Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril
Vintage Canada, 2022
Reviewed by Don Alexander
Don Alexander is a partially retired professor at VIU and Chair of the Environmental Scan Working Group of the VIU President’s Task Force on Climate Action and Sustainability.
Thomas Homer-Dixon’s Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril is a magisterial book, comprehensive and thoughtful.
It aims to shed a compassionate light on what drives people to opposite ends of the spectrum on the defining issues of our times, such as the threat of climate change, economic stress, political violence, and mass migration.
A political scientist with nearly 30 years of experience, Homer-Dixon writes for both academic and mainstream audiences. His arguments in Commanding Hope veer toward the academics, however, and are complex—even convoluted. It takes patience to follow him through his intellectual labyrinth, though the reader’s persistence is rewarded.
Homer-Dixon offers an excellent examination of the different varieties of hope—from blind optimism to the urgency of life circumstances that impelled generations of immigrants to stake everything on building a new life in a foreign land. He even discusses those who, in their cynicism, think that hope in any form is a twisted illusion.
Homer-Dixon argues for a form of hope that empowers people to act while, at the same time, not having any illusions about the enormity of the challenges we face. To illustrate his point around this, he draws from sources as diverse as Stephanie May, anti-nuclear testing activist and mother of long-serving former Canadian Green Party leader, Elizabeth May; Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings; numerous philosophers, and his own childrens’ existential questioning.
To surmount the challenges we face, we must look at the three linked structures every society comprises—Worldviews, Institutions, and Technology. The intertwined nature of these structures is why social change is so challenging. To change society, one must change all three, and each reinforces the other.
As example, Homer-Dixon uses the belief in the primacy of personal liberty, which feeds into and is reinforced by institutions of ‘free enterprise’ backed up by private property and the state. The technology of the automobile, Homer-Dixon says, symbolizes the freedom to go anywhere at any time regardless of the consequences for the planet, for urban quality of life, and for other users of the road.
Discussing the rise of polarization in global society, he notes that—far from being a path to diverse enlightenment—the internet has fostered the growth of echo chambers; recent polls show that people all over the world believe the future will be worse rather than better.
This feeds a fear and scarcity mentality that is ripe for exploitation by the radical populist politicians emerging around the world.
Homer-Dixon notes that societal groups have their own “hero stories,” even though they may differ from each other wildly in perspective, method, and goals. No matter the issue, each group believes it is contributing to the greater good in some way.
For example, many climate change contrarians “see themselves as challenging raw nature at the frontier of the Canadian wilderness and turning it into something enormously useful.”
People on the opposite side of the climate change issue as Homer-Dixon—contrarians and deniers—see him as a threat: “They see someone representative of larger forces that could take away the fruit of their enterprise and limit their freedom. [They think] I’m suggesting that government should steal their wealth and bind them in a web of rules and regulations.”
Homer-Dixon applies his hero-story definition to himself, emphasizing his fight with those that “attack scientists” and “dismiss scientific fact.”
“They threaten to cut the heart out of my … hero story, as I fight greed and recklessness to protect a planet I fear will die. I’m inclined to see their moral commitments to personal freedom, private property, and the right to self-betterment as nothing more than the cover for rank selfishness—and for pillaging nature while the pillaging is good…. That’s the essence of the mirror image: each side plays the villain in the other’s hero story.”
A key distinction Homer-Dixon makes is between “feasible” change and “enough” (or adequate) change. This distinction often pits politicians and corporate leaders against forthright environmentalists like Greta Thunberg. The former urges caution and moderation so as not to damage the economy, while the latter says we don’t have time for half-measures. In the last section of the book, Homer-Dixon suggests that ‘feasible’ actions and adequate ones are not so far apart.
Commanding Hope concludes by looking at possible values and narratives that could unite all of humanity, such as opportunity, safety, justice, identity and “protect[ing] our children.”
Bringing people together around these values will be challenging. As we have seen in the past century, many leaders and factions seem more interested in imposing their ideology on others than in protecting and enhancing life for all.
Overall, Homer-Dixon’s Commanding Hope is a complexly written but important book we can learn much from.
We live in complex and challenging times and this book enables us to make a lot more sense of them. Moreover, Homer-Dixon is seeking to give people—young people who will inherit the future, especially—a viable source of hope.
Whether he fully succeeds is another matter.
As mentioned above, the prospect of everyone uniting around what he sees as commonsense ideals may involve an unwarranted leap of faith on his part. His book might be profitably read in combination with others that address the issue of finding hope in dark times, such as Hope Matters by Erin Kelsey and How to be a Climate Optimist by Chris Turner.
If Homer-Dixon provides a view from Mount Olympus, Kelsey and Turner offer a reconnaissance more from the ground.
Homer-Dixon is the author of several full-length works, including The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down; his shorter pieces can be found in papers such as The New York Times and journals such as Population and Development Review. In 2000, he was the recipient of the Caldwell Prize of the American Political Science Association. Homer-Dixon is Executive Director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in his birthplace of Victoria, BC.