The problem of hierarchical problems

I was at the CFI Ottawa Unsermon this morning (which I highly recommend for brunch and intelligent conversation!) and got into a debate justifying the actions of CFI.  The discussion was sparked by this sentiment: “There are big issues (health, environment, economy) that need to be solved.  CFI takes on smaller projects that do not address those bigger issues and so is not worth investing in.”


The point was expanded to justify the conclusion that “since we cannot solve any of these major issues, we should not try”.  My response was to point to examples of effective campaigning by CFI (Ottawa and beyond) that have contributed to the resolution of issues.  I highlighted the 10:23 Campaign, a public awareness campaign on homeopathy with which I was involved in Ottawa.  The response was “homeopathy is a negligible problem”.  These two responses, that (i) we should not try to solve big problems and that (ii) solving small problems is not worth the effort, are flawed, in my opinion, and the funny little diagram on the left explains why (click here for a larger version, created with FreeMind).

The problem stems from a lack of understanding concerning (i) the interconnectedness and (ii) the hierarchical nature of the problems that we face as a global society.  In the diagram I attempt to convey what I see as the major problems, presented in a basic and structured way.  Clearly this is not a complete list (I got bored and a little bit depressed pretty quickly so I didn’t get beyond “Health” and didn’t even finish that…) but I think it illustrates the point.

There are a number of larger umbrella topics that are highlighted in blue.  These are not truly problems, but areas within which things are going wrong.  Next there are the major issues within each area (green).  Some people stop here and view these as the problems that we face.  Clearly if the problem is viewed as “disease needs to be eradicated” then it sounds like a pretty big issue and one which we cannot hope to achieve (at least in the short-to-medium-term).  I think it is this level of thinking that has my friend bogged-down.  However, the problem becomes more solve-able when you start to break it down into sub-problems (red).  Now you start to set yourself reasonable targets (and some that have already been achieved, which is why smallpox doesn’t need to be included on the list of problems!).  Breaking down the problems even further, we find that there are very straightforward actions that can be taken to ameliorate (if not solve) some of these problems.

I have highlighted the role of the 10:23 Campaign in the red box at the top of the chart.  We have our little corner.  We are solving little problems.  Once you solve the little problems, you realise that the big problems no longer exist.  This is because the big problems are made of  little problems.  We aren’t going to solve the big, higher-order problems on our own but we are going to contribute to their solution, one campaign at a time.

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5 thoughts on “The problem of hierarchical problems

  1. A very good point. In addition, I think there’s the plain necessity of believing that we can change things, that we can fix our problems. Even if it’s all futile, I couldn’t live thinking that we’re on a derailing train and there’s nothing that can be done. It’s important for the quality of our lives that we live as though a perfect world were possible and achievable.

    Learned helplessness is sadly common and likely a leading cause of apathy and malaise.

  2. I agree that belief that we can achieve change is essential. I think that viewing these kinds of higher-order problems as the sum total of lower-order, simpler problems is one way to make that belief easier. It seems impossible to eradicate polio, but there are smaller battles that we have already won and that are slowly contributing to that goal.

    • That’s a good solution for anything, actually. At work, if I start feeling overwhelmed by a project, I take an hour or two to break it down into all its component parts – each of which is a small and easily-achieved task. It reduces my stress level and drastically increases the quality of my final work.

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