This leads to a possible typology of problems – there is no need to assume a problem is of only one type. They can be of multiple types.
1) Normal Engineering problems
With apologies to engineers. These are the kinds of problems, where people have a standard method for producing solutions which testably work, and a standard solution set (such as roads, tunnels, bridges, buildings etc). The environment may be complicated, but its not over-complex. It is a matter of solving a series of relatively simple problems. There is little political disagreement which has to be factored in to the solving; although there may be politics about whether the project should go ahead, who is employed to do it and so on, but these arguments do not affect the project. It is just a matter of achieving the aims of the project, and there is large agreement about how that should be done, and that process generally works.
2) Stretched Engineering problems
These are problems in which the solvers may be using new materials, lacking perfect resources, or having to build something slightly outside of normal. The problems may be difficult, and failure is possible, but there is an agreed set of knowledge and procedures to build upon. Surprise, within limits is acceptable, and largely predictable.
After these kinds of problems we hit problems with large disruptive social, or ecological, components.
3) Problems that regularly affect individuals and cannot be solved so far
There are problems which haunt human existence like death. They may affect large numbers of people, but not all at the same time, and the problem is normal and ongoing. Obviously if the death rate rapidly, or noticeably increases that turns this kind of problem into another kind of problem.
4) Problems which primarily afflict the powerless, and the powerful have no incentive to care, or see the problem.
Things like class based hunger, poverty, racial or sexual discrimination, etc. Society is often organised so pollution is dumped on poorer people, and the rich don’t notice it, as they do not travel in those regions, or they can blame those living in those regions for the mess: “how could they live like that?”.
Problems often have a political or economic aspect which makes them worse, and harder to solve.
5) Problems which are generated by the previous solutions to problems, and which appear to have brought what we consider success
Development and capitalism appear to bring about ecological damage at greater rates than ecologies can repair. This is a cause of climate change. Not only success, but wealth and power have been built around these solutions, and this makes it hard to change. It is harder to change the more the elites become smaller, control ideas and prevent new strategies from arising. What will happen if we change is unknown and feared by those elites.
6) Problems for some, which may help others
Freedom from responsibility for pollution, industrial accidents, workplace deaths help increase the profits and success of those who so not see themselves as being at risk of being affected.
On the other hand, trying to solve problems of oppression frequently brings problems for those who previously benefitted, or thought they might benefit from that oppression.
7) Largely preventable problems which are just accepted as part of life
To some extent things like traffic accidents. Gun deaths in the US. Homelessness. Again the cost of fixing them may affect people who cannot be bothered, or who profit from the status quo.
8) Compounding problems
Where one problem makes another worse. For example, it costs money to fix something, and we may not have that money, or it may need to be spent elsewhere. This then allows problems to accumulate, get worse and cost more money. Climate change is such a problem. The longer we leave it, because its too expensive to fix, the worse the damage and decline becomes, and the less spare finance we have to fix it.
9) Wicked Problems.
Problems arising in complex systems, may not appear to be the same problem from different perspectives. There is no definitive knowledge. There may be no easy solution, and it may be hard to recognise when the problem is solved. Solutions may cause other problems. The problems, and solutions, may spill from one field to another. We cannot test the solution before we start using it. Wicked problems are to a degree unique, there is nothing quite like them that we have faced before. There are political struggles which are affected by the most likely solutions.
For example: Climate change is a wicked eco-social problem. We do not understand societies and ecologies very well. They are interconnected. Different people see the problems differently. Stopping fossil fuel burning could cause economic collapse. Continuing fossil fuel burning could cause economic collapse. Ecological collapse makes dealing with climate change more difficult. In general we do not know what side effects our solutions will have before we apply them. Fossil fuel companies don’t want to stop making money from what they know how to do, and have a lot of capital invested in fossil fuel infrastructure which could become valueless, if a solution is found. Politics is geared to support established business, and is generally highly influenced by established business or power centres – there is a high risk in going against that business.
10) Climactic Problems
Problems which have the possibility of destroying any capacity to solve other major problems. These are problems that change everything, and have no precedent in the people involved’s experience. Climate change could be such a problem if it is not solved, so could collapse of the US or British State for people in those countries, a huge meteor strike, the rapid end of oil supplies with no alternatives, etc., but a classic example would be nuclear war. These are problems which need to be prevented from occurring or circumvented, as much as is possible.
11) Ameliorable but non solvable problems
It is possible Covid is now such a problem. That is, it has become a problem which can be made worse or made a little more endurable. It cannot be solved. If states, politicians and big business had not run away from the issue, then it may have been containable, or even solvable, in that sense it was a compounding problem. Given enough time, humans may adapt to live with the disease.
We always need to look for obstacles to problem solving as they are part of the problems we face.
Power and Wealth
Obviously, one of the arguments being presented here is that established patterns of wealth and power can obstruct problem solving, and even depend for their ‘success’ on the problems those patterns generate, not only because those patterns support hierarchies and privilege of various types, but because those patterns have previously (under different circumstances), generated solutions for previous problems.
New strategies for attaining or retaining power can also involve ignoring, dismissing or generating problems.
Arguments over whether the problem is solved.
Whether a problem is solved or swept under the carpet, can be a cause of political fights, as people try to demonstrate they did the best they could, or that they solved the issue and other people disrupted the solution.
Sometimes the fights over the solution, can be more disruptive than the problem.
It is useful to have some kind of agreed benchmark, to say whether the problem is solved. It may be discovered that the benchmark was not adequate, but that is another problem that calls for new agreed benchmarks… However, if agreement cannot be reached, then the problem may become unsolvable, or never be recognised as solved, as it is clearly caught in some kind of social struggle.
This is simply a mnemonic, a memory prod, to suggest that it is good to get an idea of the contexts of your problem. These contexts will almost certainly involve the following kinds of issues
This is just a list. It is supposed to be an aid, not a delimiter of all you might have to look at.
Complexity implies the world is necessarily ambiguous.
If you look at a situation from one way, you might perceive X, looked at another way you might perceive Y. The different perspectives might not be limited by two – difference can go on to Z to A etc… This is what ‘ambiguity’ means. Politics and ethics exist because of ambiguity.
The different perspectives may conflict and staying with that conflict might give a more real perspective on the situations.
Accepting ambiguity, allows you to be open to more of reality and be less likely to be taken by surprise.
For example: you can see that tackling climate change quickly may lead to economic disadvantage, it may lead to collapse. If you don’t deal with it quickly, it may also lead to collapse. In each case the collapse may affect different people. If you try to replace all fossil fuel energy with renewable energy, where do you get the energy to build the renewables from? If you keep burning fossil fuels what levels of disaster are you heading for? What else needs to change to end ecological destruction?
This recognition of ambiguity and conflicting priorities can be overwhelming, but its real. And it allows a recognition that if we are to live with or halt climate change, we might have to change a great deal more than we want to at this moment.
It also lets us know the path is not going to be smooth, or unresisted. In some ways it is as rational to resist traumatic change, as it is to negotiate it. We don’t know what will happen.
Ambiguity is a problem, but it is a real problem, and it does not help to suppress it and try to make the world process unrealistically simple.
Some problems are urgent but even so
It is usually beneficial to take some time to find out information, although you may not be able to find all the information.
It is often beneficial to pause.
It is often beneficial to observe your dreams and spontaneous images.
It is often beneficial to listen to the world.
It is often beneficial to try things out while being prepared to abandon them if they don’t work.