5 May 2009 – Thomas Homer-Dixon at the House of Commons “Responding to the converging crises of the 21st century”

Thomas Homer-Dixon talk at the House of Commons
5th May 2009

“Responding to the converging crises of the 21st century”

An audio recording of the original presentation can be found at the Peak Oil Group website:


Most of this talk is contained in his book “The Upside of Down”.

He has a new book just published which is a collection of essays by different authors. It is directed at a Canadian audience but 80% of it is applicable worldwide.

He began by outlining the multiple stresses that the world faces today. He emphasised that these stresses connect to each other and their joint effect may be more than the sum of the individual stresses.

  • Human beings now are a major perturbation to the surface of the earth. It has been estimated that humans move 10 times as much rock and soil than is moved by nature.
  • We are facing an energy transition away from fossil fuels
  • Our world has more complexity and connectivity than ever before, which increases risk of
  • There is a power shift towards small groups. This can increase risk, as small groups could inflict huge damage if they get access to WMDs. Also it can be positive, eg groups can link up and spread new ideas through the internet.

Societal breakdown can occur when the stress to society becomes greater than its coping capacity. Many studies have been done on revolutions (French, Russian etc). Revolutions tend to occur when the old regime can not cope with stresses it faces.

The stresses that we face now are:

  •  Population growth
  •  Environmental damage
  •  Energy stresses
  •  Climate change
  •  Economic instability and inequality

Because we are reaching the limits of the Earth we will find the limits of what is possible. The 21st century will be the age of nature.

We need to shift our view of the world, from one comprised mainly of MACHINES to one comprised

An example of a machine is a clock. If we take it apart we can analyse and understand how it works by looking at the parts. If the clock doesn’t work we can trace the fault to one particular part. This is not true for complex systems.

Complex systems have the following characteristics, which machines do not have, he contrasted their
characteristics as follows:

MACHINES                                                               COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Small change causes
small effects                                                              Small changes can cause big effects

Can predict the effect of changes                             Have emergent properties which can’t be predicted

Behaviour moves smoothly                                       May have more than 1 equilibria, may flip from one state to another

We are moving from a world of risk to a world of uncertainty. He mentioned the seminal work by the economist Frank Knight on the difference between risk and uncertainty. He also mentioned Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”, and Clausewitz’s fog of war.

Climate Change

Climate change is developing in a very alarming way. Recently positive feedbacks seem to be developing enormous force and change in the arctic are occurring much faster than expected.

He quoted from James Hansen’s paper “Where should humanity aim” about albedo flip in the arctic i.e. when the arctic sea ice melts it reveals open water which is much darker hence much better at absorbing heat from the sun – this Is positive feedback process.

He showed Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” chart of temperatures, which shows a very pronounced
spike in temperature over the last few years.

He quoted from a recent paper in Science from the start of this year [I think it was the meta study of research on food supply]. It showed how temperature rises reduce crop yields, and that temperature rises predicted by the IPCC would cause a very large drop in food supply.

There are signs that loss of sea ice in the arctic is starting to cause changes in the system of energy and sea circulation that could be the first non-linear change in the climate system. The surface area above the arctic circle is 9% of the planet’s total area. There are signs that the loss of sea ice is causing the Polar cell to get weaker. This is having an effect on the jet stream, as the jet stream flows where the Polar cell and the Ferrel cell meet. Changes in the position of the jet stream affects storm tracks. This may have an effect on the Monsoon.

Food supply

China requires about 450 million tons of grain per year to feed itself. The total world trade in grain is 200m tons per year. If China had to intervene on the world market for 10% of its grain needs then this would be for 25% of the current world grain trade. Imagine what this would do to the price of grain. This could be the galvanic input which finally wakes the world to the potential of climate change.

The wheat growing regions South of Beijing have been growing steadily drier over recent years, and grain output has reduced. This behaviour was predicted by climate models.

Tails of climate response

He talked about the debate between William Nordhaus and Martin Weitzman about what is an appropriate response to climate change. Nordhaus favours a gradual response. Weitzman however points to the tail of the climate sensitivity distributions and argues that the effect from the tail is so large (5+ C warming) that avoiding it should dominate the policy debate. He mentioned the precautionary principle and
Pascal’s wager here.

Energy supply

The 20th century saw enormous changes.

Population grew 4 times from 1.5 billion to 6 billion.

Agricultural yields per hectare grew 4 times.

Energy inputs per hectare grew 80 times!

We now put far more energy into our food production than we get out of it. On a subsistence farm the Energy Return On energy Invested (EROI) is 30 or 40 to 1. For modern agriculture, with huge inputs from fossil fuels, the EROI is about 50:1 negative i.e. 50x as much energy is input as there is energy harvested.

The petrol in a full petrol tank of a standard North American car has the energy content of the equivalent of 2 years of manual labour.

There are arguments about the exact timing of the peak of oil supply – peak oil. H-D didn’t think the exact timing was important enough to discuss it, he just said that the consensus is now that it is within 15 years. What is more important is the decline rate after the peak. If the decline rate is very steep the world will find it very difficult to adjust. In their latest report from November 2008, the IEA have estimated decline rate for existing fields of 6.7%, this is higher than previous estimates.

The EROI of our fuel sources has been steadily dropping. The first oil had an EROI of about 100:1. Modern American oil has an EROI of about 17:1. Aberta tar sands have EROI of 4:1 or less. As EROI falls, more and more energy is used to produce energy. This is a stress multiplier as we have to transition our energy supply out of fossil fuels because of climate change, at the same time we are faced with
reducing EROI.

Climate change and peak oil are linked in a way that many people do not appreciate. Coal still has a very high EROI, about 80:1 (although coal to liquid has EROI of only 2 or 3 to 1). Modern techniques such as mountaintop mining and using very large trucks have increased mining efficiency and hence EROI of coal.

The increase in oil price, driven by demand and decreasing EROI, has in turn driven a switch back to coal over the last few years. Recent emissions trends have been well above the worst case scenario forecast by the IPCC. The 2006 emissions total was about 0.5 billion tons higher than the worst case estimate. Emissions growth rates in the 1990s were around 1.5% per year but during the 2000s emissions growth rates increased to 3.3% per year. The IPCC worst case scenario would lead to tripling of pre-industrial CO2 level by 2100.

Recent research has shown that CO2 is much longer lived than has previously been thought. A proportion, about 20% remains in the atmosphere for over 1,000 years. Also a recent paper has shown that as man-made CO2 is absorbed and the concentration of CO2 slowly declines in the air, this will not cause a cooling effect. This is because as the world warms and the oceans warm, there is a slower rate of heat loss to the oceans. The reduction in oceanic cooling effect offsets the reduction in warming due to decreasing CO2. What this means is that the science now tells us that cutting CO2 back is not good enough, we have to go to zero emissions as fast as possible.

There are many methods by which we can radically cut emissions, a few examples are:

  • Energy efficiency – huge gains are available quickly
  • Underground coal gasification
  • Enhanced geothermal. This is where you drive several kilometres down in order to get
    very high temperatures to generate steam for generation. The energy available
    from this source is essentially limitless. Money invested into enhanced
    geothermal would generate enormous returns. A CDM test was carried out for

At present 80% of the  world’s energy comes from hydrocarbons. It is unlikely we will be able to change that quickly enough to avoid the need to remove carbon dioxide from the  atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon capture is feasible now. If you have a distributed  source of carbon dioxide pollution e.g. cars running on petroleum, then you should have to build atmospheric carbon capture to capture the waste CO2.


H-D believes that we now have no choice but to develop geoengineering. We will have to cool the poles to avoid disaster. A few years ago geoengineering was seen as being beyond the pale, now the situation is so desperate that it is being considered.


There was a long question and answer session, and in fact H-D used several slides that he had not used in his presentation. It was interesting that one of the first questions was about growth. H-D had not mentioned growth in his speech (apart from obliquely in one bullet point at the end) but he had a slide on it that was an interesting take on our attitude to growth.

Q. Shouldn’t we move towards a system of carbon rationing whereby every citizen of the world gets an equal right to pollute?

A. H-D prefers markets to rationing. He thinks that markets are the greatest engine for innovation ever invented. Harnessing the power of markets will be the quickest way to decarbonize.

Q. The questioner said that in his book H-D went further than in his talk, in terms of talking about growth, he quoted from the book. The quote was about the end of economic growth.

A. H-D referred to the bottom of his last slide in which he referred to the end of growth, although in an oblique fashion. He said that the shift away from conventional growth will happen. The world bank economic forecast report from 2006 estimated world economic growth would continue at 2.5-3% per year. This gives a doubling time of around 25 years. On this estimation, in 50 years time the world economy will
be around 4 times as large as it is now. Such exponential growth in a finite world cannot continue, H-D is absolutely certain that we will reach a steady state economy at some time in the 21st century. He isn’t sure about how to get there successfully, he mentioned Herman Daly as having some answers
about how a steady state economy would function.

Given what we know about the environmental impacts of our actions, if an individual behaved in the
way that the world is behaving they would be seen as being mentally handicapped. Most people are living in a fantasy world, disconnected from reality. Eventually reality will catch up with people and the disconnect will disappear.

H-D showed a slide which was a nice summary of our current psychological approach to growth, why
we think about growth as we do.


He said that we have internalised these attitudes and he explained why:

  1. We expect to be able to grow our way out of debt. We are seeing this now with the current economic crisis, governments are borrowing massively and expect to be able to grow their economies to pay it off. This is what happened during and after WW2, huge debts were incurred then paid off by economic growth. Governments expect to resolve the pensions crisis in the same way, by growth.
  2. The idea of growth as freedom can be traced back to the Enlightenment and the Renaissance. H-D has a PhD student that has done this. Growth has been seen as progress which gives freedom.
  3. We learned this lesson in the 1930s. The Great Depression caused massive unemployment which caused social unrest and the rise of the Nazis, and led to WW2. Keynes came up with a solution to the problem, which was to pump prime the economy to get it growing again and employ the surplus labour. Modern western economies constantly produce surplus labour from innovation. They need to grow by around 2 to 4% per year in order to produce sufficient demand to soak up the surplus labour produced by innovation.  John-Kenneth Galbraith said that growth is the best lubrication for the friction between
    rich and poor.

The question is, in a world economy that is not growing, how can we justify the fact that much of the world’s population exist on an income of $2 per day? H-D does not yet have an answer to this question!

H-D referred to a book called “The moral argument for economic growth” by Benjamin Friedman, as a good illustration of the conventional economic argument for more growth. He finished his answer by repeating that we will move to a steady state economy.

Q. What about the power of micro-finance to produce development for the poor?

A. H-D said that micro-finance can produce good outcomes. And more generally, small individual actions gradually accumulate over time, until there is a shift. Examples of this are the end of apartite in South Africa and the end of the Soviet Bloc. These events came about after years of small individual actions in the background.

However, micro-finance has the limitation that it cannot be used to fund big capital projects. H-D referred to the cooperative movement as being a useful way forward. The cooperative, not-for-profit ethos may not produce so much incentive for growth.

Q. Isn’t population growth a big part of our problem, should we not address this urgently?

A. Actually population growth is a big success story. In the 1960s and 1970s world population was forecast to peak at around 11 or 12 billion. Now the best estimate for the peak of world population is only 9 billion. Fertility rates have fallen much faster than expected, even in places such as Kenya and Bangladesh which had very high population growth rates, and even in countries which have not been so
successful in becoming richer. That said, at present about 20% of births in the world are unwanted. A big push on contraception could almost immediately reduce that by 10% or so, which would have a material impact.

What is very important to our environmental impact is the way that we are encouraged to see ourselves as “walking appetites”. This comes out of conventional economics with its focus on wants and utility, and it is apparent when we refer to ourselves as consumers. H-D thinks that in order to understand what is happening in the world we need to develop what he calls a “prospective mind”. In order to do this we need 5 perceptual shifts:

                                                From                                     To

  1. SYSTEMS                              Machines                            Complex systems
  2. SELF                                      Consumers                         Problem solvers
  3. VALUES                                 Utilitarian                            Moral and existential
  4. KNOWLEDGE                        Disciplinary                         Integrated
  5. COMMUNITY                         National                              Global

He elaborated on 3, saying that the utilitarian view is the view of ourselves as walking appetites, we need to move away from this towards asking questions such as “what is the good life?” and all the questions that we used to ask when we were children that begin with “why”. He said that at present, if we ask these kinds of questions we are directed towards religion, but religion offers a fixed set of beliefs which discourage further questioning and reasoning. The alternative is that we go to the mall to fill the void of our existential angst.

He elaborated on 4, with a plug for his own University, Waterloo, which he said has very exciting interdisciplinary work going on. He said it is very important not to silo our knowledge, which happens very frequently at present. For example, not many people understand that the reduction in oil EROI is driving the switch to increased coal used.

Q. What about the power of technology for small groups to have a large positive impact, and the power of the transition towns movement?

A. H-D said that he thinks that there is a power shift going on whereby power is moving down to smaller groups. This works both in a positive and negative way. The internet helps small groups link up and disseminate new ideas. Also terrorism and WMD have potential to give small groups enormous power to change the existing order.

Q. Will there be wars in the future over resources such as food and water?

A.  He thinks it unlikely that there will be international wars over resources. However, there will be more internal conflict due to resource depletion. We need to be aware of the danger of producing failed states. Pakistan is an example of a vulnerable state. He thinks they have enough enriched uranium for 60 to 100 atomic weapons. If Pakistan became a failed state this material could be disseminated among terrorist groups.

Q. How do you mobilise small groups to get the changes that are needed?

A. It is difficult because powerful vested interests have a lot of lobbying power because they can mobilise focused economic interests. For example the steel or energy industries. They will focus on capital intensive solutions. On the other hand, distributed solutions produce a diffuse political response.

 Q. To what extent is the current economic crisis the result of oil supply problems?

A. The Brookings Institute carried out an analysis, published about 2 weeks ago, there is a link to it on H-D’s website. They concluded that the proximate cause (not the only cause) of the economic crisis was the run up of energy prices.

H-D again emphasised the importance of the inter-disciplinary view. Not many people understand that oil EROI is driving increased coal use (the Chinese are already building coal to liquid plants).

He noted the work of David Hughes who is an expert on fossil fuel supplies. Hughes thinks that there is not enough accessible fossil fuel in the ground to drive atmospheric carbon dioxide above 500ppm (but H-D doesn’t believe in this analysis).

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