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Wicked problems

By Peter McMahon - posted Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The world is increasingly bedevilled by some very wicked problems, but if we don't get on top of them, and soon, we won't be around for much longer. Global catastrophe: how much more wicked could it get?

Wicked problems, for those new to the term, are ones that are unusually deep and complex, and so extremely hard to fix. A few years ago the economist Ross Garnaut used the term in relation to dealing with climate change. Climate change and what to do about it is indeed a wicked problem. It has been back in the news for a number of reasons: super-storms, constantly rising temperatures, ice disappearing at the poles, etcetera.

As a kind of problem we could compare it to the ozone hole in the 1980s. As big and dangerous as it was, that was not really a wicked problem. Scientists identified the threat and the cause, government agencies acting under the auspices of the UN decided on remedial action (the Montreal Protocol), it was carried out, and the hole is now decreasing.


The threat of nuclear war is another wicked problem. In reality this is a subset of a super-wicked problem: how to get control over technological development generally. The ongoing development of nuclear bombs, missiles, military drones and robots, not to mention cyber-weapons, bio-weapons and even weather-weapons, is making it harder and harder to control such military threats

Actually, controlling nuclear weapons and avoiding nuclear war is probably not as wicked a problem as it used to be. When the first nuclear weapons appeared in 1945 the worst war in history was coming to an end. The great belief systems – liberal democracy, communism and fascism – had just fought to the death, almost destroying world civilisation. Given this prevailing bellicosity, which had boiled down to two permanently armed camps who were fighting a 'cold war', it would have been very difficult to avoid a nuclear arms race.

But over the years, and despite some close shaves, we found out we could live without war between the major powers. The steady development of surveillance technologies and a little common sense from the world leaders made it increasingly unlikely that nuclear weapons would be used. We even knew that nuclear proliferation was a threat, and so in the 1970s we instituted the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Today we could, if we wanted, get rid of nuclear weapons altogether.

There are other wicked problems facing us, such as fundamentalist terrorism, global pandemic and runaway digital technology (such as dark nets, computer viruses and hostile hacking) and they all relate to the same basic trends of hyper-complexity and very large scale. Soon enough high school students will be able to invent computer viruses in the computer lab or real viruses in the biology lab and send them around the world online or on jet liners. The basic relationship between necessary resources and destructive capability is becoming completely unbalanced.

So we need to develop ways of dealing with such wicked problems. As the underlying problems are complexity and scale, we need to come up with appropriate responses.

In terms of scale, the greatest threat is of global impact. For instance, even a small scale nuclear exchange would likely cause a global winter when particulate matter thrown up by explosions blocks out the sun for years. Plants and animals would die due to lack of sunlight. In such a scenario billions of people would die and civilisation would collapse.


The first thing we need is a global-scale meeting place with the capacity to make decisions and to take action. The closest thing we have to an existing global governance structure is the United Nations but it is constantly overridden by national interests. Because of a lack of real interest by the major powers it has become the well-feathered nest for self-serving mediocrities. A UN that demanded the ongoing participation of apex national leaders would be a start. Let Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump sit down and explain their various positions in front of their peers.

Hyper-complexity pervades almost everything these days, in large part because of the digital revolution. In many cases, such as in the stock markets, humans have already pretty much lost control to fast-developing AI systems. One problem is that our typical response to growing complexity has been to introduce new control mechanisms which ultimately increases complexity.

First off we need to identify the problems, then analyse them, and then generate remedial action. My suggestion here is to create a series of top level committees staffed by the best people from academia, business and administration to generate timely reports on perceived problems. They would then present an action plan to be presented to a relevant global government body to be voted on. Again, in the absence of a better alternative, this body could be the UN.

And of course we could reform the UN. The current structure of one vote per country, no matter what the population or economic capacity, is inadequate. There are plenty of other models. A vote rated by population is one (India and China would have the most votes) and a vote rated by contributions is another (so the USA, China and Japan would likely have the most votes). Or some kind of hybrid where population, national interests and political realism are all part of the mix could work.

As bad as they are, we can't run away from these wicked problems for ever. Runaway global warming, nuclear war, pandemic disease and runaway AI all fundamentally undermine our chances for a viable future. Another decade or two of kicking the can down the road will foreclose on all our options.

Einstein said when informed of the nuclear bomb, (to paraphrase) "Everything has changed but the way we think." The wicked pigeons are now coming home to roost, and we cannot continue to think and act, or perhaps more accurately, not act, as we have so far.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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