The trouble is that complexity can be overwhelming, so people often prefer to break down complex systems into individual components. Rather than consider, say, eradicating extreme poverty and averting global warming in tandem — and developing mutually reinforcing strategies to achieve these goals — proposed solutions focus on one or the other, undermining their effectiveness.
Of course, addressing interconnected issues simultaneously carries its share of challenges. For one thing, no single person or group has enough knowledge or experience to solve all of the problems afflicting a complex system at once.
However, a wider community — including governments, businesses, researchers, philosophers, faith communities, and even poets and artists — could devise and implement holistic strategies. Success will depend on participants’ willingness to cooperate and their commitment to put evidence before ideology. Thus, the real challenge lies in marshaling such an inclusive community — something at which global leaders have not proved adept.
A second major challenge is that resources are limited, making it impossible to solve all of the world’s problems at once. In this context, the ability to prioritize effectively is essential. However, rather than emphasizing one problem over another, the top priority should be building resilience into all global systems. Mechanisms aimed at solving a problem in one system should not be allowed to compromise another system’s resilience.
Another challenge will be to devise new metrics to replace GDP as the
leading measure of human well-being. Even Simon Kuznets, the main architect of the concept of GDP, recognized that it does not account for many of the factors affecting human well-being; he argued that it should be used “only with some qualifications.” In the Anthropocene, GDP must be part of an array of metrics for assessing economic, natural, and social capital — that is, the value of the goods and services produced, as well as the dignity of the ecosystems and social structures that underpin this output.
Navigating the Anthropocene effectively and ethically is perhaps the most daunting challenge that modern humans have faced. Overcoming it will require a smarter approach to strategic decision making and a broader understanding of innovation. It is time for us to rise to the challenge.
Kevin Noone is director of the Swedish Secretariat for Environmental Earth System Sciences and professor of meteorology in the applied environmental science department at Stockholm University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate