Reading About Sustainability: Commanding Hope by Thomas Homer-Dixon

Reading About Sustainability @trishtalksbooks
March 2023
Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril by Thomas Homer-Dixon
Knopf Canada (2020)

Read This Book If: You're ready for a weighty tome on climate change, and how we can harness realistic hope to effect better outcomes. It’s full of science and detailed analysis so if you like that, this may be for you. I found it a valuable read! Make sure you're ready to hear the harsh truth about climate change and can cope with that. There’s hope here, but it’s not a book that pulls its punches. There’s reason to hope but only with your eyes wide open to the problems, and there are many. For a book on “hope” there’s not a ton in these pages! There is a lot of social science included, which I found to be a great introduction to the topic. 

About the author:

Thomas Homer-Dixon is a Canadian scientist working on and writing about climate change. He was born in Victoria BC and has a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in international relations, defence and arms control policy, and conflict theory. At the University of Toronto he held the George Ignatieff Chair in Peace and Conflict Studies. He has founded programs at U of T and the University of Waterloo. He’s now the Executive Director of the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University in Victoria BC. His website header states, “Seeing Through Complexity,” and that rings true after reading this, his third book.

Why I wanted to read it:

I was interested in how we can harness hope to effect change. I was intrigued by the title, and also that the author is very experienced in his field. As a bonus, he's from my home province of British Columbia. 

What I learned:

There were a lot of interesting concepts in the book, but let’s start with what “commanding hope” is. “Commanding” can be a verb here, and the whole phrase can be a noun. Commanding hope has three main components:

1) Honest: It has a clear-eyed view of the truth.

2) Astute: It has a pathway to a goal and is strategically smart.

3) Powerful: It “galvanizes our agency,” by doing things such as creating “virtuous circles,” for example, to change our world-views and give us a clear motivating object.

Homer-Dixon gets into the weeds of hope, and also of the nature of time. There’s so much detailed science in this book! This is in service of explaining the reason we can have hope: the science of complexity of systems. Outcomes are not certain yet when it comes to climate change, so there is reason for honest hope, and to act on it.

He explores the difference between “Hope THAT…” which is passive; and “Hope TO…” which is active. Such a cool concept as he discusses it.

He notes that any future plan worth fighting for must be both “feasible" and “enough” to result in the changes that we want to see with environmental outcomes–they need to intersect for hope to be realistic. I appreciated some of the later chapters, where he discusses dominant world-views, and how we can start to change them, including the dominant theory of economic growth, and how that may have to change. We must redefine the “we” of our earth to include all humans, and both living and non-living things, and then find points of common value to start to create a positive virtuous cycle for change. For me, this rings true, as it is similar to what the Buddhist monk Tich Naht Hahn calls “interbeing," It’s neat how different philosophies connect when addressing these most basic principles of unity.

And to keep me entertained and engaged, I enjoyed Homer-Dixon's use of pop-culture references at times to illustrate his points; he has a whole section on a Lord of the Rings analogy.

Some practical takeaways and directions for further learning:

I’m not sure how practical it is, but I did enjoy learning about the science of complexity and how this relates to future outcomes. The future is not written yet, and we still have time to act in a meaningful way, but it will take this notion of “commanding hope” to do it. I suppose I came away thinking that there is time to limit the damage of climate change to the planet, but that things are still likely to be dire and the chances that “commanding hope” will be enough exist but are by no means certain. Sobering stuff.

I’d like to continue working on my own ability to redefine my worldview of “me vs. other,” and what prosperity looks like. I’m going to look for my own narrative of hope THAT vs. hope TO and see if I can change my inner dialogue.

Further resources:

The book’s website is at and there’s a great summary of his discussion on hope and more info to supplement the reading.

His personal website is and has a ton of his writing, interviews, and research.