An inconspicuous, disastrous, and widely undetected intellectual blunder obstructs the efforts of societies to solve the problems and dissolve the multiple crises they face. It is a lack of understanding what problems are, the implicit belief that ‚the problems‘ are out there and ‚we‘, perhaps the whole of humanity, share them or just have to pick them up. This mistake, common across intellectual culture and resounding with ideological overtones, prevents ‚us‘ from clarifying what the problems are or should be, who shares them, and who has to unite to start to solve them against the resistance of others. Somewhat counterintuitively, not even climate change just is a problem out there or a problem of humankind. After correcting the mistake, a bold approach to saving the world is sketched: In order to clarify what the ’social problems‘ and their solutions are, combine idealized eutopian design on all the levels of society with systemic and participative planning. By Daniel Plenge
In the 28th month of life someone asked “What is this, life?”. Although that someone lives in a tribe of atheists, the next day the little human wanted to know “Who is God?”. In this spirit of puzzlement, curiosity, honest concern and experimentation the What-the-Fcuk series asks classic and current questions at the intersection of the real world and public as well as academic thought.
“The problems we select for solution and the way we formulate them depends more on our philosophy and world view than on our science and technology. How we go about solving them obviously depends on our science and technology, but our ability to use them effectively also depends on our philosophy and world view.” (Russell Ackoff)
Who would disagree with the recent publication by the philosopher Nicholas Maxwell? “The world is in crisis.” For many the only question is whether it is one or many.
We are said to have a health crisis, an inequality crisis, the climate crisis, a biodiversity crisis on land and oceans due to a pollution crisis, a crisis of democracy and politics, a permanent economic crisis, a private debt crisis and the next overall financial crisis looming large, the crisis of journalism, a desertification crisis, a water crisis, whether actual or predicted, a housing crisis, a food systems crisis and a predicted overall resource crisis, a plastic waste crisis, „a growing global crisis of antimicrobial resistance“, a permanent crisis of the social sciences, the crisis of Academentia, and what have you. At times the crisis is claimed to be systemic.
Some, nay, many may disagree to some extent or totally (see What The Fcuk Is Normality?), but it is clear that the present crisis of multiple crises is in this form unprecedented. Put in even more common terms we are forced to judge: The world is full of problems.
The human problem
Far into the beginning of the 21st century humankind is thus confronted with a paradox, not for the first time.
Never has there been more knowledge around, scientific, technological, and humanist. Never have more people had access to the products of culture since the creation of writing long ago and print somewhat later, but still or again the problems are there and for some so overwhelming that doomism is about to become one of the fashionable faiths, the type of fatalism that is not rooted in divine providence but the extrapolation of the state of civilization into the future.
The era of the Anthropocene, in which humans have changed close to the entire earth system or are about to do it, may at the same time be the era of grand impotence. At least so it may seem.
Living things, life for short, has evolved for some unimaginable three and a half or four billion years. Not only has enlightened humankind not managed to make the problems disappear after just some 200 000 or 300 000 years of existence, even the joke goes around that homo sapiens has become so knowledgeable within just a few of the last centuries as to perhaps wipe out much complex life on the planet, including humanity itself.
In the Cold War, the time of the supposedly most successful modernization era in human social history, the prospects were already nuclear annihilation in yet another World War. Now, it’s the sixth mass extinction process, defined as a loss of about 75% of all species on earth within a time period, usually thousands of years, now within a few decades.
In the middle of the 1970s it had been claimed that
“no previous age has ever been as well equipped as ours is to deal with its problems.”
This is not that long ago. It was probably a widely held belief, expressed across popular culture, especially in techno-utopias. In spite of the digital revolution since then, it is not clear whether such a judgement can still hold today, although some liberal-conservatives fantasize about flying cars. The co-existence of neo-optimists and neo-doomists is an indicator of at least doubtfulness in this respect. The former focus especially on the achievements of science-based technology, the latter on the fact of its overall dubious track record within world society.
It is not even clear if the socio-technical potential is still there. For one thing, even the futurologies of conservative research bodies assume non-existent technologies in their problem-solving scenarios to avoid a planetary human catastrophe, not some great discovery already in the pipeline.
Back in the 70s, the brilliant Russell Ackoff wrote with an urge that seems to be far more adequate today:
“Whether we use these capabilities on the right problems in the right way is still a matter of social choice, but that choice will have to be made soon because the opportunity to make it diminishes with the passage of time.”
Strikingly, most of the problems in or of this world have been tacitly anticipated, prophesized or predicted precisely by some or many clever women and men. If you look back a few decades, you may remember being informed about some in primary school.
Who are believed to be the most educated and intelligent people meet around the world to debate issues repeatedly as academics, activists or politicians, at times even as journalists. If it is true that the world is in crisis (which originally meant a life-or-death situation), then this cannot be claimed to have had much success. Nicholas Maxwell writes (emphasis added):
“On the whole, we do not fail to anticipate future problems before they become serious. In almost every case, warning voices have been raised about future bad consequences if life carries on as normal, but nothing is done to ward them off.”
Persistent failure: Biodiversity crisis and climate emergency
The climate crisis, which already is an officially declared climate emergency in many places, is a case in point.
As early as 1856, after merely a century of industrialization in England and even less everywhere else, Eunice Foote described the disposition of carbon dioxide to absorb heat in a paper in the American Journal of Science and Arts. Other historical accounts name John Tyndall’s discovery from 1859. Svante Arrhenius found out that, as a consequence of industrialization, the planet would heat up in the future, which had already been hypothesized by Tyndall. The meteorologist Nils Ekholm wrote in 1901 that “the present burning of pit coal is so great that if it continues … it must undoubtedly cause a very obvious rise in the mean temperature of the earth.” The hypothesis was strengthened in 1938.
By the time of World War II at least something was known, especially, in broad outline, the long-term consequences this might or would have. In 1959, Edward Teller, a physicist, informed the American Petroleum Institute „that if they continued to burn fossil fuels, all of the coastal cities would be submerged by rising seas“ and predicted accurately the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere in the year 2000.
In 1979 the first United Nations Climate Change Conference was held, followed by the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. Since then, the IPCC has published six major reports on the state of the climate system, thousands of pages thick, which have corrected many details about a highly complex system but confirmed the main assumptions of the 1980s. In 1988 climate scientist James Hanson had testified to U.S. congress. Subsequently, much of what he believed has been confirmed: “Hansen’s 1988 global climate model was almost spot-on.”
In hindsight we also know that other researchers accurately predicted the amount of CO2 and the concomitant average temperature increase of the globe 40 years later already in 1982. But it happened behind closed doors (again). As early as 1965 scientists had warned U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson – the commander-in-chief of one of the biggest polluters – about high temperatures, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification. Accurate measurements of the level of CO2 in the atmosphere had started in the 1950s in Hawaii.
In 1992, 1,700 scholars published the Worlds Scientists’ Warning to Humanity, the first of its kind. It said:
“Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.”
It was taken up again in 2017 in World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, where it was stated that with the exception of the Ozone layer “humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse”. The foreseen challenges were “ozone depletion, freshwater availability, marine life depletion, ocean dead zones, forest loss, biodiversity destruction, climate change, and continued human population growth.”
Meanwhile, there are more collective public voices by scientists. One of them was the World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021, which in substance is similar but written in a more alarming tone six years after the 2015 Paris Agreement that was the climax of political struggles and target settings of 25 years, since the 1992 summit in Rio de Janeiro had been staged.
Every year there is a COP (Conference of the Parties): “Every year they meet and every year the climate emergency has gotten worse.” There are many targets, inadequate planning, and no serious implementation.
In another paper warning about the world’s “ghastly future”, the challenges (aka problems) have been described as “colossal” and the scientists warned that humans are liable to fall prey to an “optimism bias” in judging the current state of the world.
For short, here the above-mentioned potential to solve the global problems that was estimated to be great in the 70s is not depicted in rosy colors any longer.
Philosophers once coined the idea of pessimistic meta-induction. If you have seen only white swans for a while, you are somewhat justified to expect that the next swan you see will be white. We know from the past that most of what was believed to be a scientific discovery turned out to be false. In the same way you are perhaps justified in believing that this will turn out to be true of even the most established scientific ideas somewhen. However that may be, past failures in solving what seem to be the most pressing problems on earth may justify to expect no solutions in the future. This would be a form of doomism.
All of this may raise a simple question:
Why are ‘we’ persistently not able to solve ‚the‘ problems?
Since the predictive climate models are getting more accurate and shall be further improved with supercomputers worth hundreds of millions, the final humiliation of homo sapiens may well be that it, the crown in the myth of creation, will be able to predict the very minute of its disappearance without being able to prevent it, after having to have learned before that its home planet is not the center of the universe, humans are just one more species of animals, which does not even control its own mind or its social products.
If individual and social wisdom consists of being able to pursue long-term goals or at least to prevent long-run unwanted outcomes, problems and their continuation, as Russell Ackoff stipulated, then we might be forced to conclude that wisdom is a rare quality, and that at the intersection with political institution and public education also science and technology have failed in enlightening the world towards adequate problem-solving.
In 2010, the Guardian reported that scientists lamented that the targets to halt biodiversity loss agreed upon by governments in 2002, in tune with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which already had originated in 1992, had not been reached at all. In that same year 2010, signatories of that convention agreed again on 20 biodiversity targets. In 2020, the Guardian introduced an article with the following words:
“The world has failed to meet a single target to stem the destruction of wildlife and life-sustaining ecosystems in the last decade, according to a devastating new report from the UN on the state of nature.”
In 2021 we learned that the Amazon rainforest, one of the so-called lungs of the planet, may already have become a net contributor to warming, not a mega sink that sucks carbon pollution out of the atmosphere. In the period between August 2020 and July 2021 the deforestation process of the Amazon had reached its highest value since 2012.
The critical reader may now rightly object that this may be not so much picking cherries but rotten fruit, just one irrational right-wing government and the results of its politics. But researchers found that since “2014, when dozens of governments, organizations and companies signed onto the New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary agreement to halve deforestation by 2020 and stop it altogether by 2030”, deforestation has increased by overall 50%.
Wordwide 34% of old-growth rainforests are estimated to have been wiped out and another 30% are classified as “degraded”, which is a controversial notion.
If nothing or next to nothing happens or is achieved, is it adequate to say that there is a problem at all? If some child somehow forgets consistently to do his or her homework over a significant period of time or fails to prepare for every single test, anybody would start to assume at some point that doing it was never its business, intention, challenge, or problem. If it is at least dubious that climate change etc. is a problem out there, a case where it seems to be most obvious, may this hold for other problems, perhaps all problems?
Put in a provocative perspective, it may not be the case that the problem is there although it is not recognized. It may simply not be there at all.
To increase the suspense a bit, this is what I will tell you.
So, our initial thesis is wrong, although it is to be found next to everywhere, especially in journalistic reporting on the large and small issues of our time. Next to every journalistic article presents the news as a problem or problematic for the simple reason that here lies the source of relevance and sales: If it bleeds it leads.
The world is not full of problems. Furthermore, the implicit belief that the problems are out there is an inconspicuous aspect of our age of deception with close to disastrous political, ideological and practical consequences. It prevents actual solutions and campaign building in multiple ways.
Sounds strange? Let’s see.
Why problems are simply not simply out there?
A bunch of examples may show why it is at first plausible to assume that the world is full of problems and every other claim appears to be immoral, nay, insane.
Think of the videos showing U.S.-Americans commuting through apocalyptic landscapes of wildfires. For sure, the problem is there. Or the wildfires approaching suburbs of Athens. You can see them coming. Think of the basement apartments in New York that were flooded after extreme rainfall. The problem is there. If you had been there, you could have touched it.
Think of the two people who were trapped in a car within a flash flood in Henan, China, water being as high as the windscreen, a life-threatening situation. Or think of the man who had to fight off attacks by a grizzly for over a week somewhere in Alaska, before being rescued, injured but alive, by a helicopter-crew that was only accidentally passing by. Here it might be said that the problem literally tore apart the door of the man’s hut.
Accordingly, one widely held model of problem-solving is the get-rid-of-it strategy. The idea is that a problem has causes and to solve the problem you simply have to somehow switch off the cause or undo it, which is a perfectly reasonable strategy in cases such as the above.
Even when it is not manifest, problems are explicitly or implicitly taken to be out there elsewhere, which is suggested by the way language is used.
For instance, we read that someone analyzed Senegal’s problems, the problems countries have, we read about the problems of a pension system, that capitalism is a problem or has problems, that there is a police-problem not only in Germany, or that a rising level of social inequality in the real world becomes a problem when it reaches a certain level. Companies in the Global North are said to ship the problem to African countries by sending tons of used cloths there, much of it junk. Scientific commentators claim that the IPCC in its reports would describe the problem of climate change, although a different idea would be that they merely describe past climate change and model its future. Polar bears, which have become a symbol of climate change or the human failure in dealing with it, are said to be themselves up against the huge problem of habitat loss, and that salmons which suffer from unlivable water temperatures suffer from a human caused problem.
What is caused is generally taken to be real and caused by something real. For instance, we find the claim that “problems often only become visible or tangible when it is no longer easy to put a halt to the damage they are causing”. Problems here appear as agents that do something. Or take this: “Chronic stress over climate change, they maintain, is increasing the risk of mental and physical problems.” Or this: “High heat can be deadly for humans and nature, and cause major problems to buildings, roads and power systems.” If inanimate things have problems, they have to be objectively out there.
Similarly, though not as obviously, climate activists and scientists often claim that climate change is a “societal, a problem of humankind” („Menschheitsproblem“), which may be interpreted in the same way.
But if we simply add a few more examples, we will quickly see that, although much here carries a grain of important truth we’ll reconsider below, it is in some cases misleading and in others plain nonsense.
When climate change is framed as a problem, tacitly or explicitly, then usually one of the indicators of climate change is presented and embedded in contrasts and vocabulary that indicates the problematic character as something being harmful, catastrophic, dangerous, or unknown:
„At pre-lockdown rates of increase, within 5 years atmospheric CO2 will pass 427 ppm, which was the probable peak of the mid-Pliocene warming period 3.3m years ago, when temperatures were 3C to 4C hotter and sea levels were 20 metres higher than today.“
„Analysis of ocean surface temperatures shows human-driven climate change has put the world in ‘uncharted territory’, scientists say. The planet may even be at its warmest for 125,000 years, although data on that far back is less certain.„
„If emissions do not fall in the next couple of decades, then 3C of heating looks likely – a catastrophe. And if they don’t fall at all, the report says, then we are on track for 4C to 5C, which is apocalypse territory.“
„Rockström [a climate scientists] doesn’t like our chances. ’It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate 8 billion people or maybe even half of that [at a 4°C increase in global average temperature],’ he says. ’There will be a rich minority of people who survive with modern lifestyles,no doubt, but it will be a turbulent,conflict-ridden world.’”
Of course, these are random quotes. But for short, the familiar story is that scientific knowledge concerns past and close to contemporary increases in CO2 concentrations, which are linked to past temperature increases of the oceans and the atmosphere, which are predicted to also occur in the future, which already have and are predicted to have consequences which are negative, catastrophic or apocalyptic for humans. Therefore, one might say, climate change just is a problem.
The mistake here is obvious if we consider news that were covered in the same time frame. Although it sounds plausible, even climate change is not a problem of humankind or a problem as such. For instance, according to some reports the world’s coal producers plan 432 new mines with an annual output capacity of 2.28 billion tonnes, which would be a capacity increase of 30%. Norway, rich because of its historical contributions to carbon pollution, awarded 62 offshore exploration blocks to 30 oil firms to find more resources close to existing oil fields. Something similar was reported for the United Kingdom and Norway.
On the face of it, all of these undertakings are designed to speed up and exacerbate climate change and the damages it will cause.
U.S. president Joe Biden’s government, who claimed that climate change is a big or the biggest problem within his election campaign and necessitates rapid action, allowed companies more exploratory drilling for oil and gas on public lands than ever since the time of George W. Bush.
Even more horrific, the governments of the biggest 20 economies in the world, which are also the biggest polluters, provided more than 3.3 trillion dollars in public subsidies to fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 “despite many committing to tackle the crisis”. Because what counts as a subsidy differs in many accounts, we can also find the claim that the world’s governments spent 5.5 trillion dollars or 6.8% of global GDP, only in 2017. In any case, these are quite some numbers.
And, of course, oil firms knew even before the non-public research of 1982, alluded to above, that their products would produce climate change and concomitant consequences they calculated, and they chose not to inform the public and just go on with their pollutive business-as-usual. To the contrary, they spent millions on lobbying against climate policies, which are the source of their problem.
It is certainly not too wild a guess to assume that long-term climate change was no problem to them. Perhaps they saw it in some sense to be a problem but only one that ranks rather low under the problem of making and potentially maximizing short- and mid-term profits. After the turn of the millennium the industry is said to have switched from denial to framing the problem as one in which customers shall join the companies in “working on the problem”.
But as we have seen now, scapegoating only the fossil fuel industries, as is fashionable these days, is also inadequate, given that governments knew as much for decades and walked arm in arm with the industries – overall supported by their voters.
It is not only bad business
A recent German poll asked people whether they would base their voting decisions in the 2021 election on younger generations’ interest in climate protection and the preservation of nature. Of those between 50 and 64 years of age, only 30% answered in the affirmative, of those between 30 and 39 still only 40%. For short, for 70% or 60% in those groups climate change is no significant problem if we trust those numbers.
One global poll among 10.000 16- to 25-year-olds found that 75% said they thought the future was frightening due to climate change, 56% expressed their belief that humanity is doomed, and 60% said they felt very worried or extremely worried. What we see here is what we see on the streets: a conflict of the generations.
By the way, note that the above quote on paleoclimatological data can provide reasons for a feeling of doom because the Pliocene – a period ranging from 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago – provides an analogue case to the state of the earth system today, i.e. the same amount of CO2 in the air, which then resulted – if such reconstructions are approximately correct – in temperatures far beyond the targets of the Paris Agreement.
An international investigation also produced ambiguous results in 2020.
In Spain 65%, in Germany 64%, in the UK 60%, Sweden 57%, the Czech Republic 56%, and in Italy 51% believed that climate change will have very negative consequences for life on earth. But only 25% supported a political party because of their climate change policies. That is surprising given how many agree with the statement “we should do everything we can to stop climate change”, which indicates that it is believed to be a huge and highly ranked problem: in Spain 80%, in Italy 73%, Poland 64%, France 60%, the UK 58% and the US 57%. The question is what remains if “we” is specified as well as what “everything” means.
Furthermore, from 17% of those consulted in the Czech Republic to 34% in France believed that there would be positive sides to climate change that would outweigh negative consequences. Accordingly, also for these significant minorities climate change is overall not a problem.
Something similar holds for most economists, who may not be classed as climate change deniers but climate change downplayers. Whereas scientists predict disastrous developments within the earth system and the social systems it embeds, economists over the past 40 years predicted – and still do predict – only a mild reduction in global GDP or economic output due to climate change, for instance 2.1% at 3°C and 7.9% of global GDP at 6°C of global warming. This means overall dismissible reduction of ‘economic output’ relative to a century of ongoing economic growth without climate change. The assumption is that ‘the economy’ still grows, the cake gets much bigger, but will be for example 2.1 % smaller in 2100 than in the equally hypothetical case without climate change.
For short: “Where’s the fucking problem?”, they and the politicians they advise ask the protesting kids, of course?
To the contrary, at a 6°C increase of global average temperature scientists, in contrast to economists, predict the death of billions if not close to all humans, perhaps even the actual extinction of humankind. Some estimates already say that if business as usual prevails in socioeconomic policy and practice, then 33% of global food production will be at risk by the end of this century.
Why climate change as such is not a problem?
A climate scientists rightly argued that climate change as such is not a problem because this presupposes a value judgement, a moral standpoint, about how many human deaths or other consequences are bad.
Before the recent extreme weather events of 2021 the Global North felt safe in assuming that those deaths would occur in the Global South. If mitigation, adaptation and suffering are the three potential strategies, as long as suffering and adaptation can be anticipated to happen elsewhere, even climate change and environmental pollution are no problem or not much of it for those who make the concomitant moral choices. Correspondingly, climate justice is no mainstream topic up north.
When foreign minister Abdul Kalam Moment estimated that 500 000 people in Bangladesh are yearly displaced due to climate change, this is hardly a problem for many Northerners in- and outside of government. Similarly, for the U.S. governments since 9/11 the 800 000 deaths due to their so-called “war on terror” were no problem. And the experience of the pandemic told us that many intellectuals are rapidly willing to accept thousands of deaths even in their home countries.
The same holds potentially or actually for all those social groups that are convinced they can escape climate change and its effects: the global 1%. Billionaires are said to already prepare their escape to New Zealand in case of an apocalypse.
For all governments, very probably also due to the unsustainable influence of economics, the problem since the 1980s was not so much climate change but a ‘loss’ of jobs that were anticipated to be the consequences of climate mitigation measures and a reduction of economic growth. That governments still don’t see climate change as much of a problem becomes clear from the Emissions Gap, the gap between what would be necessary and what is planned.
Recently one UN assessment of government plans estimated emissions would increase by 16% until 2030 if their plans would become reality, although it is at least necessary to halve them by that date. If plans reveal preferences, then there still is not much of a problem to be inferred.
Four quick lessons
Every problem may rank lower or higher in someone’s hierarchy of problems that is often not even consciously known, and solutions to different problems may clash.
Every fact that is judged to be bad by someone and thus the source of a problem – or as usually said: a problem – may be judged to be neutral (irrelevant) or even good by someone else, that is, no problem at all and something to be preserved.
As a consequence, a problem is itself usually contested or should be so explicitly, whether some contemporary or some anticipated future state of a system constitutes the source of a potential problem.
Take lesson 1 again: Problems are never simply out there
“Food lost on farms amounts to 1.2 billion metric tons, with a further 931 million metric tons wasted by retailers and consumers. The remainder is lost during transport, storage, manufacturing and processing.”
Is this a problem? The analysts who have written the report say so, of course. But for those in the whole ‘supply chain’ from the fields to the consumer it is certainly not, as long as it does not make a significant monetary difference. If it were, we could expect that the aggregate fact would not be there or would be reduced over time.
From a moral perspective it may be the source of a problem, of course, if you consider for instance that more than 821 000 000 people suffered from hunger in 2017, you judge unnecessary human suffering to be in need of being ended, and food waste is one part of the story. It is also a problem for someone who believes useless pollution of the atmospheric commons is bad. The same argumentation may make a problem out of the fact that 80% of global farmland is used to raise animals, but they merely provide 18% of calories eaten.
Not every fact is a problem.
By the way, in 2015 all the dogs and cats in the U.S. consumed 25% of the meat produced in the country. Dogs were also estimated to consume between 1,5 and 17 tons of CO2 through the food they consume, dependent on their weight and their diet (here, too, vegetarians live more climate friendly). Their carbon pawprint thus is considerable:
The European average for human citizens is about 8 tons. Is that a problem for you? If you have pets it most probably isn’t.
According to the World Economic Forum unbelievable 85% of all textiles are dumped every year.
Enthusiasts for fast fashion certainly don’t see any problem here. A few years ago, one third of British young women considered a piece of clothes to be old if they had worn it twice. Such observations may motivate the question what has to be in a mind that either the individual behavior, the aggregate fact, or both, are not judged to be a problem.
Take lesson 2: Every problem may rank lower or higher in some hierarchy
International governments gave more money to fund fossil fuel projects around the world than money to mitigate the effects of particle pollution of the air. According to recent estimates by the World Health Organisation roundabout 7 million people are killed each year due to air pollution (which is believed to be an underestimate), most from burning fossil fuels, especially coal. 90% of the human population breathe air that exceeds WHO guidelines for pollution levels, while “the average global citizen loses 2.2 years of life with today’s levels of air pollution”. This is obviously no problem at all in comparison with the aims of keeping the fossil fuel industries healthy.
However, there is also a devils bargain that has already been made, whether this is known to some decision makers or not in this very case. Solving one problem may be incompatible with solving another. Particle pollution of the atmosphere is believed to significantly shield the temperature increase that would result from the level of greenhouse gas pollution already in the air. As a consequence, if you would instantly cut down particle pollution to solve parts of the health problem, the result would (or could) be a rapid global warming of about 0.5 to 1.1 °C, which is pretty much given that the total warming by now is around 1.2 °C. The health cost of the measure could overall be higher, but nobody really knows for sure. However, it is a mindgame anyway because it is impossible to instantly cut emissions to zero without mass starvation.
You could probably list a bunch of examples. But here is another.
One of the gravest issues of our time is how to balance concerns for ‘economic growth’ with the climate emergency and biodiversity collapse. Growthists such as Branko Milanovic explicitly state that ‘economic growth’ is to be ranked higher than ecological objectives – it is explicitly the highest objective – because otherwise world poverty could supposedly not be reduced. Though scholars here tend to talk past each other, degrowthers, who are fiercely attacked by growthers, argue that ‘economic growth’ is not everywhere necessary to increase or secure wellbeing, that the Global North does not need growth, and they rank ecological issues and sustainability higher than growthists. Perhaps sustainability here is of the highest or equal value, and clearly overall economic growth is one of the biggest problems. These differing or unclear hierarchies indicate that the problem at issues is unclear.
Thus, to talk of “the problem” is to make a presupposition that is often or even usually false:
Agreement over problems presupposes agreement over the relative importance of values (individual, environmental, economic, cultural, political) in choosing aims as well as choosing means, among others.
(On further issues here see What The Fcuk Is Value.)
Take lesson 3: Every fact judged to be problematic by someone may be judged irrelevant or good by others.
Nicholas Maxwell writes pointedly:
Put a little differently, it is an aspect of the social world that some people have an interest in other people having a problem of a certain type. This is one side of the coin of social power. (See for examples What the fcuk is inequality?) In fact, many social institutions are explicitly designed so that people have to solve certain kinds of problems (and not others), from schools and universities to health insurance, the ‘welfare’ state, the military, and what have you.
For instance, because the practical problems pupils face in class or exams are only due to imposed constraints and not freely chosen in the first place, some prefer to call the problems they face mere “puzzles”. Their solution is trivial outside of the social context, where they could simply ask someone or google it. (Philosophers may in a similar vein remember Thomas Kuhn’s “normal science” and its „puzzle-solving“.)
Sounds farfetched at first, but the story is basically the same in other contexts.
Social institutions (perhaps all ‘social situations’) exclude some solutions (and problems) for individuals by making them illegitimate by law, rule, or convention, if they are not made unthinkable via ideology. From a meta-standpoint on the ‘social problems’ (see below) individuals face, these are often puzzles that are due to artificial constraints which could disappear instantly, if this would not be against the power and interests of some agents.
Think of the problem to find employment and to persistently be employed in order to survive, that modern individuals are burdened with but consider to be ‘normal.’ It would disappear under Basic Income or a Job Guarantee and the like. In a different social order, intellectual property rights would be regarded as insane and anti-human because they hinder the transfer of technological knowledge or just pleasurable works of culture to those who need or want them. And of course, a standard example is simply private property that hinders many people to take what they need. Within the realms of play, the rules of the game determine possible and impossible moves and thus constitute a problem and solution space for those who play the game.
Though obvious, this is rarely stated:
Some social groups want other social groups to have some kinds of problems, and social systems prefigure the problem-space for individuals.
For instance, for conservatives and ‘liberals’ in the U.S., U.K. and Germany, so-called unemployment benefits and ‘vacant jobs’ are the problem and it would be no problem at all to cut benefits down to cause hunger among those who receive it, what forces people first of all to have the problem of finding a ‘job’ and to take any job ‘offered’ by those who subsequently profit from their work. This is presented as freedom. German conservatives prefer to use the state to ”pull people at their ties”, anglophones the ‘invisible hand of the market’. For many mainstream economists and central bankers, unemployment is no problem because it is believed to be a necessary and „natural“ buffer against inflations (NAIRU = Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment). If there is a problem, then it may be to increase unemployment to prevent some level of inflation.
One of the many bonmots by Russell Ackoff about problems and solutions reads:
“The way a person who has a problem thinks about it is usually quite different from the way that those who cause the problem think about it.”
That animal agriculture causes 14.5% of the whole world’s greenhouse gas emissions is a problem for environmentalists, many vegetarians and vegans, but not for the food industry, many carnivores, and the politicians they sponsor or elect. Food systems, especially meat production, are highly subsidised, which indicates that their structure and output is wanted by those in charge.
According to a UN report from 2021, 90% of 540 billion dollars of subsidies per year “damages people’s health, fuels the climate crisis, destroys nature and drives inequality by excluding smallholder farmers.” Without change, namely seeing them as a problem for a start, these subsidies are expected to rise to 1,8 trillion by 2030.
For short, whether in relation to food systems, fossil fueled transport or work- and welfare-regimes, from one perspective it could be said that governments directly support the destruction of nature and reductions of human wellbeing. Of course, the perspective is value-laden and itself in part problematic because parts of the various stories could include free decisions and roughly freely acquired beliefs, and the claims of politicians to represent the interests of some (part of an) electorate.
That the wealthiest 1% of U.S. taxpayers is responsible for 163 billion dollars of unpaid taxes, which equals the total income taxes of the lowest 90% of income taxpayers or 3% of GDP, is certainly no problem for the rich, their representatives, and the overall plutocracy. For some, this creates problems for state representatives and unnecessary problems for people who would profit from state services.
That 40% of the poorest groups in London but only 5% of the richer suffer from a long-term limiting illness is no problem for those who claim that everybody makes his or her own luck, which is an explicit justification of suffering. Locking down ‘the economy’ was more of a problem for most governments than the expected illnesses and deaths of essential workers, and nobody considered closing down more than the visible part of the economy, for instance in order to be able to keep kindergartens and schools open for those who are supposedly of higest value. Put simply, some groups should have problems so that others could remain within (their) normality.
An obvious example is also the housing crisis. For many people, especially in cities, rents are too high, or even so high as to impoverish the tenants’ households. In different terms: rents are a problem. However, the rents don’t fall from the heavens and are not due to economic laws of nature. They are only the result of the interests of private landlords and institutional investors (aligned with governments) and asymmetrical power-relations they enjoy. They are a problem for renters and representatives or advocates of the welfare state, because both have to transfer more cash to the already affluent rentiers. They are a feast for landlords.
For example, 11.4 million people in Germany had to bear “an overload of housing costs” in 2019, which means they spent at least 40% of their income only on their rent. This amounts to 14% of the total population. (While these numbers are conventions by statisticians, 12% also say they subjectively feel overburdened.) Further numbers German statisticians provide us with are 36.2% for Greece, 9.9% in the Netherlands, 8.5% in Spain. About the situation of many in England we are informed:
Of course, rising food prices are bad for poor consumers but may be good for producers. Accordingly, some producers rejoice at crop losses in some regions when they are not affected, as was reported recently from Brazil. ‘The problem’ within an ongoing climate emergency may be crop failures in all the major crop-producing regions in the same year. We may surmise that even these will be no problem for the rich. In 2021, worldwide food prices reached highs rarely seen before in recent decades.
Take lesson 4: Problems are usually contested or should be so explicitly
This is true in cases of ‘huge’ potential problems such as the biodiversity crisis and potential ‘mini’-problems such as whether a potential future Green government in Germany should subsidise cargo bikes with one billion euros. In the latter case, many would say we are in the field of identity politics. Here and within a short media upheaval, such subsidies are a problem for conservative commentators who have nothing against subsidies for cars. Tell me the problems you have and I tell you your identity.
That people are allowed to drive without a speed limit in Germany is a problem even for moderate environmentalists, for instance because the emissions thus wasted are in the aggregate higher than the total emissions of many countries. For the opponents of speed limits, of course, the allowance to drive as fast as you want is not a problem but an anti-problem, something to be praised. In everyday language we could say that such disputes reveal common sense philosophies of life.
Historians may remember that only some hundred years ago it was no problem at all that pedestrians and horses used the streets. The balance of power after social conflicts reframed the problem or created a new one:
„Initially, the introduction of cars onto American streets led to a rash of casualties from collisions, and subsequent calls for stricter regulation of motorists. Motorists and car companies, however, gained enough influence over policy and public discourse to re-frame the problem, so that the solution was to remove pedestrians and other road users from the path of motor vehicles.”
Again, we could go on endlessly here. Does tourism constitute a problem, for instance because it accounts for something like 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions? Is the overall culture of making and taking vacations a problem because it is only the other side of the medal of ‚wage slavery‘? Is it a problem that billionaires and millionaires fly to space for fun, which may be takten to be an extreme example of the conspicuous consumption that is regarded by the global 10% as normal, which comprises the middle-classes of the Global North? Or is it a problem that in some regions people could not survive without the money-tokens coming from those tourists? Or is the strange fact problematic that many need the as such totally valueless money tokens from somewhere far away to survive? That banks can still freely finance fossil fuels and are generally allowed to create money for close to whatever they like as long as they expect the loan to be repaid? That many or most jobs only destroy the planet although they are unnecessary? And aren’t these all sub-problems of the climate and biodiversity problems? Or not?
As a rule, looking at public discourses we may suppose:
The more important potentially socially relevant problems are the higher is the ideological load in their public debate and the more they are debated outside of any context.
Problems are constructed and framed, not described out there. A fact or process is a deficiency (“Missstand”) in relation to an evaluation in someone’s minding brain. (See one qualification below.)
What is considered to be a feasible means may already determine the choice or construction of a given problem and thus prefigure what counts as a solution. Because there are restrictions and obstacles to be overcome, there are problems at all, but not all obstacles are real hurdles and many a restriction is purely mental, cultural or ideological. So those who don’t accept them don’t have a certain problem.
It’s not only that solutions are not agreed upon. It’s problems.
And, of course, it doesn’t make any sense to talk only about solutions or only about problems because these are interdependent. A solution is relative to the construction of a problem and a problem is constructed with a peek at its possible solution. Someone who only focusses on solutions may simply hide that he or she constructed the problem in a certain way, whereas someone who focuses only on problems probably has made a brand out of it. By the way, simply to say that something is bad may not be enough to have a problem at all, as we will see. And to present something that is judged to be good is not yet a solution.
The problem-space as well as the solution-space are determined by knowledge believed and claimed to be possessed, in relation to what is (facts) and is not (absences), what works (mechanisms), what is possible (visions, utopias and eutopias), and what is good or bad (moral frameworks). These in total provide perspectives or approaches of problem-solving.
For instance, if you take the position of the fossil fuel industries, then the problem is not the emission of greenhouse gases but their future sequestration from the atmosphere via CCS technologies (carbon capture and storage). If the latter technologies would be available, they could keep on selling fossil fuels and perhaps make another profit by sucking them out of the air. That’s why these technologies have been promised for about 40 years. (Something similar holds for the technologies to recycle plastics.)
The comparatively well-known social scientist and ideologue Thomas Schelling argued in the 80s that migration and adaptation would be preferable over cutting fossil fuel consumption in relation to climate change:
Again, that’s why it is even in this case misleading to say climate change as such is a problem. It is not at all obvious what the problem is or exactly is – and for whom exactly in which respects. This should be discussed all the time, but isn’t. Perhaps it isn’t in part because it is presupposed that the problem is just out there or on the pages of scientific reports. Because it is unclear what the problem is or will be for whom, for many people it is certainly just a black box to be refused.
Formulated as a question, which is the best way to express problems, it becomes often clear that a problem and its components are unclear. There are almost indefinite possibilities to formulate ‘the problem of climate change’:
- How do we mitigate climate change?
- How do we halt climate breakdown?
- How is climate change dealt with in a way that does not affect us?
- How is it to be achieved that global average temperatures stay well below 2°C?
- How is it to be achieved that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere reaches again 350 ppm, the supposedly safe value of the variable?
- How do we achieve as much economic growth as is possible to keep “our wealth” while doing what is minimally necessary against climate change?
- How does humanity achieve the 1.5.°C target while at the same time restoring biodiversity?
- How do we rescue capitalism while mitigating climate change?
If we wanted to, we could analyze the problem into all the different types of human and non-human activity that produce greenhouse gases that have to be switched off, as well as all those activities, changes in consumption patterns and value-switches that are needed to substitute for them or to simply phase them out, and all the problems/solutions needed to be tackled on the socio-political level. The result would be an enormous “landscape of problems/solutions” (see below) that professional problem-solvers recommend to construct in order to be successful.
This fits the implicitly accepted but usually unstated canon of rules of rational problem-solving that Nicholas Maxwell reminds us of. Because it is usually unstated it is often forgotten and not known:
It makes a world of a difference whether health problems are constructed in a way that focusses on cure or on prevention. The former may lead to building hospitals and pharmaceutical research, the latter to a societal revolution.
In the age of deception, it is even possible that all the participants share a belief in some restrictions which is purely ideological but determines what the problems are. Above we considered as problematic that the top 1% of the US-taxpayers owe the state money. What is the problem here?
Most people think that the state needs the money of taxpayers to finance its spending, that it either has to get new money from taxpayer, borrow it, or cut expenditures elsewhere to spend it on something else. But arguably this is quite obviously false. It is a self-imposed constraint that is so deeply drowned in ideology and academically produced ignorance that it cannot (and shall not) be recognized as such. It would threaten the imbalance of power in society. (See What The Fcuk Is Money?)
Another example: if money is never the problem for a (federal) state (that is not indebted in a foreign currency), why are public pension systems described as potentially running out of money, which frames a problem, which leads to the proposal that workers need to work longer parts of their lives and, for instance, have to buy additional insurances from the private sector that rejoices over higher rentier income? Much of political discourse is not to be qualified as a lie because lying presupposes knowledge.
What is usually not mentioned is that even in the supposedly highly regulated German economy some average workers labour in total 13 months of their work-lives overtime and unpaid. (In total they work twice as much overtime.) I don’t know if it is ever mentioned, but someone could suggest people should be paid instead of working even more years, well, and for whom?
Let’s assume it is an aggregate fact that commuters need more and more time to reach their workplace. Why should this be framed as a problem at all? And what is accordingly the solution? The classic solution is to build more roads, which has the (unintended) regular consequence of further increasing car traffic. For standard thinking, lost time is seen as the source of the problem, either as an inconvenience or because it is believed to be money. However, if time is the source of the problem or perhaps pollution, a better solution would be to pay people to be able to stay at home. Or if commuting time would be working time, as some GDP-statisticians discuss, then many workers would love the commute if it is really counted and paid as such. Another and more common proposal, of course, is public transport, which will instantly be confronted with lots of problems by opponents.
So, what are all the hidden assumption that are built into ‘the problem’ of climate change or the belief that it is unsolvable?
Because problems are never objectively just out there, professional problem-solvers are advised never to accept problems as such but to question them. Their slogans are “Problems first!” and “Don’t rush to solutions!”
A famous quote is again due to Russell Ackoff:
“Successful problem solving requires finding the right solution to the right problem. We fail more often because we solve the wrong problem than because we get the wrong solution to the right problem.”
But what makes a problem “the right” one? And how do you recognize that a solution “is right”? For whom? Relative to which interests? At times we are also told that there could be no right solution as long as “the problem is not understood correctly”? Is it clear what it means to understand a problem?
Back to Maxwell, who puts his finger in the same wound while emphasizing that problems are more often than not themselves problematic. This can even be said to be a part of ‘the human condition’:
This is usally also what a therapist discusses with his or her client. And whether people are able to consider what problems they have depends crucially on having the freedom, security and leisure to be able to do it. What may be tragic for individuals, failing to check what the problems are or should be, could be catastrophic or apocalyptic on a social level or already is.
Moral: To approach problem-solving in the social realm at all, the problems themselves have to be recognized as problematic. They have to be made the object or source of a cognitive problem in order to understand better what the problems should be, the people who (don’t) have them, and why ‘we’ fail to solve them. The belief that problems are simply out there stands in the way of any of this.
What a problem is
What is a problem then? First of all, there are different kinds of problems. Scientists (including scholars in the humanities) solve cognitive problems. Their traditional aim is not to change the world but to acquire knowledge and understanding of some aspect of the world. Scientists and artists are probably the best illustration of the paradox that having a problem is not necessarily bad. Scientists and artists actively search for new problems (‘challenges’) to solve. They can allow themselves the luxury as long as they can be sure their basic needs are met because others do this.
Problem-solving is always to pursue aims, but the converse is not true. What sane humans aim for is normally what they desire because they assign it some value. Among the cognitive problems are problems of method (or strategy, procedure, tactics, recipes), the problem to acquire knowledge and understanding about the ways and means to achieve aims, broadly speaking either means to acquire knowledge, to change some aspect of the world, including oneself, or to resolve conflicts of some kind in some social setting.
When methods are required or searched for, we have a clear example of what we call “problems” because this indicates a real difficulty. The omnipotent and omniscient godly creature faces no authentic problems. Similarly, it has often been claimed that to live is to solve problems, but most of what people do within jobs and daily lives is routine, ‘normal’, and not problematic. It is not even ‘rationally’ calculating action, as sociologists tell us in contrast to economists. If anything is problematic here it’s relations with other people, getting along.
If the aim is to change some part of the world, we have a practical problem. They may be framed as technical or instrumental problems of means for given ends. However, within the socioecological realm the problem may not only be how to achieve something but what to do at all. Here practical problems are “problems of living” (N. Maxwell) because they are embedded in a socio-cultural context. Since assumptions about legitimate aims as well as means differ because values and value schemes differ, these problems of living may be problems of coexistence or living together (Zusammenleben or zusammen leben in German, convivencia or convivir in Spanish).
The source of practical problems often is not a lack of knowledge but a lack of control. It may be known what needs to be done, but what is needed to do it is controlled by others who don’t think of doing or allowing it.
Every authentic problem starts with assumptions about a given. In the sciences, this is the so-called state of research. In other realms of human praxis the starting point lies in assumptions about the state of some real system, an aggregate of humans or s sector of society. Of course, a realistic problem is supposed to start with approximately true assumptions about the world, not fantasies, although more often than not fantasies are the source of problems. But the first huge difference is that outside of the sciences there is close to no agreement at all about the assumptions from which everybody starts.
However, this is one of the still important kernels of truth in the belief that problems are out there. Realistic problems connect minding brains with the outside world. This is also the approach of choice of science-friendly minds because methods that are checked against reality promise to lead more reliably from a disvalued state to one of more value.
To solve practical problems it may thus be necessary to acquire new and relevant knowledge for action, to reframe the problem (even in a way that makes it disappear and action unnecessary), just to find allies, or all at once. The type of action and interaction that is required may not be building something but communicative processes that result in a new and shared understanding of what the problem are not.
In summary, the roundabout necessary components of a practical problem are that some concrete person has:
- some belief or knowledge about a state of a system (its characteristics, properties, including relations, and absences) or the anticipation of such a state in the future,
- a value-judgement that classifies that state as being deficient or bad in some respect, and a corresponding,
- envisioned future state that is the aim or solution because it is believed to be an overall better state, either formulated as the task of abolishing something (say criminality or hunger), of creating something (say security and wellbeing), or of preserving some threatened state from being changed (say oligarchic plutocracy),
- a contextually non-trivial difficulty that hinders the instant and close to effortless realization of the solution, e.g. a lack of knowledge, different options for action to choose from, unclarity about the goodness of aims, a lack of practical or technological capabilities, different forms of natural, technological, organizational, social, political, juridical, economic or financial, cultural or moral restrictions, the scale and complexity of the system under consideration, all of which may require some amount of planning of the required steps (this plan, procedure or method is often also called the solution of a problem, not only the state at the end of an episode of successful problem-solving);
- the belief in possibilities, that the state can be changed or prevented and the problem solved (at least partially) by making decisions that result in actions, and
- an urge or initiative, an actual interest to do something about that bad present or future state and to bring the necessary change about, which manifests in posing the question what to do and when.
Let’s illustrate some of the points.
If someone who does not know about the loss of Arctic sea-ice and the potentially apocalyptic consequences of its total loss (Blue Ocean Event) to the weather systems that currently contribute to supporting human survival, and that it may rapidly speed up global warming by 25 years, will trivially not judge this process to be a problem for action. Someone who has no belief about a fact cannot make a problem out of it. (Germans say: “Was man nicht weiß, macht dich nicht heiß.”)
However, someone who has false beliefs, in contrast to none at all, does not have no problem, because his assumption about a state is false, but an unrealistic problem. For instance, if (s)he believes Covid-19 is a fiction spread by governments to install authoritarian regimes, then the problem is to overthrow government, not to fight a virus.
Currently, a third of global farmland is degraded, since 1970 some 90% of earth’s wetlands have been destroyed, and a 2018 report found that an area twice the size of Portugal is at high risk of desertification, only within the borders of the European Union. Someone who believes that desertification is no threat to food supply for some (future) humans or members of his or her tribe (a disvalue) will not see a problem here, for instance if (s)he believes the loss can be substituted from elsewhere. Someone who knows of no functions wetlands fulfil in broader ecosystems that may also be ‘of service’ to humans or values them as such will have no problem with their destruction.
Here explicitly or implicitly (moral) values play a role, as is more obvious in the case in which ecological economists make economic injustices the source of the problem to be solved by a “doughnut shaped recovery” of the UK-economy.
If there is no belief in any chance to achieve a practical solution, then there is also no practical problem in the first place either. The belief in the possibility may be elusive and the problem thus deficient, as some argue for pursuing endless economic growth. But from the perspective of those who construct the problem it is still achievable – which may have unintended consequences as a necessary result.
From the perspective of the philosophy of problem-solving it is thus to be expected that researchers ranked doomism among the discourses of delay in relation to climate policies. Those who really believe in doom have no practical problem in the respect that is believed to be totally out of control and therefore, of course, have no reason for action.
‚Social Problems‘ as the root of doom?
It has often been said, even for centuries, that it is harder to solve problems of knowledge and action in relation to the social realm than in relation to the natural world since Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) claimed knowledge about society would be easier to acquire because society is what humans create, in contrast to nature. It may have been one of the biggest errors in the history of human thought.
But based on this idea we could anticipate that it would also be easier to change society. The well-known paradox is that overall the opposite seems to be the case until today. While humans change nature to the point of destruction, society is a different kind of matter. Climate systems scientist James Dyke referred to such a perspective:
“[O]ne explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere. (…) It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.”
On first sight, this sounds much like doomism, and it may surprise some how often you can find philosophical ideas within texts written by (natural) scientists. It is not only technology that is lacking today, but humans’ ability to control “the technosphere”.
However, this is just a special version of the age-old paradox of social theory that humans collectively create society without designing it, they all act under pre-given and unwanted conditions, with some unintended consequences that are positive, some negative, while as a heap of humans no one has control over the historical process, in which countless aims are realized anyway. It is also a classical theme of philosophy of history, which tells us that humans are trapped in a prison of an overarching process they created but lost control over, which is either praised as progress we are invited to celebrate or lamented over as the deplorable but well-earned fall from grace.
One signature term in hinting at such issues has become “social problem”.
Although it is widely unknown and rather small, there is even a sub-discipline of the social sciences that claims to have Social Problems as its object. After a few decades, it turns out that there is no unanimous agreement about what a social problem is and how to tackle them. There are realists, who emphasize that problems are out there, and constructivists, who claim that social problems are artifacts of communication and struggle. In the extremes the former implies that to solve such a problem you need to change the world, the latter that you have to convince others to see the world differently.
We already know that you need both. One formulation from the former camp, which includes something like a compromise, reads:
“A social problem is a social phenomenon that is damaging to society or its members, is perceived as such, and is socially remediable. (…) Social problems are social in origin, social in damage, social in definition, and social in solution.”
Though itself problematic, this is somewhat suggestive and mirroring the above analysis
That social problems are social in origin simply means that at least two humans (maximally the whole of humankind) or two interdependent social systems are involved in bringing about the state or fact that is the source or real counterpart of a problem – for some. It also often means that individuals are not always self-causing their own suffering, but run against the intersubjective walls of social systems or are actively run over by their representatives.
That social problems are “socially defined” means that assumptions about facts are brought together in a larger group of people who agree about the problem-character after some communication process, and no individual leader or hero can solve such problems on his or her own, so they are “social in solution”. Think of vaccinating a population, abolishing illiteracy, winning a war or a championship in some team sports.
That social problems are not simply out there but are socially shared in brains also has as a result that the powerful and wealthy have good chances to control what counts as a social problem and what are taken to be legitimate ways of solving them, through their influence on politics and the media, even social media.
Coming back to our analysis above, a social problem requires not only people with the same factual and normative beliefs but with an interest and commitment of doing something, if only spreading information or propaganda (disinformation). For some strange reason, conservatives and ‘liberals’ are better in this regard, often also better equipped with money-tokens.
Between 2008 and 2017 the American Petroleum Institute spent 663 million dollars on public relations and advertising. And the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. alone has a lobbying budget per year that exceeds the 8 million that were granted for the funding of the last IPCC reporting cycle that took several years, arguably the most important scientific panel in human history.
As Marx might have said, the ruling problems are the problems of the ruling classes, so that broad human suffering or unnecessary malaise can simply be ignored. To say that social problems are problems that are of societal relevance, as at times happens, invites the question who, at what point in time, represents society, or whether this boils down to a majority rule in weekly polls. Trivially, in a wide sense all politics and much of social gossip is about ‘social problems’, in the former case “facing or evading” them, as Mario Bunge wrote. Although it can be understood what it means, in this perspective it is highly problematic to call climate change as such a social problem or a humankind-problem.
Since the publication of a book by the sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950’s, one strategy of problem-dissolution is called “blaming the victim.” Its foundation is the distinction between personal issues and social problems.
Although millions might face the same problems within society, it is not society where the need for change is diagnosed, but individual personality traits and behavior patterns. This is an especially welcome strategy for those who believe with Maggie Thatcher that there is no such thing as society or there are no such things as social systems. David Graeber said that “we are constantly encouraged to look at social problems as if they were questions of personal morality”, after 40 years of neoliberalism. Even the fossil fuel industry uses a variant of this strategy (blaming the consumer) to distract from structured systems and power imbalances by making the social world appear as a heap of mutually independent consumers.
If all socio-political problems are reduced to personal issues, then they can be either ignored without moral qualms – also because they cannot be solved in any other way than by treating each individual individually – or the state and its representatives can feel entitled to launch paternalist measures as a consequence. Blaming-the-victim and blaming-the-consumer are the necessary strategies that result when pedagogy meets mainstream economics.
No doubt, in the realist camp an analogy with illness and diagnosis is somewhat justified when the social system has an objective dysfunction which is negative to all those or many involved (think of a rail system), or when there is a clear case of human suffering that cannot be ascribed to individual responsibility alone, and generally when an objective human need faces a social or natural deficiency unsuited to satisfy them: a water shortage is as real as the human need for water.
When they come together it makes sense to say that the problem is objective or intersubjective because all humans have that need and all would experience a deficiency as bad. This is also the reason why close to nobody would dispute the problem-character of the facts listed above as suggestive examples for the belief that problems are out there in the world. However, this still involves a moral standpoint that many don’t share, especially not when it becomes relevant to real actions or omissions. According to one recent estimate, 11 humans die from hunger or malnutrition every single minute in a world of excessive food waste, and many believe that wellbeing and happiness are equally subjective.
In other cases to call something a social problem can be a weapon for social disciplining and control. Think of unemployment, abortion, educational achievement, divorce, drug use (abuse) or public drinking, wearing long hair in the 1950s, or whatever, for some: consumerism and speed limits.
Obstacles to the solution of social problems
What is called a “social problem” ranges from states of social mini-systems like families and friendship and small aggregates to the social world-system and the whole of humanity, from short-term ephemeral issues to structural problems. For several reasons they are often not as easy to solve as many simple practical problems faced by individuals:
- Social problems (or rather their underlying facts) can be complex in involving many systems, whole societies, or many people in similar circumstances. Examples: climate change, biodiversity breakdown, private indebtedness, consumerism.
- Social problems can be interdependent, so that turning one screw to improve a small issue may either make another aspect or the whole system worse, or be totally ineffective. Examples: car dependence, the food system, Academentia.
- Social problems, because they may be complex, often don’t have single experts that can be consulted for simple solutions that are to be adopted by ‘leaders’. Examples: the Covid-19 pandemic, ‘development’, social inequality.
- Social problems on a world-scale (“global problems”), but also nationally, may lack a legitimate and effective institution that organizes and enforces the coordinated efforts necessary to solve them. Examples: world peace, unequal international exchange.
- As a reminder: Solutions to social problems may affect others who don’t share the problem at all, and the solution may intentionally create a problem for those who don’t share the problem, which will often incite resistance. Examples: imperialism, unemployment, tuition fees, environmental taxes.
Accordingly, there may and often will be value-disagreements not only in relation to ‘the problem’ but also the solution or the means to achieve it. If some people agree that an outcome X would be good, they probably judge that a measure Y that results in X is good (ceteris paribus). But for those who disvalue X the measure Y may either be irrelevant or also bad.
- Social problems often cannot be solved by following the common sense get-rid-of-it approach because they are not about switching off causes but about changing behavior patterns and patterns of social interaction. Examples: methane pollution due to meat consumption, exploitation, gender inequality, domestic violence, or deliberative democracy.
- Social problems are regularly supposed to be resolved by representatives of those who profit from the problematic facts or who brought about the structures at the root of the problem, or the representatives themselves are co-responsible. Examples: climate breakdown, economic or financial crises, debt, all poverty, all destructive subsidies, all gross states of political, social, health and wellbeing inequality.
- Furthermore, but similar to the case of technology, those who invent or envision social ‚programs‘ to solve social problems, those who decide about their implementation after adapting them to their partial interests, those who implement them, and those who evaluate them (if at all) are different groups of people, which makes monitoring, evaluation, and re-design hard.
From this perspective there are real-world features that explain why ‘we’ often fail in solving social problems that we can add to those features of problems generally.
How to save the world (from doomism)
Are we doomed? Our journey so far may have sounded as if it would lead to this conclusion. Science and technology could neither prevent the climate crisis nor the biodiversity crisis nor any other. Problems can neither simply be found out there and collected like stones nor be solved like crossword puzzles. Even recurrent predictions of catastrophe and apocalypse could not instigate decisive collective actions although survival is of relatively high value to conscious animals.
Seen from the end of the process and by a group of science-oriented intellectuals and activists, it is currently argued that what modern societies need in order to avert catastrophe or apocalypse is “transformational system changes”, “solutions at the systems level”, “system change (not climate change)” (Fridays for Future) or “transformative change”. Even more, what is believed to be in need of systemic transformation is nothing short of the human social world-system, while a diagnosis of “the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required” come together within scientific predictions of a “ghastly future”, an explicit appeal to the urge of the situation.
Accordingly, the stuff that is the source of the problem is as big as it can get and, after imperialism and globalisation, highly integrated or interdependent. It is a structural, not a circumstantial complex and global problem (or a whole problematic), of the highest magnitude, at the same time in which the interests are more and more diverging and relations conflictual, the systems disintegrating (Make Your Tribe Great Again), so that in fact the problems are not overwhelmingly shared.
To his credit, this has already been diagnosed by Nicholas Maxwell in a book from 1984 (second edition 2007):
“[A] vast, complex, world society may need to change, relatively suddenly and drastically, complex, diverse ways of life that have been established for generations – because of a relatively sudden, world-wide change in the circumstances of life. We are confronted today by just such problems, on a worldwide basis.”
The complexity of the systems dealt with and the problems at hand also make it hard to forsee the consequences of radical societal changes. The most comfort people tend to find in measures, programs or plans that have predictable outcomes. But such knowledge is either widely lacking within the social sciences or restricted to isolated phenomena, not whole systems. The last grand systemic crisis, the financial crisis of 2007/8, was neither anticipated nor understood. Well, roughly 10 heterodox economists predicted it.
If we need to wait for such reassuring predictive knowledge before doing something, it may well be too late. Also the earth system is probably too complex to plausibly expect not to be surprised by a reality that overruns predictive models, which has already been one of the shocking experiences for scientists in 2021, who had not forseen such weather extremes.
Overall and as a consequence, what is believed to be necessary by one group is very unlikely to happen, also because the whole challenge includes the necessity to challenge a philosophy, that of solving mini-problems one at a time, piecemeal, which is the exact opposite of operating at the system level. Maja Göpel asked in her book with the suggestive title The Great Mindshift:
“If transformational change is defined as radical because a system’s dynamics, components and architecture have been changed, two questions arise: how can a radical degree of reconfiguration be intentionally pursued? And how can the system dynamics be altered to this degree without causing collapse or rejection?”
What we face in the intellectual landscape is that the urgent need for change comes together with a broad feeling of impotence, also shared by many young people, the anticipation of collapse either as a straight effect of ecological breakdown (more on ‚the left‘) or by trying to design change (more on ‚the right‘), and political or economic elites that don’t share much of a problem and concern, combined with an anti-science attitude that is rapidly spreading: Paralysis?
Let’s consider the technosphere again:
“[O]ne explanation for our collective failure on climate change is that such collective action is perhaps impossible. It’s not that we don’t want to change, but that we can’t. We are locked into a planetary-scale system that while built by humans, is largely beyond our control. This system is called the technosphere. (…) It may seem nonsense that humans are unable to make important changes to the system they have built. But just how free are we? Rather than being masters of our own destiny, we may be very constrained in how we can act.”
The trouble here is again the we-trap. There is no grand “subject’”, as the philosophers used to call it, of the historical process. There is no one who controls everything. True. But there are also many people who have control (power) over something, and some over many. The social fabric is not a heap of independent atoms but of interdependent systems whose components are humans who control something, otherwise there would be no systems at all. Some are called “managers” because they are part of a system but have influence on other parts.
Philosophical stories like the technosphere narrative constitute the negative framing of the social paradox of change and stasis. The positive side of the same coin emphasizes, for instance famously in the voice of David Graeber (influenced by the philosopher Roy Bhaskar), that what we do we can also make differently, and society is in effect what we do with and to each other.
Also here the trouble is in the we-trap. As in the former emphasis ‘we’ are not equally constrained, in the latter ‘we’ are not equally contributing or equally free. Of course, everybody involved knows that opportunity and constraint are two sides of the same social coin, and some people have more opportunities precisely because they are free to constrain others.
If humans were as independent of each other as some economic ideologues presuppose, doomism and paralysis would be certain after the death of the free market and invisible hand ideology, because what is totally independent cannot be controlled to any degree. But the paradox is that as long as humans are inter-dependent, systems can be changed, because their structures (read: relations), which are what enables and constrains, can be altered.
Doomism, as long as it is not rooted in natural laws governing the earth system or resource limits, is in principle wrong.
If you take the above difficulties involved in solving social problems, then any of them suggest a countermeasure. If social problems (or their underlying facts) are complex then solutions must be systemic, not one at a time or piecemeal. Change needs to involve many aspects at the same time, not isolated reforms. If there are no single experts, many need to be considered and those need to be involved in the process of design and implementation who deal with the relevant issues every day. If some national, international or global problems lack legitimate and effective institutions to solve them, then they may be created.
That problems and solutions are contested makes the case for deliberative direct democracy, the open and rational debate of all the components of problems on diverse channels, which includes considering the perspectives of others. The case is strengthened by the uncertainty of values in many cases, though not all. That academia, education, the media and politicians fail disastrously in these respects doesn’t make it impossible.
The ‘we’, the ‘us’ and the ‘our’ in relation to problems have to be built. This is a huge difficulty if it shall go beyond short-lived coalitions within the political game, but no impossibility. As Maxwell correctly stresses, there are no functioning social institutions to rationally approach the discussion or solution of social problems of living and living together. Sciences aim at knowledge, not at discussing social problems and their solutions. That’s why scientists all over the place hesitate to take part in public debates and are reproached by others if they do it anyway. Universities have become commercialized diploma mills to feed the labor market with human capital, while journalists – with the notable and noble exception of constructive or solutions oriented journalists – claim that their task is to ‘objectively’ deliver ‘the news’, what they clearly neither try nor do. Politics has become or always was a short-lived public relations game in representative democracy, where many don’t feel represented at all, because their problems are not met.
What would be needed is a culture in which constructive problem-searching and solving outweighs ideological (or ‚populist‘) problem-framing. Maxwell again:
“In order to solve the global problems that confront us, it is absolutely essential that a good percentage of people on earth have a good understanding of what our problems are, what we need to do to solve them, and are prepared to act so as to initiate solutions to these problems. Just that basic requirement faces apparently insuperable difficulties, as we have seen. But we require more. Our concern should be, after all, to solve global problems in ways which are, as far as possible, of real benefit to us all. We want solutions that are good for the natural world, and good for humanity. Environmental problems are inevitably entangled with social, political and moral problems. Our fundamental concern, in solving global problems, should be to make progress towards a good world, a world that is as genuinely civilized, enlightened and wise as possible – a world capable of taking care of both the natural world and humanity.”
The implicit (everyday) philosophies of social problems and their solutions and dissolutions would need to become the issues. And to our surprise we find that in our days the above utopian (or eutopian) idea is not so much a philosopher’s fantasy but what is required practically within a complex strategy or planning.
Let me explain, because this sounds absurd. A vision of a civilized or good world seems to be the direct opposite of what is needed in planning.
Philosophies and phobosophies of social problem-solving
Every form of problem-solving is intentional aim-pursuing. Dependent on the complexity of the problem, it involves some amount of planning. Because problems are not out there, we can be in different degrees ambitious in constructing and approaching social problems. This is another reason why rational problem-solving is an antidote to doomism. But as everyone knows, it is not always promising to aim for the lowest hanging fruits, especially not when systemic change is needed.
Broadly speaking, there are different general approaches to tackle solutions and to frame them together with the problems. As polar opposites there are the conservative and the critical or progressive approaches.
The conservative allows only old-fashioned problems and conventional solutions taken from the past. The availability of means determines also the choice of problems, the ‘doables’. As Angela Merkel is proud of repeating: Politics is the art of the possible. No, of what is believed to be possible by some in some socia group. Everything that cannot be achieved with something known or possessed is presented as unfeasible. Overall change is framed as the preservation of the contemporary or recent past, called “the achievements”, and measures are adaptive, not disruptive. In tendency the source of a problem is a threat.
The conservative acts only as a measure of last resort, when small changes are needed to prevent big ones. They believe doing the right thing is avoiding what is false, and they are proud of managing reoccurring crises. Shorter: A problem is what deviates from what is experienced as, and considered to be, normal. The conservative is certain to know what is bad and also rather confident to have a transhistorically valid view of what is good. The aim is always a return to normality or at least a „new normal“ that is next to identical with the old. He or she will make fun of visions and eutopia, because his or her eutopia is always the present or the recent past.
The critical imagines progressive problems and if necessary disruptive solutions with an eye to an envisioned better or ideal future, not the ‘normal’ past, and commits to some optimism in making them feasible, to adapt means to ends, not the other way around. The source of the problem is what is wanted, opportunities rather than threats are emphasized. The critical believes not doing harm is not equivalent to doing what is right, and favors the prevention of crises over their management. Because (s)he is more of a pluralist, (s)he feels more certain in knowing what is wrong than what is good, but the search is not for the enemy to eliminate but the destination to reach, what is good overall for all. Because (s)he is not convinced to be certain about what is good and therefore does not fear to lose something, the critical is open for all rational and open minded disputes over what is good.
These are ideal types, caricatures, of course. But here is already where ideologies of all fashions clash without often being clear about where exactly they clash. Of further help is an expansion of those polar philosophies to a distinction of four ways to approach problems and solutions, which may all be adequate in different socio-historical contexts, but not in our era: absolution, resolution, solution and dissolution, provided originally to us by Russell Ackoff:
Swimming against the tide (absolution): Ignore the problem (that others claim there is) and hope it disappears or drown it, not in alcohol, but in ideology, delay discourses, endless meetings, calls for more research, and repeated target setting.
Swimming to a known island (resolution): Do as much as is necessary to alleviate symptoms or to undo unwanted past changes, lull the general public or appease political opponents by only condering measures which achieved as much in roughly analogue cases, which fit ‘common sense’ or simply your ideology.
Riding the tide to win the race (solution): Focus on only one isolated problem and search for a contextually optimal, limited, piecemeal but targeted solution within the given system, based on expert help, available data or newly launched research.
Designing the pool and directing the tide (Dissolution): Reimagine and redesign the whole complex system which is the source of a systemic/structural problem with all the knowledge that is available to you from all the relevant disciplines, so that it disappears with the implementation or realization of the design through a complex and flexible plan, which is intended to close the gap between vision and reality.
These four ideals types may remind you of contemporary debates, although the last one is probably not represented. It is precisely the philosophy for our time because it is necessitated by the unprecedented crises, the need for systemic transformations, and it necessitates to debate all the components of problems on different levels of society, everywhere.
Russell Ackoff developed the technique of idealized design exactly to sharpen the senses in problem formulation because the task is to free the mind as far as is possible from self-imposed constraints, taboos, dogmas, and unnecessary knowedge. This is also why the job should not be done by academics or ‚experts‘ alone, because they are necessarily seriously impaired by their one-sided training.
The idealized design, which could be done on all the levels of society, fakes for a while that there are no constraints in order to find out what is really wanted, so that what is the case can be compared to the ideal design to pin down ‘the right problem’ and what at a given time really is doable.
In a different context Maja Göpel calls a related capability “futures literacy”, i.e. “people’s capacity to imagine futures that are not based on hidden, unexamined, and sometimes flawed assumptions about present and past systems”, which she predominantly finds to be taken from economics. Also James Dyke is no (full-blown) pessimist, but suggests that it is necessary that, ideally, we all need to become philosophers for a while:
“[T]he most effective guard against climate breakdown may not be technological solutions, but a more fundamental reimagining of what constitutes a good life on this particular planet. We may be critically constrained in our abilities to change and rework the technosphere, but we should be free to envisage alternative futures. So far our response to the challenge of climate change exposes a fundamental failure of our collective imagination.”
This new imagination would certainly teach us that many restrictions or constraints of change for the better for the many are socially self-imposed, and often imposed by only relatively few actors that are powerfully placed within some hierarchy which can always be overthrown. Last year we learned that even capitalism could almost be overthrown, just by staying at home.
If broad aims were clear and to some extend agreed upon, sub-aims could be formulated easier and in a coordinated fashion for contexts were solutions are actually realizable because people actually control something, though neither society nor history, and bottom-up problem-solving could be combined with top-down approaches. Agreement on and clarity about problems remains the main problem also because many people don’t see that the solutions would be theirs, which is another disastrous result of politically designed inequality.
The way out of uncertainty about the future and paralysis is having a long-term systemic vision (R. Ackoff), based on an explicit and societal problematization of problems and philosophies of living and all of their components (N. Maxwell), as well as a permanent and promising systemic strategy of constant, participative planning of systemic politics within deliberative democracies (M. Bunge).
Where people don’t think about this but act, much of this is approached all over the place in smaller and bigger versions. Only solutions journalism tries to collect and share it. Accordingly, we also only accidentally get to know successes in problem-solving and novel problem-framings as vaccines against doom.
To end with the historical sociologist Charles Tilly: I did not say it would be easy.
(That’s why we need some more episodes to save the world. You may have guessed, next up is planning. No worry, capitalism is also coming.)
(c) Daniel Plenge
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