Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why global problems don't get solved

Poverty, hunger, inequality, injustice... these are ooold international, very complex problems and there are myriad governments, institutions and organizations interested in their solution... and others interested in keeping the status-quo. And these are only the problems so well known that they have a short label attached to them. There are at least other 50,000 global problems, according to the Union of International Associations, although naturally the count depends on what you define as a problem and how you classify problems.

The Belgian-based UIA has produced over the years a monumental database of "world problems and human potential" (see also the Wikipedia entry) that includes a problems database, international associations dealing with problems, strategies for solution and several other sections.  
All of this is extensively indexed and cross-referenced. For instance, one can go from the description of a problem to more general or more specific ones, other problems that aggravate the given problem, other problems it aggravates, NGOs or other instances charted to solve the problem and so on. Several problems get associated in vicious circles, such as A aggravating B which aggravates C which aggravates A; and some of these cycles are intertwined with each other. The encyclopedia constitutes an amazing global view of the complexity of the modern world.

Equally as interesting is a series of 500 pages of commentaries on the encyclopedia mainly written by the encyclopedia coordinator, Antony Judge.  The most interesting commentaries deal with Why Problems Don't Get Solved and this essay draws on some of them.

It is easy to answer this question for particular problems with simplistic answers; and everybody has a favorite one. More interesting answers include lack of systemic vision of our governing agencies, that impede solving the whole system rather than just a symptom of part of it; lack of enough brilliant minds working together to solve problem (see for instance Singularity University, Engelbart’s insitute...); lack of effective global models and so on. Or else we may throw our hands in desperation and state that the complexity of the world problematique which we have created far exceeds our capacity to unravel and solve it.

Actually however and according to the set of commentaries mentioned, human psychology and societal systems have everything to do with the lack of permanent solutions. Some quotes follow -but please do read the original texts:

"The general response to problems by institutions is governed by short-terminism. Institutions endeavour to devise solutions which can be _made to appear_ as though effective action is being taken, whether or not that  action is effective either in the short-term or, more significantly, the  long term"

"Some individuals and groups require a satisfactory explanation, usually scientific, of the nature  of a problem, before taking steps to deal with it. The assumption is that  a problem must be fully understood before any useful action can be taken.  Some bodies use this prerequisite, by the selection of appropriate experts,  as a means of postponing action when "no proven link" has been demonstrated  (eg air pollution and acid rain)."

"Problems may be approached  like diseases of the body. Symptoms then need to be noted in order to  diagnose the underlying disease. Encouraged by the mindset of allopathic medicine and its many miraculous cures, specific remedies may then be  envisaged, whether in the form of "drugs" [that might only ease the sympom] or "surgery". The situation is exacerbated by consultants associated with particular schools of thought who, like pharmaceutical companies, distinguish themselves  by advocating new remedies (if necessary misrepresenting their advantages and concealing their weaknesses) in order to outmanoeuvre their competitors"

"Problems may approached only in terms  of their profit-making potential. A problem becomes significant to the  extent that goods or services can be sold in the process of remedying  it. The stress is not on whether such products are an appropriate response  to the problem but whether a market can be defined and developed that  perceives this to be the case."

"Technocrats tend to hold  the view that they have all the systems modelling skills necessary to  identify and deal with problems. In this view, all that is hindering an appropriate response is the complex of irrelevant political issues which prevent the technocratic elites from marshalling and deploying the necessary resources as required. This approach is favoured by those who believe  that there is a technical "fix" for every problem"

"Problems may be approached as resulting from defects in the organization of the bodies or programmes within whose mandates they ought to fall and which are expected to be able to contain  or regulate any imbalances in the social or natural environments.” (...) ' I was to learn  later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating an illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization. (Petronius Arbiter,  Roman Governor of Bithynia, AD 65)' "

After this sad state of affairs, what can be done? Have we thrown ourselves into an evolutionary cull-d’sac, and are running towards the bottom of the sac ever faster?. Since human psychology and follies are involved, we have to partially part company with Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr.:

"the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones (...) because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life"

Indeed, but it seems that intellect alone won't suffice. It would appear that only becoming "a different kind of person", everybody, can we start towards a solution. Lewis Mumford would agree, as shown in the quotation in the home page of this blog.

But, how? That's homework. Genetic engineering of the human psyche...?