What are Global Problems?

Global problems are not just important problems, or problems that affect many people. Rather they are those problems that affect the whole of the planet, and potentially all of the people who live on it. Climate change is one clear example that springs to mind quickly. This is because the consequences of humanly-generated changes in the atmosphere will, albeit in different ways according to region, affect everyone on the planet. In other words, the consequences are universal. Moreover, unless we profoundly change our collective behaviour, climate change may well result in irreversible changes in the climatic conditions of life – a measure of the deep vulnerability of human society in the face of this issue. And it is easy to see that there will be no easy solution to the problem: the causes of the present situation are clearly related to our economic system, our attitudes to nature, our political organisation, our technological capacities and preferences, and our uses of resources. Solutions will involve not just all communities and every country, but solutions will necessarily involve cooperation between all, rather than individual approaches. In other words, the example of climate change suggests that global problems are complex, intractable, and make human society as a whole very vulnerable.

The Climate Change Labyrinth, Robert E. Horn

Robert E. Horn, The Climate Policy Labyrinth Info-Mural [Original image (PDF, 1 Mb)]

Other examples of global problems of this scale and with these characteristics would include weapons of mass destruction; the violation of the human security of several billions of the world’s poor, and the consequences of the conditions of their lives for the rest of the world; failures and deficits of global governance, especially when set beside the largely unregulated pressures of economic and cultural globalisation; resource depletion, especially that of energy resources, on a scale and in a manner that both unsustainable and profoundly inequitable; the degradation of natural environments as a result of economic activities, including the oceans, forests and soils; the physical, social and psycho-cultural consequences of unprecedented and still accelerating development of megacities; and cultural collisions within and across national borders generated by globalisation and claims to the primacy or universal superiority of one version of reason and ethics.

This is a very incomplete listing, and there could be many other such lists. In High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them, Jean-Francois Rischard identifies twenty global problems, comparable to those just mentioned, and argues that

Roughly a third of these have to do with how we share our planet (burning environmental issues); another third of which relate to how we share our humanity (urgent economic and social issues requiring a worldwide coalition for their effective solution); with a final third having to do with how we share our rulebook (important regulatory challenges urgently requiring a minimum critical mass of global rules to prevent free-riding and other negative consequences).

One key characteristic of global problems is that they are inter-linked in complex, and often unrecognised, ways. Jared Diamond, in the conclusion to his Collapse, provides another list of twelve problems of “unsustainability”. Such a list, he notes, seems to imply that the problems are separate, and should be analysed separately. In fact, Diamond argues,

they are linked: one problem exacerbates another or makes its solution more difficult.  For example, population growth affects all eleven other problems; more people means more deforestation, more toxic chemicals, more demand for wild fish, etc.  The energy problem is linked to other problems because use of fossil fuels for energy contributes heavily to greenhouse gases, the combating of soil fertility losses by using synthetic fertilizers requires energy to make the fertilizers, fossil fuel scarcity increases our interest in nuclear energy which poses potentially the biggest “toxic” problem of all in case of an accident, and fossil fuel scarcity also makes it more expensive to solve our freshwater problems by using energy to desalinize ocean water.   Depletion of fisheries and other wild food sources puts more pressure on livestock, crops, and aquaculture to replace them, thereby leading to more topsoil losses and more eutrophication from agriculture and aquaculture.  Problems of deforestation, water shortage, and soil degradation in the Third World foster wars there and drive legal asylum seekers and illegal emigrants to the First World from the Third World.

This interlinking of issues, or complex interdependency of problems, has implications for both the way we think about these issues – our forms of knowledge – and the way we might go about beginning to solve them. Diamond remarks:

People often ask, “What is the single most important environmental problem facing the world today?” A flip answer would be, “The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem!”  That flip answer is essentially correct, because any of the dozen problems if unsolved would do us grave harm, and because they all interact with each other.  If we solved eleven of the problems, but not the 12th, we would still be in trouble, whichever was the problem that remained unsolved.  We have to solve them all.

Global problems are highly interdependent, often in non-linear ways. Their character and interdependence is such that they can only be solved jointly and simultaneously. These include climate change and energy insecurity, infectious diseases and the cultural dislocations of uneven, unequal and structurally contradictory processes of globalisation, apparently rapidly escalating nuclear proliferation, the destruction of habitat and biodiversity and the rapid deepening of chemical pollution, illegal drugs, increasing and deepening poverty across particular regions, and the failings of our global institutions of governance and finance, just to take a subset of the whole. Clearly they are interactive, most likely in ways we have hardly begun to think about.

The salient key characteristics are inherently transnational in both their causes and their consequences; that they are set to interact in ways we may well not anticipate – such as climate change and infectious disease; and that they are already giving rise to perceptible new forms of threat to both societies.

In our view, global problems exhibit characteristics which make them global rather than national or local in nature.  Global problems may exhibit linkage between cause and effect across societal levels from global to local. Global problems also reveal a disjuncture between cause and effect when the driving forces are highly centralized and concentrated both institutionally and spatially (and therefore are exogenous to most of humanity who nonetheless experience the effects of this change). Other global problems are the result of highly distributed and decentralized driving forces so diffuse yet cumulatively powerful that the resulting overall impact is qualitative even though it passes unnoticed except at the local level.

Often, global problems are multi-dimensional, and drive pervasive change driven by interrelationships across superficially segmented problems or disparate issues or levels of governance. Global problems may be the result of multi-directional causes that erupt suddenly from below or fall without warning from above, or both at the same time. Sometimes, events in one society arc for a moment around the planet to another, thereby dramatically changing both their trajectories.

The impacts of some global problems may not be felt for years or decades whereas decision-making time horizons are very short. Such enduring global problems may set severe limits on solving interrelated, medium-term global problems. Some solutions may turn out to generate further problems.

A regional set of examples

As an illustration, Australian concern over climate change is one justification for the establishment of components of the nuclear fuel cycle in Australia – uranium enrichment, fuel fabrication, high-level radioactive waste storage, and possibly nuclear power generation. Another element is Australian hopes for a privileged position in the Bush Administration’s planned Global Nuclear Energy Partnership. Meanwhile, in Australia’s immediate neighbour Indonesia, with whom it has a fractious and volatile relationship, a parallel debate about concerns over the country’s power requirements, its declining position in hydrocarbon reserves and longstanding economic nationalist policy currents is promoting nuclear power generation. Irrespective of the economic and political realities in each case, security elites in both countries have registered developments in the other with degrees of alarm, especially since both countries have records of secret nuclear weapons development, which even then were in part responses to fears of each other. One country’s climate change adaptation may become the rational for security concern, and indeed nuclear proliferation.

Climate change, energy insecurity, and pandemics will certainly interact with existing conflict patterns. To take but one plausible example, again involving Australia and Indonesia, global warming will influence already massively degraded fishing stocks in the seas of eastern Indonesia which provide the basic protein requirements for most of the population of that large region. The implications for migration into Papua and further pressure on the fishing grounds off of northwest Australia are easy to imagine – as are the political consequences.

These local expressions of global problems foreshadow deep threats to the fabric of Australian and Indonesian life, and require, for their even their partial amelioration, cooperation between the two countries – and between the two societies. In fact, the shared character of these global threats, and the requirement for government and civil society in both countries to move towards cooperative solutions opens up the possibility of a shift in the often volatile security relations between the two countries, moving towards a re-framing of Australia-Indonesia security relations on the basis of shared solutions to shared global problems.

Knowledge and global problems

There is to date very little systematic inquiry into global problems – precisely what their characteristics are, or indeed, agreement about whether one’s person’s global problem is even a problem to another person. Indeed, the idea of what is a “problem” as such may well be an idea that sits more comfortably in some mindsets and cultural outlooks than others. The very idea of a “global problem” raises quite fundamental issues of perception and understanding within and between different cultural streams. This is by no means a trivial or purely academic matter.

The most sustained and systematic attempt to think through many such questions relating to the idea of problems on a world or global scale was carried out over several decades by the Union of International Associations in its Encyclopedia of World Problems and its associated databases and explanatory commentaries. The principal author of those commentaries, Anthony Judge, and his UIA collaborator Nadia McLaren, are providing a major contribution to this Global Problem Solving project by  abridging and re-writing those Explanatory Comments in more accessible form.

Other aspects of the question of appropriate forms of knowledge for this new field of complex interdependencies are addressed by annotated bibliographies of authors dealing with Knowledge formation and knowledge ecosystems and Complexity and risk, and Network analysis.

Global problems as social messes and wicked problems

Two key concepts for beginning to understand global problems both in general and specific cases are wicked problems and social messes.

Wicked problems are ill-defined, ambiguous and associated with strong moral, political and professional issues. Since they are strongly stakeholder dependent, there is often little consensus about what the problem is, let alone how to resolve it. Furthermore, wicked problems won’t keep still: they are sets of complex, interacting issues evolving in a dynamic social context. Often, new forms of wicked problems emerge as a result of trying to understand and solve one of them.

Wicked problems have also been succinctly characterised as “complex problems that change when you apply a solution.”

Robert Horn has adapted earlier formulations of criteria for wicked problems to develop the features of a  social mess:

  • No unique “correct” view of the problem
  • Different views of the problem and contradictory solutions
  • Most problems are connected to other problems
  • Data are often uncertain or missing
  • Multiple value conflicts
  • Ideological and cultural constraints
  • Political constraints
  • Economic constraints
  • Often a-logical or illogical or multi-valued thinking
  • Numerous possible intervention points
  • Consequences difficult to imagine
  • Considerable uncertainty, ambiguity
  • Great resistance to change
  • Problem solver(s) out of contact with the problems and potential solutions.

These are very much the characteristics of the multiple, intersecting elements of complexes of problems such as climate change, weapons of mass destruction, global poverty and inequality, resource depletion and competition, threats to biodiversity from economic growth, and cultural clashes arising from contemporary and earlier forms of western-led globalisation. Each of these involves great resistances to change, high levels of uncertainty about causes and remedies, many different possible points of intervention but little certainty about consequences, evident interconnection with other problems coupled with lack of certainty about both the precise connections and whether all the connections are known – or even knowable, and often profoundly diverse and conflicting views of what “the problem” is and indeed whether there is in fact a problem at all.

Horn’s mess map of the Climate Policy Labyrinth that heads this article provides  a visual portrait for a set of experts’ perceptions of the constraints of one particular global problem cluster, and a paradigm of many others.

It metaphorically displays the constraints expressed by the interviewees as a huge labyrinth – and the uncertainties as a huge cloud — through which policies must proceed in order to result in the possible good outcomes identified (on which there was substantial agreement). It also depicts the enabling conditions interviewees identified as supportive of achieving the good outcomes. Overall it seeks to mirror the view of the policy process offered by those operating within it. The logic of this mural is metaphorical. It does not show literal paths that a specific policy or group of policies must take in order to navigate the labyrinth. Indeed, part of the power of the metaphor is to suggest that almost any policy proposal is bound to run into obstacles sooner or later – if we maintain the present level of thinking.

The beginning of understanding of the character of multiple, interdependent, causally complex social messes at the heart of what are now becoming recognised as global problems calls into question the character of the knowledge structures – and following on, institutional and policy frameworks – conventionally relied on for guidance in understanding radical threat. Not surprisingly, states are coming to realise that the knowledge frameworks they have relied upon to assess threat – the strategic intelligence cycle – are failing to provide adequate forewarning and understanding of precisely the kinds of threats to state interests contained in global problems. This has led to the beginning of a reformulation of both the characteristics and criteria of strategic intelligence and of the knowledge formation processes required to generate it. In the words of one such intelligence review, by the Glasgow Group, writing on knowledge formation salient to global problems, there is a need to move

beyond analysis – particularly for systemic, complex strategic issues such as energy and environmental security, methodologies that span disciplinary, national, cultural, and cognitive boundaries and frameworks are essential. Unless the subject matter is appropriate to analytic techniques (which requires the ability to reduce and study a subject in discrete parts), strategic intelligence requires systems-based approaches which incorporate consideration of the impacts offeedback loops and other non-linear phenomena. The terms horizon scanning, environmental scanning, or alternative futures all represent a wide sweep of strategic intelligence efforts. Strategic intelligence is necessarily interdisciplinary, highly introspective about cognitive biases, preoccupied with unknowns, and open to multiple explanations and outcomes vs. a “bottom line” assessment or judgment. Good strategic intelligence intentionally highlights areas of uncertainty, but does so in ways that inform better decision-making, thereby avoiding false certainty and simplifications.

Richard Norgaard’s observations of the process by which the scientists involved in the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment overcame initial barriers deep in the structure of institutions of knowledge and policy tell a parallel story, worth quoting at length:

The problem is that earlier, narrow concepts about the nature of science still dominate and have structured our social organization such that our efforts to coordinate our understanding and adapt it to the problems at hand are always seriously constrained. We accepted the concept of private property and put the burden of proof on those who sought the public good. We allowed science to fragment into disciplines and gave the disciplines the primary responsibility in universities to judge the styles and quality of scientific work. We established agencies to promote particular ends using particular parts of science. In short, we built a world around the belief that complex systems could be divided into parts. These separate institutions and agencies channel the bulk of the resources not only of science and how it relates to economic development but also how it relates to biological conservation and speaking for the poor as well. Similarly, we have instituted international agreements and designed international institutions as if solutions could be global. We try to work through our imperfect organizational structures to solve the problems that result in part from fragmentation and false beliefs about the broad applicability of economic, social, and environmental mandates.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment offered an unusual opportunity for a significant number of scientists to work outside of the conventional fragmented structures of science and its implementation. The work was difficult and time consuming, but most of the participants pursued it until the end. The MA process went a long way toward developing the capability among the participants to comprehensively address the complexity of social and ecological system interactions at multiple scales. It also went a long way toward developing the trust necessary to facilitate treating apparently similar situations, such as balancing economic needs with pollution control or species conservation, differently in different situations.

The primary political and policy implication of the MA is that we need to substantial increase our understanding of how we collectively assess complex problems and then extend this understanding to all of the scientific community, policy makers and politicians, and the public at large. Then we need to reconstruct our institutions of governance to match our new richer understanding of the complexity of our interactions with our environment and the collective processes by which we can understand this complexity.

The International Design Team Meeting known as the Glasgow Group described what a new international strategic intelligence capability on energy and environmental issues could resemble:

The most important products of this system could be relevant working hypotheses and compelling logics (in the sense of consequences, possibly including some not yet considered) transcending the narrow advocacy of special interest groups through shared access to, and decentralized validation of, global expertise. The system itself, participants agreed, could fill a current void in communicating to both public and private sector decision-makers the security consequences of energy and environmental issues. By convening scientists and analysts alongside societal experts of various kinds, this system could carry out adaptive and collaborative foresight inquiries on energy and environmental security questions. Participants agreed that the user experience with this capability should be vivid, visual, and intuitive. They also agreed that it should harness the best available tools to encourage user-created content and should create an action-learning environment. In this context, the group hoped individuals could study the advantages and drawbacks of an interchangeability of producers and consumers of strategic intelligence at a future date. The Glasgow Group participants strongly urged that multiple stakeholders must participate globally in and share openly the strategic intelligence endeavor, rather than any government or single institution owning the capability. Vivid discussions must embody the capabilities of technologies designed to support a knowledge-creating community, to include the ability for scenario-building, visualization techniques, simulation models, on-demand “rehearsal” of the security impacts related to energy and environmental interactions. Face-to-face meetings will naturally constitute an additional community-building element of the proposed knowledge ecosystem. In addition, technologies will make the results of asynchronous interactions (both face-to-face and online) visible to others.

This study spoke in terms of a “knowledge ecosystem” rather than of institutions of research, an ecosystem relying on diversity in values, methods, and location to generate robust results:

this strategic intelligence knowledge ecosystem may offer various capabilities, including prediction markets, visualization tools, environmental scanning, and alternative scenarios construction. Its uniqueness will be in rapid aggregation and evaluation of knowledge and strategic insights, through distributed and still-evolving knowledge accreditation systems (such as those popularized on E-Bay, Amazon, or In particular, this system will link communities of diversity and expertise at local, regional and global levels, and enable a credible and more objective intelligence source than currently available through either governmental or non-government institutions working in the area of energy and environmental security alone. Ideally, such a knowledge ecosystem will embrace group sense-making behaviors and transcend the limitations frequently observed with small units of analysts operating within one organization alone – an especially valuable property when considering the boundary-spanning nature of the energy and environmental security challenges.

Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
18 May 2008