Thursday, June 9, 2011

Isolation effect in world problems

This column by Thomas Friedman reminded me of an issue that has been on my mind for a while, the inter-relatedness of world problems. I discussed it in the book for which this blog is named, especially the chapter on population.

The world today has a long list of inter-related problems: food, fresh water, energy production, biodiversity, rising oceans from higher temperatures (resulting in shrinking coastal lands where many people live), health, unemployment of the young, catastrophic risks from technology, armed conflict, poverty, over-population, and antagonism against migrants. These problems compete. Efforts to reduce global warming with clean energy require land for wind farms and solar. Biofuels compete with agriculture. Rising oceans lead to migration.

Many people concerned with these problems view them in isolation. Some groups are concerned with food. Others with biodiversity. Others with energy. Here is an example.

This isolation of problems closes off the possibility of solving some problems as a side-effect of solving others. It may be more efficient to solve the problem of immigration than to prevent the rise of the oceans. It may be easier to reduce the growth of population than to exploit more energy, after some point in doing the latter. The idea that each problem requires its own solution is much like the fixed-pie bias in negotiation, where people tend to negotiate one issue at a time rather than look for trade-offs among issues.

When problems are isolated, the focus on one makes all the others seem uncontrollable, out of the picture. Discussions of food and water always begin with the point that population growth is going to cause problems, but then they view population growth as something that is uncontrollable.

In fact, it would be relatively cheap to simply meed women's unmet demand for birth control, as a start. Other steps, only slightly more costly, such as improving the education of girls, would reduce desired family size. Part of the problem is religion. It is opposition from the religious right that prevents the U.S. government from spending more on international family planning, for example. The idea of promoting birth control has become so politically incorrect that even the organizations that do it, such as Engender health, do not emphasize it in public.

This is just one example. When problems are interrelated, the solution to any one of them helps all the others, and the search for efficient solutions should take this into account.