Why are global problems so difficult to solve?

Looking at the world around us today, it seems like there’s no end to humanity’s problems.

Despite advances in life expectancy and standard of living in most of the global population, most people still remain underneath the poverty line and a significant portion of those lack basic access to food and water resources, while global markets continuously break down.

Even though we are living in the most peaceful era in human history, civil disorder and subtle cross-border conflict erupts in far too many places, while structural violence remains rife in almost all societies.

While religious and political freedom, like many other individual rights, are almost universally promoted, sectarian groups find themselves under fire from a wide range of antagonists, be they governments, intra-state terrorist cells, or prejudicial, conservative-minded community groups.

And, as the scientific community makes huge strides in scientific progression and technological innovation, we are causing inescapable, devastating changes to the ecology of the earth, by altering the composition of the climate and using more and more of the land and resources required to sustain the diversity of life that props up the planet’s ecosystems; each issues with significant ramifications for the human race.

These trends – and they’re only a fraction of the many that plague human civilisation – are so entrenched throughout human history that the expression, to “lose faith in humanity”, has become a common figure of speech.

Why can’t we come up with solutions to our most major problems, despite our amazing collective adaptability and intelligence? And why does it seem that, for the most part, whenever we solve one problem, another seems to pop up?

Understanding complexity – an inconvenient oxymoron

The answer, according to a (somewhat) new way of thinking being introduced to the political sciences called complex systems theory, is that we are, quite literally, too complex to understand.

At least from the perspective of an individual.

Complex systems theorists see almost uniformity in the world around them. The uniformity they see, however, is that it’s all complex stuff – a whole bunch of small individual parts, sometimes seemingly irrelevant to one another, integrating to form bigger, amalgamated parts.

There is no absolute definition of what complexity means, the only consensus among researchers is that there is no agreement about the specific definition of complexity. However, a characterization of what is complex is possible. Complexity is generally used to characterize something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways. The study of these complex linkages is the main goal of complex systems theory.


We can see this from the different ways atoms arrange themselves to form gases, solids and liquids, and then how those newly formed molecules arrange themselves to make those states behave in certain ways. For instance, in the case of weather patterns, various composite arrangements of atoms come together and interact to form a very complex climatic system that becomes very hard to predict more than a few days in advance (and even then, it’s difficult).

In fact this is the whole point of being complex – it is difficult to understand the whole without understanding the motion/behaviour of every single one of its components. If it’s difficult for a weatherman to predict the weather, imagine how difficult it must be for someone to understand the nuances of human civilisation.

CHAOS THEORY: Small changes to initial conditions in a complex system (a butterfly flapping its wings in New Mexico) may have far-reaching consequences within it (a hurrican in China). See here for more. Image: Mark A. Rayner

Civilisation is, after all, the sum of a range of interconnected different smaller collectives, such as race groups, global markets, religious/cultural groups etc.

Those are themselves made of even smaller interconnected collectives: say, states, domestic markets, religious denominations and ethnic groups.

And those are themselves reducible to sub-state groupings, which can further be reduced all the way down to the family unit and ultimately to the point of the human individual, which then becomes a citizen, a family member, a friend, a colleague, a consumer, an employee, a democratic voter, a religious adherent; comprising a personality containing any combination of social affiliations to groups which collectively only make a small fraction of the number of groups which cumulatively make up the global human race.

And consider this: the behaviour of individual human beings is itself motivated by an almost indecipherable amount of interconnecting body parts, organ systems and brain networks, each made up of billions of individual cells with a wide range of different functions.


NETWORKING: Thanks to the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution, globalisation has brought people from all over the globe closer together than ever before. It is now possible for the words of this blog to reach the minds of billions of people, a level of connectivity that is allowing for an exponential growth in ideas and scientific progress. But with such developments in complexity come added pressures, as discussed below.

Naturally, I’ve hardly even scratched the surface of the overall amount of integrated parts that make up the mega-complex system that is the human race.

But what does this have to do with the problems we face? Sure, we may not be understandable, but why does this mean our problems are difficult?

Complexity = more complexity (a complex problem for complex creatures)

The complex thing about complexity is it is constantly in competition with other complex systems.

Complex systems survive on energy flows. Without the right amount and type of energy coming into and flowing through the system, its component parts – whether they’re atoms, cells, organisms or social groups – won’t be able to continue behaving in ways that contribute to the overall complexity of the collective system.

As such, all complex systems are in competition with each other for energy flows. When faced with an environmental stress – a threat from without caused by the increased complexity of a foreign system, or phenomenon – the system must be able to adapt to maintain the energy flows needed to sustain it.

It either evolves and becomes more complex as a feedback loop, or disintegrates under the pressure.

We know this is the case in biological systems through evolution – which entails an in-built mechanism that drives this process on earth: natural selection. But the same can be said of any non-equilibrium system (that is any system which can receive energy flows from the outside); and, as the earth receives energy from the sun, all complex systems – including its complex inanimate systems – are subject to the same process.

The climate, for example, has such an integrated system of diverse weather patterns and cycles, that any change to the energy flows directed into it (from, say, the sun’s rays or the carbon locked away inside the earth), can fundamentally change the way it behaves. It needs to do this to maintain the kind of energy flows needed to sustain it.

Complexity therefore breeds complexity; and complex systems co-evolve, so to speak – a complex system’s environment must evolve to keep up with the changes that are leading to the rising complexity within the system. And vice versa.

Human civilisation will always see conflict within its constituent groups as a result; markets will always compete for resources, social groups will always compete for control of those markets and resources, and religions will always disagree over those control mechanisms.

It will always see conflict with its environment, too, so long as it doesn’t degrade it to the point that it can no longer sustain civilisation’s energy requirements.

And, whenever we think we have the answers to these complex problems, they will adapt and evolve, like an infection (which, funnily enough, is a complex system).

Further reading

Y. Bar-Yam, Complexity rising: From human beings to human civilization, a complexity profile, Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS UNESCO Publishers, Oxford, UK, 2002); also NECSI Report 1997-12-01 (1997).

R. Glover, Compatibility or Incommensurability: International Relations Theory and Complex Systems Analysis, in E-International Relations [online] (2012).

One response to “Why are global problems so difficult to solve?

  1. Good lord man! It’s hard to figure out how to solve complexity given certain facts: Not only are complex systems are here to stay, but history shows the ones that survive only grow more complex over time. I think it’s interesting too when, as you pointed out, you consider each individual “consciousness” (Daniel Dennett) is probably a composite of smaller complex relationships within the brain and the body. What you end up with is a fractal-like existence mirrored by a vast Multiverse that’s mind-boggelingly large and theoretically exponential in its rate of expansion. Pretty cool!

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