Solving the world’s problems is beyond us, yet upon us

REVIEW: “The Ingenuity Gap: Facing the Economic, Environmental, and Other Challenges of an Increasingly Complex World,” by Thomas Homer-Dixon (2000)


Thomas Homer-Dixon isn’t exactly an idealist. Homer-Dixon challenges the very worldview that fuels the success of the Western capitalistic, seemingly wealthy, powerful world. The “ingenuity gap,” as he refers to it, is the ever-widening chasm between our insufficient human and social capital and the daunting problems that we face today.

Though Homer-Dixon deconstructs some great evidence that proves the human brain to be superior and unique among all living things, he ultimately reminds us of our fallibility. The book points out the greatness and the weakness of humanity all at the same time.

Homer-Dixon describes a variety of situations in which human ingenu

ity has failed – in economics, politics and various studies of technology.

One example is the failure of the often-worshipped system of capitalism. No one could have predicted the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, which had many side effects including flood riots and ethnic clashes in Indonesia. But when it was all over, Kofi Annan, the former United Nations Secretary General, summed up the situation of modern markets like this: “The spread of markets far outpaces the ability of societies and their political systems to adjust to them, let alone guide the course they take.”

Homer-Dixon would argue that few heeded that warning and the world has continued to march on with an optimistic arrogance. He even humorously gives some examples of predictions that had been made in 1967 of what advances would be made by 1997. The accuracy rate was less than 50 percent.

Despite our sure shortcomings, Homer-Dixon urges us to exert our intellectual and creative energy anyway. He even makes his own predictions in the areas of genetics and medicine, information processing and computation, materials engineering and machine miniaturization.

The book is overall a call to shift our thinking as a society at the very core: we are infallible human beings capable of great things. We must live in the tension of what we don’t know, while we still strive to overcome the problems of our modern, complex, globalized world.

An extended version of this review first appeared at


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