The rich and poor are now beginning to live in radically different realities around the world. This may radically limit our ability to compromise to solve our problems - such as climate change - because we lack a strong sense of global community.

To combat this trend, we must try to see beyond the "The Big I" - the collective human ego. In our artificial realities, separated from the natural environment and in a state of compressed time and space, we lose our sense of awe of nature and of our place in the universe. We need to restore our relationship with nature and with each other. Only with a more reflective and prudent view of our relationship with the cosmos, and only with a shared sense of destiny and community will we be able to supply the ingenuity to solve our most trying problems.

Thus, while The Ingenuity Gap does not provide a checklist of answers and policy recommendations about how to solve our problems, it addresses the moral and spiritual changes necessary to address our problems. It proposes that we acknowledge and redress the technological hubris and triumphalism that has affected the global elite and that has led this elite to ignore certain problems and assume other problems will be magically solved. Instead of waiting for a crisis to spur our creativity, the enormous talent and optimism of human beings should be poured into developing the sense of community that will help us narrow the ingenuity gap.

Prepared by Radha Kuppalli, Junior Fellow.