Problems & Solutions

A quote from the side of a Starbucks cup:
“Complex problems defy simple solutions. One cannot end poverty be giving money to every poor person, nor is the world cleaned up if everyone rode their bikes to work instead of driving. We need to commit to a total solution for our perceived problems. We need to also remember that most solutions hurt people too. What or who we hurt and who or what we fix is always the tough part of the equation.” -John Adamski, Starbucks customer from Oregon.

At first read, it seems to make sense; complex problems require complex solutions, “total solutions,” “commitment.” Giving money to every bum on the street won’t create employment for them, and riding a bicycle does nothing to clean up, say, nuclear waste or an oil spill at sea.
However, giving money to poor people under the right circumstances can go a long way toward solving poverty: microcredit, the loaning of small sums to poor people with the goal of jump-starting an entrepreneurial enterprise, is a big example (see my previous post on Muhammad Yunus. And riding a bicycle instead of driving addresses at least two complex problems: America’s addiction to fossil fuels and our deteriorating national health, caused at least in part by a thoroughly sedentary lifestyle. So a simple solution (or several simple solutions: carpooling and public transportation come to mind) in the case of oil dependence is a necessary first step in addressing the larger problems: finding sustainable alternative energy and fuel sources, retooling industries, etc. We might go so far as to say that a complex solution (a “total” solution) is nothing more than a lot of simple solutions working in concert.

The second part of the quote – Mr. Adamski’s assertion that “most solutions hurt people too” – is equally problematic. If we in western industrialized nations decided to commit to solving the problems we’ve created – environmental degradation, poverty and disease and unrest in the third world – it will, indeed, require sacrifice. But it will require a sacrifice of our luxury, not our necessity: Hummers and Cadillacs and McMansions for us, or food and water and medicine for them?

I hate to indulge in cliche, but: the answer is to do what you can where you are with what you have: and that may turn out to be far more than you think. Change doesn’t come from above, from governments and corporations; it comes from individuals choosing to act differently. Enough people moving in a new direction can turn the tide.

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