Everyone a problem solver!

If 2 are powerful, just think what 233 can do.[1]

Often when the conversation turns to the world’s problems, it isn’t long before someone sighs and says “the plain fact is, we’ve just got too many people.”

Yes…and no.

We are well-versed in the “yes.” Almost seven billion of us! That’s a lot, however we look at it. A lot more than the Earth has ever seen before. It’s more than 100 people for every square mile of land surface, and a much of that surface is desert or mountain. A lot of mouths to feed, people to clothe and house. And, as we’ve discussed, per capita, many of us today are consuming resources (water, energy, etc.) at fifty to one hundred times the rate of our forebears. Resource consumption? We’re also generating mountains of waste, polluting the earth, the water, the air. And not only do we have a lot of people, but we’re getting a batch more, and largely in the parts of the world least able to cope.

Hold on…

The challenge might not be the number of people per se, so much as the small fraction of us who are in a position to be problem solvers. We’re told that some 1.7 billion people live in abject poverty, defined as lacking basic human needs: potable water, food, shelter, health care. Double this figure, and you have about 3 billion people living on less than $2/day.

But wait a minute…

All these folks are problem solvers too, aren’t they? Figuring out each day how you’ll get enough drinkable water for yourself and your family, and find food, and preserve your basic decency and humanity, in a context where every person is desperate for those same things? The problems don’t get any more difficult or complex than that. And the stakes? High indeed.

It’s just that the problems the world’s poorest are facing are short-term, immediate, urgent. They don’t enjoy the luxury of working on the longer-term concerns. [There’s another, very ugly piece to this, and that is the growing body of evidence to suggest that if you and I are short-changed in our very early development – starting in the womb and extending to those first few, vulnerable, formative years – if we don’t manage to get the right nutrition, and stay free of disease, and, eventually, receive some education, then we never develop our fullest problem-solving potential.]

And here’s some more bad news…

If we go to the other end of the spectrum, we don’t find many people working on long-range problems of sustainability either. How many times a day or a week are we reminded that our business leaders have a time horizon of the next quarterly earnings statement, and that our political leaders are these days continually in campaign mode, strategizing and fund-raising for the next election?

And what about the rest of us? We go to work each day and immediately struggle to stay afloat in a turbulent tide of e-mails. We go home 8-16 hours later not because we’re through, but because it’s time. We’re drained, spent just doing what it takes to get through the day. But along the way, sometimes we’ve also become alienated. So instead of staying engaged in the evenings, weekends, we look for an outlet, release, escape. So we keep on solving problems, but also the wrong ones. Instead of focusing on our main calling in life, we’re computer-gaming; we’re doing sudoku, crosswords, jigsaw puzzles. (You and I can substitute our personal time-wasting favorite. Advanced play? Add an overlay of guilt to these activities.).

Then there’s the issue not only of what problems we’re working on, but what we’ll accept as a solution. Keeping abreast of the blizzard of e-mails becomes a substitute for making progress on the big picture. And even when it comes to those e-mails? Each day we start out with the aim of being thoughtful in each response – and at the end of each day we find ourselves tempted to just make the slightest bit of progress on the ones remaining. Our standards decline! [My parents would occasionally tell me when I was growing up that I should want a car that had been on the assembly line during the middle of the week. On Fridays the workers were looking ahead to the weekend, and on Monday they were recovering, and struggling to get their heads back in the game. Similar comments might apply to healthcare delivery, and so on. There are also sorts of present-day analogies to this folk wisdom, and each of us has at one time or another, consciously or unwittingly, contributed.]

So, maybe our problem is not that we have too many people.

Rather it is that we don’t have enough problem solvers, that the problem solvers are either forced or driven to work on the wrong problems, and settle for partial solutions.

This reality contains seeds of hope! Our attitude should be: every human being a problem solver! Every solver focused on problems that matter. Every solver refusing to settle for anything less than real solutions. 

We can get there from here. How? By formulating policies that foster inclusion. Making elimination of poverty a priority. By investing people, time, and energy towards problems of sustainability: economic growth, environmental protection, public safety and health. By insisting on win-win approaches at all levels from individual to local to international.

Can we get there all at once? Of course not. So each of us might consider a tithing strategy – one where we set aside ten percent (or some other fixed level that is realistic) to make progress towards these things. And whatever you do, don’t set a goal of doing it for a year. See if you can keep it up for just a week. And then decide whether you want to extend a second week. And so on. The holiday season? New Year’s resolutions? A good time to rededicate ourselves along some such lines.

And finally, again in the spirit of inclusion, we shouldn’t, and needn’t attempt all the needed problem-solving alone. Rather we can seek to work collectively, not singly. We’re doing this already; let’s just renew our gratitude and respect for our various groups and collections and communities of colleagues, family, and friends. Let’s value how the Internet is enabling more facile, more powerful, more extensive social networking.

Think 233 is a big number? Ask yourself how many subsets of 2, or 3, or 20 or 30, or of 200 or 300, you can form from that figure for solving problems.

Truly staggering!… and a reason for hope in this season of hope.


[1] 232 is 8,589,934,592…a few more than the world’s current population, but, barring catastrophe, we’ll be there soon.

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