What are the Big Problems? They’re the large scale issues that appear to be completely intractable – whether societal, economic, political, industrial, ideological, cultural, biological, or any other variety.
For one reason or another, a viable path forward does not seem to be on the table. Before I get into these issues, I’d like to note one thing: America, and humanity in general, actually has a pretty good track record in this area. Here is an unordered list of Big Problems that once seemed insurmountable, but have since been either completely solved or relegated to the margins:
Polio; Famine; Slavery; Jim Crow Segregation; Access to electrical power; Hereditary monarchy; Protections for public speech; Industrial-era labor rights; Food safety; Long distance transportation; Long distance communication; Smallpox; Women’s right to career and education; Clean water and air; Violent prejudice; Religious freedom; Peaceful transition of power; Widespread access to information; Universal suffrage; German reunification; Hookworm.
This is not to say we have to stop worrying about all these things. Due to both their nature and human complacency, many problems on the list above are prone to cycles of remission and recurrence. We absolutely must remain vigilant. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t acknowledge our successes, where we’ve had them. In each of the areas above, it’s not hard to find historical examples of how America has massively improved.
There are two other things to note about the list above:
- Complexity. The nature of the list is diverse, both between and within each of the individual problems and solutions. Some of them are cultural, political, or legal. Some are technological, biological, or infrastructural. Many of them are a blend of different problems, or are interrelated, tied up with other problems on the list. That complexity is central to why they’re such big problems in the first place. In their time, each seemed impervious to our best solutions… until they weren’t, which brings us to point number two.
- Breakthroughs. The common theme to all of the problems is that they resisted all attempts until a significant breakthrough came along and opened up new lines of approach. Naturally, our response should be to just do that more often, but the tough thing about breakthroughs is that you don’t always know where you’re going to find them. Sometimes we overwhelm problems with large-scale, coordinated effort. Sometimes we flank them with an individual spark of genius. Sometimes we only treat the symptoms until the problem is no longer quite so problematic. Generally, the best approach is to support a wide range of solutions that each have some non-zero chance of success. Maybe one solution will crack the problem with a unique approach. Maybe multiple solutions will align to mitigate the problem until it is barely noticeable. We can’t know unless we try.
It’s time for our leaders to admit the truth: they can’t solve the Big Problems. In part, that’s because we won’t let them; on many issues we’re simply too divided. In part, it’s also because they don’t know how. They are our representatives, and like us they have expertise in some areas and not in others. It’s imperative for them to stop wasting our time with hack-ish, politically motivated nonsense, and instead get back to the small problems that they can actually fix.
Where we are faced with big problems, they should adopt an “any and all” approach. We have to start seeding breakthroughs wherever we can. Fund multiple avenues of problem solving wherever a solution seems remotely possible. Technical solutions are preferred here, since they can sidestep needlessly toxic political debates. But if we can’t agree on even that, then the breakthrough has to be political. On those issues we have no choice but to promote dialog and patience. If that answer is unsatisfying to you, it is only because you are ignoring a whole other world of equally real problems we could be fixing right now instead.
The intention here is not willful ignorance, but calculated neglect; it’s an acceptance of the fact that both time and resources are limited. Costs and benefits may lead us elsewhere for now, but leaving a problem to the side does not mean it will simply stagnate. Playing small ball, focusing elsewhere and fixing other problems first will actually build up good faith, which will make it easier to solve the big problems down the line. Apart from good faith, changing trends will often lead to open doors that were previously closed. Some problems resolve naturally, while others worsen and force us into action. Either way, our prospects for problem solving will be different in the future than they are now, so let’s focus on what we can change for the time being and get back to the hard stuff whenever a new angle presents itself. And in the meantime…