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As the World Burns

How to think about intractable problems in a constructive way.

Key points

  • Confronting the toughest problems on the planet can feel overwhelming.
  • Complex challenges are interconnected, dynamic, and unpredictable.
  • Intractable global problems require holistic, collaborative action.
Source: Mysticsartdesign/Pixabay

I’m not sure when the paralysis first hit—in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, while watching a rail-thin polar bear huddle with her cub on a tiny floating ice chip, or upon witnessing the carnage of a wildfire, a tsunami, or an overturned boat, crowded with desperate refugees fleeing conflict. The quick succession of traumatic news, with few clear avenues for resolution, can feel overwhelming and prompt a queasy paralysis akin to apathy.

Of course, this is not actually apathy. Apathy is a state of indifference—an absence of feeling or concern. Being confronted with urgent global issues, angry polarization, senseless violence, and catastrophic environmental damage can bring about too many feelings, so it becomes easy to shut down. Then, unpacking the layers of tangled, international challenges makes it obvious that there are no easy fixes.

Numbness is not the same thing as apathy. When the scope of adversity is immense, and solutions appear improbable, our self-efficacy and sense of agency dwindle.

What to do when faced with big, intractable problems

The first step is to identify what the problem is that we want to solve. As Einstein said, “The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution.” We are more likely to resolve a problem if we clearly define it, figure out a way to measure change, introduce accountability, and determine a good route for impact. Unfortunately, many problems are multi-dimensional, with no direct path for resolution.

The other day when I pushed the button on my key fob to unlock my car, the doors clicked open, but the small beep that usually accompanies the action was silent. Later, while driving, I pushed my horn to signal to a car that merged too tightly in front of me, but my horn made no sound. Obviously, there was a problem.

When I got home, I checked my fuses, but everything looked fine. I searched online, but there were no solutions easy enough for me to implement. So, I scheduled an appointment with a mechanic to get to the root of the problem.

This scenario is what is known as a complicated problem—the kind of problem where there is a “known unknown” with a reliable linear pathway through which an expert can work out a solution. Even though the answer is not simple, like changing a fuse, there are rules and decision trees that will lead someone with enough expertise to a predictable conclusion. Complicated problems are problems that, while often difficult to solve, are technical in nature, discipline-specific, and have more predictable, straight-line solutions.

Complicated problems can be distinguished from simple problems. If you wake up from a nap on the beach with a burn, it’s pretty straightforward that you’ve been in the sun too long without adequate sunblock. Simple problems have a single solution, and it is intuitive.

Also different from complicated problems are those that are complex. Complex problems cannot be resolved with expertise alone because complex problems are dynamic and emerge from networks of multiple interacting and interconnected causes (Leischow, et al., 2008). Further, the outputs of a complex system are not necessarily proportional to the inputs. In other words, a small change in one part of the system can cause sudden and unexpected outcomes in other parts of the system. Once we recognize the difference between simple, complicated, and complex problems, it becomes evident that each kind of problem requires a particular pathway for resolution.

While much of the positive change and prosperity our world currently experiences have been the result of elite expertise and specialized knowledge, complex issues will never be adequately addressed by a single academic discipline or specialist. Complex problems require collaborations with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geography. In order to sustainably navigate the future, we must fundamentally shift to a crosscutting systems mindset and conjure new pathways that allow us to integrate specialized knowledge sets and technical capabilities from diverse expertise and domains (Reed et al., 2022).

Key takeaways

It is not the complexity that leads to feelings of apathy or numbness. It is trying to untangle complex problems using designs for solving simple and complicated problems. For us to flourish in our complex, hyper-connected world, we need to find new ways to partner, in unique combinations, that foster diversity, solidarity, and the integration of disparate knowledge. We need to construct holistic platforms that inspire collective action, build resilient partnerships, and produce generalizable outcomes.

We are one people living on a single planet. We are all facing the same complex challenges, and we are all responsible for constructing our world’s future. To recognize our interconnectivity means to accept that there isn’t “someone else” who is more responsible for coming along to fix things. Only by listening to one another can we understand the different parts of a system and how they interact. Only by working collaboratively will we be able to generate collective wisdom and better fathom how the system as a whole might be changed.


Leischow, S. J., Best A, Trochim, W. M., Clark, P. L., Gallagher, R. S., Marcus, S. E., Matthews, E. (2008). Systems thinking to improve the public's health. Am J Prev Med. 35, 2, Supp l, S196-203. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2008.05.014. PMID: 18619400; PMCID: PMC3940421.

Reed, P. M., Hadjimichael, A., Moss, R. H., Brelsford, C., Burleyson, C. D., Cohen, S., et al. (2022). Multisector dynamics: Advancing the science of complex adaptive human-Earth systems. Earth's Future, 10, e2021EF002621.

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