Saturday, March 6, 2010

The problem with vague problems

Cars were going through this picture, but except for the light trails, you can't see them.

It's hard to deal with vague problems. If it's not concrete we just can't grasp it, and it gets dismissed.

Take Haiti for example. The recent earthquakes in Haiti sprung millions of people and dollars into action virtually overnight. It unified the world in wanting to help out an unfortunate nation. Haiti was unfortunate before, but ever since the earthquake, they've been able to access massive amounts of global aid.

Now what happened there is certainly unfortunate, but also serves as an example of what moves us. Between hurricanes, floods, wildfires, ice storms, and planes flying into buildings, acute disasters kickstart us into action. As humans, we react well to immediate threats, but poorly to vague, slow growing problems.

The slow, vague problems can't command the world's attention long enough to build the political momentum necessary to solve systemic problems.

There are ways to get people to act. Marketers and psychologists research this because it helps them sell products and make money. We're constantly bombarded with compelling, targeted calls to action. The action is usually to buy whatever is in the ad, but it also has the effect of distracting us from slow moving but serious threats.

And there are lots of slow threats: Insidious things like the national debt, climate change, the Canada Pension Plan, peak oil, habitat destruction, sub-prime loans, deferred maintenance on infrastructure, loss of arable land to development, deforestation… These are things that don't change enough in any given week to merit space in the newspaper, but eventually they become the background that dominates our lives.

The vague, slow problems inevitably flare up. Then we have to deal with them in crisis mode, rather than solving it calmly when it would have been easier to fix. Good thing we're good at dealing with crises. We're certainly not smart enough to pre-empt them all, but that shouldn't stop us from trying.

In the meantime, we had better stock up on pounds of cure, at least until we can get ounces of prevention figured out.

You might also like:

A future with a future

How Tigers Caused Climate Change

Ecosystem Services

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