Neologisms, like polycrises, often appear to clarify what has been confusing and intractable, but are also often unnecessary and continue to obfuscate, not clarify. Certainly the world is facing the multiple crises, but the proper response is not to convene ever more scientists to produce ever more scientific truths or ever more engineers or economists to produce ever more fixes. All these crises have profound impacts on human beings and involve solutions that inexorably have ethical consequences. A couple of planners, Rittel and Webber, in a now classic paper, called these kind of problems, wicked problems, to distinguish them from “tame” problems, those than could be attacked by scientific methodologies, no matter how complicated. As preface to my further comments, here is the abstract from a quite famous paper that introduced the idea of “wicked problems.”

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers. (Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-69. )

The paper was addressed to planners, but is highly relevant in many other circumstances if we think about most big, complex problems, climate change for example, as “social problems.” They summarized their thoughts in the following list of ten points:

1. There is no definitive formulation of a WP.
2. WPs have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to WPs are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test to a WP.
5. Every solution to a WP is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. WPs do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every WP is essentially unique.
8. Every WP can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a WP can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the problem’s resolution.
10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

Much of the frustration I see among people trying to grapple with these polycrises arises out of trying to solve a wicked problem with solutions that can only work, if at all, on ‘tame” problems. Where the abstract, quoted above, limits these to efforts based on natural or social science, this statement applies to all fixes based on some sort of theoretical or general argument. At best, fixes may relieve symptoms, but cannot, except fortuitously, dissolve messes, using the wonderful phrase from Russ Ackoff.

To dissolve a problem is to change the nature, and/or the environment, of the entity in which it is imbedded so as to remove the problem. Problem dissolvers idealize rather than satisfice or optimize because their objective is to change the system involved or its environment in such a way as to bring it closer to an ultimately desired state, one in which the problem cannot or does not arise. We call this the design approach. The designer makes use of the methods, techniques, and tools of both the clinician and researcher, and much more; but he uses them synthetically rather than analytically. He tries to dissolve problems by changing the characteristics of the larger system containing the problem. He looks for dissolutions in the contain­ing whole rather than solutions in the contained parts. (Ackoff, R. L. (1981). The Art and Science of Mess Management. Interfaces, 11(1), 20-26.) (my emphasis)

“Idealize” here means to drop all presuppositions and create some new understanding on which a more permanent change that will “dissolve” the problem can be designed and built. In the words of Thomas Kuhn, Ackoff is arguing that wicked problems need a change of paradigm to dissolve. Not necessarily “big” paradigm such as the revolutionary ones Kuhn writes about that change the course of science, but local ones, that is, the unreflected presuppositions on which all institutions are grounded. But big ones, like “polycrises” require new paradigms at the deepest level of modern cultures.

Another way of framing this is to note that these polycrises are unintended consequences of behaving according to cultural/institutional norms. Unintended consequences always accompany actions that do not match up to the reality of the situation but are often unnoticed or dismissed as mere “side effects.” The fact they accompany normal activities should raise a big red flag for anyone taking them on. Trying to figure out how the “system” works is a bit of a fool’s errand, given this context, but an alternate approach does exist.

Rittel and Webber’s rules #3 says “Solutions to WPs are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.” A terse statement arguing science will not do and indirectly pointing to pragmatic inquiry as the proper way to proceed. In a nutshell, pragmatic inquiry leads to actions that are evaluated on whether they produce results deemed to be good and move the system toward a desired end. Good science is always complementary to pragmatic inquiry, but cannot deal with the fundamental mess or wickedness of these polycrises. Ackoff argues that science alone can’t even make smaller problems, such as those faced all the time in businesses and other institutions, go away.

That the crises can be traced back to normality raises a second flag: effective change must be transformational, requiring a new paradigm to replace the most fundamental beliefs on which the modern world is based. A colleague referred to this in an email interchange some months back. Here is a fragment from it.

I will maintain that there is no way to deal with actual reality without first at least recalibrating our ways of thinking about the world.  This is what–commonly and casually–is meant by calls for a paradigm shift.  I am certain most of us will agree that we NEED a paradigm shift.  I am also certain that most of us–and I do not exclude myself here–have not a clue as to what it means to shift paradigms, or how we might actually shift our own.

Well, I do have a clue, a critical clue. We have to change the way we think about thinking to reflect the actual way we think. And we happen to have just such a new way at hand: the bi-hemispheric model of the brain, as explained by Iain McGilchrist in his tome, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. He argues that each hemisphere attends to the world differently, presenting two distinct versions of “reality” on which we then act. In essence, we behave like a pair of paternal twins in a single body. I based my last book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, on this model, and believe it has the right paradigmatic power on which to begin the reconstruction of modernity called for by the fact of this polycrisis.

The left hemisphere re-presents a de-contextualized world to the actor it has constructed by abstracting chunks from the actual experience of the human actor. The right hemisphere provides that experience though its connection to the real world via the senses. The nature of behaviors depends on which of the two sides dominates, (runs the show) in general. The modern era is the result of left-brain domination. The unintended consequences that constitute the present polycrisis come out of the failure to depict its “world” with sufficient fidelity to reflect the “real world” in which our actions take effect. Not surprisingly, the model “argues” the way to cope with polycrisis is to shift the balance back to where the right is in charge so that actions reflect the needs of the world, not just those the left-brain desires. In essence, we would start to take better care of ourselves, others, the rest of the world and even the immateriality of transcendence. Pragmatism relies on the connectedness of the right to explore and understand, contrasted to way the left uses the categorical, abstractions of the left to construct its world. But that’s enough for now. McGilchrist’s work, beyond these few features, needs more space than this post can provide.

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