Realist “Dr. Doom” on the rural-urban divide, denialism, and finding hope

Written By Keith Norbury
Photos By Chad Hipolito

People living in B.C.’s rural areas seldom get any respect, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, one of Canada’s leading scholars on complexity science, human conflict and threats to global security.

“The folks in the lower mainland and southern Vancouver Island, in these highly urbanized areas, sometimes, I think, forget that the foundations of our wealth in this province were from these extractive industries,” Homer-Dixon said during an interview under a gazebo in a Japanese Garden at Royal Roads University.

“There’s, I think, a real frustration in these rural areas with a perception of condescension from the urbanized areas.”

He is 100 per cent convinced that such condescension is driving increasing numbers of rural people to embrace far-right politics, such as those espoused by Maxime Bernier of the People’s Party of Canada. Homer-Dixon also blames “very rapid change that’s doing enormous damage to their livelihoods.” 

On the other hand, he notes a “complete incomprehension, frankly” among rural residents about certain cultural transitions in urban areas – “what would be pejoratively called woke culture.”

“We’re in an absolutely unprecedented situation on this planet of shared fate… we’re either going to live together or we’re going to die together.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon

In his most recent book, Commanding Hope, Homer-Dixon references two tools he and his colleagues have honed – the state space method, which Homer-Dixon created, and cognitive affective maps, invented by philosopher/cognitive scientist Paul Thagard – to bridge conflicts by probing people’s worldviews. The tools are two of four core methodologies foundational to Homer-Dixon’s work at the Cascade Institute, a cross-disciplinary research network he founded at Royal Roads in 2020.

Tasked with finding “interventions” to help humanity avert environmental, economic, political, and societal calamity associated with escalating climate change, the institute seeks solutions to what he calls the converging “polycrisis” facing humanity. That polycrisis encompasses “everything from collapsing biodiversity, to pandemics, rising inequality and worsening political authoritarianism.”

Homer-Dixon cited an example of the institute’s work, a project in collaboration with Simon Fraser University and other researchers across the country, tentatively called the National Dialogue on Values and Economic Renewal.

“That title will probably change,” Homer-Dixon said. “But the whole point of this is to try to bring people together, (and) have a conversation about what we want to be and do as a people in a time of enormous change.”

“We actually have a lot of scientific knowledge about the nature of our problems, what we need to do to solve them, and what’s going to happen if we don’t. It’s not like the Black Death in 14th century Europe, where people actually didn’t know what to do to make it okay. Now we know.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon

To put himself through university, from 1974 to 1978, Homer-Dixon worked, among other jobs, as a timber cruiser on northern Vancouver Island, and in the oil and gas industry in Alberta and B.C. He grew up on seven hectares surrounded by 80 hectares of forest at Prospect Lake, about 12 kilometres from downtown Victoria. Later, after he became a university professor and award-winning author, he lived for over 17 years in rural Fergus, Ontario.

“I was always fascinated to read the letters to the editor in the township newspaper,” Homer-Dixon said. “There is a very profound gap here in attitudes and beliefs between these communities. And that’s dangerous; that can tear us apart.”

“A lot of what’s happening in the world is more tragic than anything else, because it’s a manifestation of not so much our evil nature, but of certain flaws in our character, in our psychology, that have come to the fore. Our tendency, for instance, not to think about the long-term ramifications of what we’re doing.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon

He sees those playing out of late in protests to preserve stands of old-growth timber about 100 kilometres to the west of Royal Roads at Fairy Creek, “which by the way, I entirely support 100 per cent.”

He takes his cue from his late father, a professional forester with the Greater Victoria Water District. “At the end of his life, my dad, who had spent a lot of his time logging old growth in the Sooke Lake watershed, said, ‘You know, we shouldn’t be logging old growth anymore. There’s just not very much of it left.’”

Notwithstanding that, the younger Homer-Dixon said, “I’m actually a supporter of the logging industry in this province,” referencing an observation in his national bestselling book, The Ingenuity Gap, that “we have to understand that significant parts of the landscape of the planet will be essentially cropland for wood.”

He imagines such wood producing cross-laminated timber to lock up carbon in skyscrapers, “which would be fabulous,” he said. “We can do this sustainably. The problem in B.C. is they’ve been too greedy.”

From tadpole to doomsayer

Homer-Dixon, his spouse Sarah Wolfe, and his two children now occupy the home in rural Metchosin where his dad lived the last 40 years of his life. Douglas Homer-Dixon moved there six years after the untimely death of his wife, Constance, from multiple sclerosis in 1970 when she was just 41 and their son only 13.

“I bring from my childhood experiences a capacity to leave denialism behind, and to not fool myself about what life can be like sometimes,” Homer-Dixon said. “It can go badly really quickly. You need to be aware of how that can happen.”

His parents were huge influences on their only child, to whom they endowed the nickname Tad, based on recurring minor characters in the comic strip Pogo. The nickname stuck — until high school when he went by his middle name Fraser.

He has since reverted to Tad — although “Dr. Doom” is what friends sometimes jokingly call him.

“My wife calls him that all the time,” quipped Ian Graham, who played with him as a child in the Royal Roads woods and has remained close over the years. “She says, ‘Ian, it’s Dr. Doom on the phone.’”

Despite that label, Homer-Dixon says he is neither a pessimist, nor an optimist, but a realist.

“Both of those adjectives, optimistic and pessimistic, suggest that you are filtering the evidence you’re getting either positively or negatively,” he said. “I’m a scientist. I believe in looking at evidence as neutrally as possible, and then making your judgment.”

Medal-winning volume

Homer-Dixon first soared to prominence with The Ingenuity Gap, which won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction in 2001. It examined whether societal and environmental problems were getting worse faster than the capacity of human beings to devise solutions.

In 2006, The Upside of Down — subtitled, Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization — analyzed such calamities as the energy crisis that destroyed the Roman Empire to illustrate a larger dynamic of civilizations.

“The kinds of stresses and scarcities that are developing in the world naturally incline people to retreat inwards and build barriers around themselves and their communities and get ready to fight each other. That’s what I’ve been studying my whole life.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon

“I’m not actually more optimistic than I was in my earlier incarnations — in fact, I think much of what I predicted in my earlier books is unfolding more or less the way I expected,” he said by email. “(I don’t actually get called ‘Dr. Doom’ anymore.) But parenthood did focus my attention on the psychological necessity of hope. I’d always intended my third book to be prescriptive; Ben and Kate just gave me the extra nudge to write it that I needed.”

Commanding Hope contains poetic descriptions, such as a visit with his parents to a remote beach on Vancouver Island’s west coast when he was 12. The beach is now part of Pacific Rim National Park. Forty-eight years later, Homer-Dixon returned with his children, Ben and Kate, to that special place.

“It was interesting to go back after 50 years — there was a stairway coming down the cliff now — but to see that it was still essentially unchanged,” Homer-Dixon said in the interview. 

In the book, he lets his mind wander five decades ahead and ponders what a metre rise in sea level would do to that scene.

Nudge from parenthood

As he struggled to write Commanding Hope, he remembered something a mentor had told him at the University of Victoria in the late 1970s. On leave from the United Nations to write a book, Bill Epstein told his protégé that “it was the mothers” who stopped nuclear-weapons testing in the 1960s.

Decades later, Homer-Dixon started searching for those mothers. One turned out to be Stephanie May, mother of former Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May. Homer-Dixon had previously met with the younger May and her staff and introduced them to other academics he knew. He and May have since gotten to know each other better now they are both living on southern Vancouver Island.

“Sometimes when you meet someone you’ve always wanted to meet they’re less friendly than you would have hoped,” May said. “But Tad was extremely open, friendly, kind, generous with his time, and generous with his advice.”

“We have to create space for nature to flourish in a new way, because it’s not going to return to the way it was before. We’re smart enough to be partners with nature to bring nature back.”

Thomas Homer-Dixon

Mad Max warnings

May often invokes Homer-Dixon’s warnings, such as in a recent conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“I’ve started using Tad Homer-Dixon’s language of his most recent book — it’s a post-apocalyptic Mad Max world. It’s a dystopian nightmare,” she said.

May drew comparisons between her own mother and Homer-Dixon’s, who were both artists. May’s friend Vicky Husband, a well-known Victoria area environmentalist, met both mothers. Husband and her then husband once went to dinner with Homer-Dixon’s parents when his mom was already battling the demons of MS.

“I think they served venison,” Husband recalled. “I remember Tad’s mother saying, ‘Well, if you don’t shoot it, you shouldn’t eat it’ or something to that effect.” Homer-Dixon recalled that “we had a freezer full of deer every winter.” And in Commanding Hope, he noted his mother “was a crack shot and superb hunter.”

Homer-Dixon said he too hunted deer, with his parents, “a lot.” He also spent quite a bit of time alone on Vancouver Island’s remote beaches and forests with just a compass and an axe.

Today, his physical pursuits are primarily solitary. He is fit and lean, especially for his 65 years. At six-foot-two, he cuts a strapping figure. He keeps in shape by walking and hiking, and especially swimming. He just bought a new wetsuit.

“I do long distance swimming in Matheson Lake,” he said, referring to a popular regional park in Metchosin. “With the wetsuit, I’m hoping I can swim in the ocean. And then I do a lot of cycling and then just chopping wood and stuff like that.”

Wood is a recurring theme in his life and books. In The Upside of Down, he examined how the ancient Romans chopped a lot of it to heat their famous baths. But for muscle power, what he calls “proximate solar energy,” Rome also relied on rural areas to grow food, grain and fodder “to create the calories to drive the muscles that built the empire.”

Throughout human history rural areas have been subjected to these “often predatory” extractive forces. The same dynamics apply today in the forestry and mining industries that drive the rural B.C. economy.

Homer-Dixon has analyzed such conflicts for over two decades. His original academic book — published in 1999, 10 years after he earned his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — was titled Environment, Scarcity, and Violence.

“And that really focuses on those relationships between environmental stress and violent conflict,” he said in a March 2021 interview with former student Nikola Danaylov, who has posted more than 200 podcast interviews with visionary thinkers — ranging from Ray Kurzweil to Noam Chomsky — on his Singularity Weblog.

In that interview, Homer-Dixon also succinctly described two types of hope. “Hope to” is passive hope in which people just let things happen and wish for the best. “Hope that” is an active form whereby people make better things happen.

Superstar professor

In an interview with Northern Beat, Danaylov called Homer-Dixon “a superstar” of the University of Toronto’s political science department.

“His class was one of the classes that you had to go make sure you try early to register for, otherwise you may be out of luck, because there’s just too much interest in him,” said Danaylov, 45, who goes by the pseudonym Socrates in his podcasts. 

What Danaylov remembers most about that class — the only thing, he told his former prof — were the double-hinged pendulums

Homer-Dixon explained, the pendulums are “highly sensitive to initial conditions.” As a result, “even the tiniest, tiniest factors, slight tremor of the hand, or maybe a bit of air turbulence in the room that influences one and not the other, will produce ultimately a huge difference in how they behave and the way they flip back and forth.”

He’s also wary that such a flip can occur from nudges humans are inflicting on the natural world. “Systems are going to flip and so when they flip, then what happened before it doesn’t really help you very much,” Homer-Dixon told Northern Beat.

Techno-optimists criticized

When he started his blog, Danaylov admitted he was a Singularity “fan boy.” The Singularity refers to a hypothesized technological singularity — a point where exponential technological change becomes so rapid that artificial intelligence far outstrips human cognition. Among the leading proponents of the Singularity notion is the computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, one of many Singularity-minded thinkers Danaylov has interviewed.

Homer-Dixon called such thinkers techno-optimists, a perspective Danaylov now shares. Those techno-optimists include, in Homer-Dixon’s view, Harvard psychologist and fellow Canadian Steven Pinker, who argues in his books — like The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Enlightenment Now — that the arc of human progress bends toward a brighter future.

In Commanding Hope, Homer-Dixon said Pinker is “more careful with reasoning and evidence” than other techno-optimists. Nevertheless, he accused Pinker of “a certain amount of whistling past the graveyard.”

Nevertheless, he would relish the opportunity to debate these differences with Pinker. “I think that would be actually a useful exercise,” Homer-Dixon said.

Imagine that — two Canadian intellectual giants squaring off at Royal Roads University’s Hatley Castle, the place where superheroes like the X-Men and Deadpool battled supervillains.

Good fun at parties

“I’ve never heard him express any animus toward Steven Pinker,” said David Welch, who has known Homer-Dixon since the early 1980s when they were graduate students, Welch at Harvard, and Homer-Dixon at MIT. “Tad really hasn’t had any feuds with anybody that I’m aware of. There’s been polite scholarly disagreements (and) debate about various things, but we all get that.”

Both Welsh and Homer-Dixon taught in the peace and conflict studies program at the University of Toronto in the early 2000s. About a year after Homer-Dixon left to take up a position at the new Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo, Welch followed him there.

“I have a lot of respect and admiration for him,” Welch said. “And I was very sad to see him leave us at the Balsillie School.”

A 2009 Toronto Star profile of Homer-Dixon quoted Welch as saying, “The bearers of bad news aren’t often welcome at parties.” Welch doesn’t remember saying that, but told Northern Beat, “He is good fun at parties.”

Smoke on the Water

When he was in Grade 12 at Claremont Senior Secondary School in Saanich, Homer-Dixon admitted, he really liked to party. At Claremont, Homer-Dixon went by Fraser, his middle name. His entry in the 1973 yearbook reads, “Fraser likes music, parties and ’52 Oldsmobiles.”

Among his partying pals was Ross Damude, who vividly remembers hanging out at Homer-Dixon’s home at Prospect Lake.

“The very first time I heard Deep Purple’s album Machine Head was at that house,” said Damude, who became a rock musician and music producer. “It’s funny because 25 years later, I’d be part of a management team with a band called Wide Mouth Mason, playing in Montreux.”

While Damude is astounded and thrilled at Homer-Dixon’s success, he said, “I’m not really overly surprised when I look back in retrospect.”

Homer-Dixon’s friendship with Damude came at a critical time. “I always admired Ross,” he said. “He seemed like a point of wisdom in a very turbulent period for me — only a few years after my mum died.”

Homer-Dixon was into muscle cars in those days. “I spent a lot of time in the garage,” he said. In 1973, after graduating high school, he owned a 1969 Mustang and, two years later, a 1968 Firebird.

“I attribute my understanding of, and my interest in, causation and how things affect each other to my work with machines when I was a teenager,” said Homer-Dixon, who today drives an electric Chevy Bolt, “an amazing piece of technology” that would blow the doors off his old Mustang.

As a consequence, he believes in kinesthetic education “that is engaged physically with the world.” That’s also why his children attended Montessori school.

Playing in the woods

His own teaching stopped with his move to the Cascade Institute. “But I do a lot of guest lectures,” he said. “And we have a component of the Cascade Institute that’s focused on education.” He plans to incorporate into that a series of physical models of complex concepts, like double-hinged pendulums, “that people can actually play with physically.”

As a child he used to play in the woods at Royal Roads with Ian Graham, his oldest friend, who is now a Cascade Institute advisor. They met in the second or third grade at Glenlyon Preparatory School. (Homer-Dixon was precocious, so his mother enrolled him in Grade 1 at another school when was still five years old.) Graham’s family lived on the Royal Roads campus where his father was director of studies, a civilian in charge of academics at the then-military college. 

Years later, while at Carleton University, Homer-Dixon established the Canadian Student Pugwash, a youth organization patterned after the Pugwash movement spearheaded by philosopher Bertrand Russell to address the threat of nuclear war. Homer-Dixon recruited his old friend to set up a chapter at Montreal’s McGill University, where Graham went to graduate school.

“Tad was a really smart kid,” said Graham, who has a doctorate in biophysics from McGill and recently retired from a career that included posts with the Bank of Montreal, University of Toronto, and the National Research Council.

“That’s probably why the two of us liked to hang out because we were both the smart kids, and we were, in some ways, a bit socially awkward. It made sense for us to hang out because we shared an interest in things. We would get fixated and fascinated by something and just stick with it for days and days.”

One “totally ridiculous example” from grade school, that he hopes won’t embarrass his old friend, involved a Sucrets container, with a power cord and a few other odds and ends, that they tried to turn into a time machine. The result was “our own little, obviously non-functional, time machine, and obviously non-functional death machine — because we’re still here,” recalled Graham, who now lives in Toronto.

Had the time machine worked, it could have whisked them into a future where they remained regularly in touch, culminating in a project at the Cascade Institute on the potential of geothermal power to narrow Canada’s green energy gap. Geothermal fits the institute’s overarching aim of finding “breakout” interventions to solve humanity’s most pressing challenges.

“Cascade” is a double entendre, referring to the Cascadia eco-region and “positive cascades of change,” Homer-Dixon explained.

These “virtuous cascades” he attributes to Trevor Hancock, a retired UVic professor, public health physician, activist, futurist, and first leader of the Green Party of Canada.

Hancock, who now serves on the institute’s scientific advisory board, described himself as a new friend of Homer-Dixon’s, but it’s clear they’ve become fast friends — not the least because they are both “ideas” guys and generalists.

“I think the principal difference between us is that Tad is often looking at, and talking at, a societal or global level,” Hancock said. “And I’m much more interested in local.”

Homer-Dixon is, however, aware of what’s going on in his own locality, says his neighbor Peter Chettleburgh. 

“That’s part of being in Metchosin — we’re all very rural-minded,” Chettleburgh said. 

Crossing the rural-urban divide

Homer-Dixon crosses a rural-urban divide every time he drives his Bolt between his home in Metchosin and the Royal Roads campus in the Victoria suburb of Colwood. On the border between the two communities, a massive urban development called Royal Bay has been taking shape over two decades in a former gravel pit. 

“You walk five meters from the edge of that Royal Bay development across the boundary into Metchosin and it’s like you stepped into a different world,” Homer-Dixon said.

Where Colwood ends and Metchosin begins. [Photo Royal Bay Development]

Where Colwood and neighbouring Langford have doubled their combined populations — from 32,594 to 63,442 in the last 20 years – Metchosin’s has barely budged. 

Today Metchosin remains an enclave of working farms, hobby farms, and scattered subdivisions. Many residents live on acreages, which helps explain why its benchmark house price in December 2021 was $1,342,500. 

“I fear for Metchosin, you know,” Homer-Dixon said this past October. “I love the life there. It’s becoming increasingly anachronistic in some ways. The contrast between what Metchosin wants and is trying to achieve and what (mayor) Stew Young has been doing in Langford, it couldn’t be starker.”

Nevertheless, it was Homer-Dixon’s magical childhood memories — such as camping with his parents for a week on the Cowichan River — that inspired him to return to Vancouver Island with his family to live.

“It still is magical,” he said. “It’s more crowded. But you know, we still see the eagles overhead and orcas off the coast. You still find places where you’ve got wildflowers in the forest — if you know where to look for them.”

As someone who deals in complexity, though, his words soon return to the crises at hand — the suis generis situation, historically unique — that humans are in. A six-metre sea level is locked in; coral reefs will die; the forests will burn.

“This is going to be a really, really hard time,” he said. “But I also think that maybe this is the moment when human beings actually have to grow up and mature as a species — because we’ve been behaving like I did when I was a teenager.”