Ingenuity, gaps and risks

Week 7

Learning objectives:

  • What are cornucopian and malthusian visions, and what separates them?
  • What is the role of markets in sponsoring ingenuity?
  • what are the limits of markets and how can they be overcome?
  • What are the roles of violence and stability in overcoming social problems?
  • Is resilience always a good thing?

What public policies will help to solve essential social problems through science and technology?


What is “ingenuity,” what is the ingenuity gap, and when is it critical?

In Smardon this week we will examine the shift to the left, which he characterizes as the last challenge to transnational capital.  But does transnational capital represent the ultimately ingenious solution to the problem of perpetual growth and maximum productivity?

Ingenuity is clever, original, inventive problem solving. As the world changes around us, we need ingenuity to solve social problems.  Thomas Malthus was an English clergyman born in 1588 – the year of the Spanish Armada. Spain was the superpower of its day, ready to crush insolent England.  Malthus claimed that his mother had been so alarmed at the prospect of the arrival of the Spanish Armada that she had given birth to him prematurely, and this had given him a pessimistic view of the world and its prospects. He wrote on the dismal lot of the world’s poor because of inevitable gap between the exponential rise of population and the arithmetical limits to the increase of food production. Thus the “Malthusian” view of the world is that it is inevitably a small planet with inherent resource limitations, and if we don’t find ways to contain our growth, we’ll all die in our own excrement like bacteria in a petri dish – exponential growth, then population crash.

In his book, The Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon describes the collapse of Rome, from centre of empire with a population of more than a million, to a scattering of villagers and goat-herders living among the ruins of empire.  He ascribes this, essentially, to the failure of ingenuity – the inability to find new solutions to the pressing problems of society, particularly solar energy, which placed a limit on food production and hence muscle power.  The difference between a cornucopia of productivity and growth, and a better life for everyone, and the grim life of rising population and declining resources (the difference between cornucopian and malthusian visions of the future) lies in the ingenuity to provide not only technological solutions, but also the social and political arrangements that make them work over time in changing circumstances.

Governments, currencies, markets, banks, finances, financial instruments, and all the institutions of modern globalization and economic governance are remarkably ingenious devices, which have helped to lift an unprecedented number of humans out of the malthusian trap of poverty.  But are they also responsible for environmental devastation, resource depletion, concentrations of wealth that may generate revolutionary violence, and support for the exponential growth of human populations, which will destroy the planet? The ways in which ingenuity is managed may be more important than ingenuity itself.

Managing change requires a measure of stability and predictability. The pilot’s OODA-loop (Observe-orient-decide-act) has analogies in public policy, but while a pilot has seconds or fractions of a second, public policy requires a vision over decades or generations, while the decision-makers may hold power for only a few years at a time.

There is always a risk that the consequences of change will outrun our ability to respond.  This is particularly so if large numbers of people with specialized knowledge suddenly die from epidemic disease, war, or other catastrophe. This is the circumstance contemplated by science writer Lewis Dartnell, who has written a blueprint for restarting the complex civilization that we have come to depend upon.

Required reading

Smardon, Chapters 10-13.

Ch. 10 – last challenge to transnational capital: left liberals and state-led strategies, 1980-81

Ch. 11 – moving to the right, trudeau liberals

Ch. 12 – Glasco framework in era of free trade

Ch. 13 – final episode: impasse of the federal state and Canadian industrial R&D

Optional reading


Complete required reading and prepare for seminar.  Be prepared on Tuesday to present your briefing note on policy toolkits (Assignment 1).

If you choose “Ingenuity” as the topic for your second briefing note,  the optional readings this week provide a starting point. Attached below are four additional sources to consider, with a few notes about each. Note that all these perspectives are (a) populist rather than scholarly; (b) American, rather than Canadian or international; (c) reasonably well-sourced and footnoted, but not uncontroversial.  They should be read as introductions to ideas that are worth considering.

Your task, as policy analyst, is to consider the implications of these ideas, and others for future Canadian security.  You can take any perspective on this you like, because you don’t know the minister you’ll be briefing, but you do need to situate him or her in the future security environment you imagine: Are you focused on human security, hence employment and income distribution? Are you concerned only about military dimensions of national security, hence new kinds of missions and constraints?  Use the framework for the briefing notes (see the evaluation page links) and my comments on your presentations as guides.

  • Ford, Martin (2015) The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. New York: Basic Books. Introduction and conclusion. Ford (2015) provides an image of the social damage that can be done by changing technology as it is integrated in a global economy. 
  • Kaplan, Jerry (2015) Humans need not apply: a guide to wealth and work in the age of artificial intelligence. New Haven: Yale University Press. Preface and Introduction. The advent of genuine artificial intelligence may precipitate a crisis in capitalism from which labour markets cannot recover.
  • Kunstler, James (2012) Too much magic: wishful thinking, technology, and the fate of the nation. New York: Grove Press. Chapter one. Kunstler is on the same page as Homer-Dixon, concerned that America’s obsession with technological solutions may leave the world on the road to ruin, described in his previous book, The Long Emergency.  Peak Oil, climate change, deadlocked politics, financial collapse, and environmental disasters create security challenges we aren’t capable of dealing with.
  • Wittes, Benjamin and Gabriella Blum (2015)  The future of violence – robots and germs, hackers and drones: confronting a new age of threat. Introduction. The introduction gives you an overview of the book, but Part II on violence and the state is an interesting discussion of some of the major changes in thinking that are demanded by new technologies.

Self assessment questions

  • What was Canada’s leftward shift?
  • Why did it represent a challenge to transnational capital?
  • As a policy initiative, what prevented it from being effective?
  • What accounts for the continuity of the Glassco framework in the Canadian context?
  • Is Canada’s federal structure partly responsible for the failure of the challenge to transnational capital?
  • Returning to the question of social antagonisms (Chapter 1) from whence sprang the resistance to  resisting transnational capital? Who are transnational capital’s natural allies


Participation evaluation for week 7 Toolkit will consist of:

  • 60s: what was Canada’s last challenge to transnational capital?
  • 60s: why was it ultimately futile?
  • 60c: transnational capital represents the best hope for technological development. Discuss.
  • 5R: Transnational capital represents the greatest advance in ingenuity in the modern economy, but also the greatest threat. True or false?   Discuss for 5 minutes. Present the results in 60s. There is an opportunity for a minority report as a 60c.

Questions and discussion