The Most Pressing Issue?

Ken Wallace, Sealevel, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Originally published in Elephant Journal, January 2011

In the spring of 2010, months before Douglas Coupland delivered the Massey Lectures as Player One, I began shifting the conversation with strangers at bus stops, in grocery store checkout lineups and with friends on park benches and at cafés. We have the option of referring to the weather "Some fine day eh?" or current events, for instance, "What do you think about the geo-political situation?" And yet since we design our world why not get right down to designer basics? What's really going on on the planet today?

Deepwater Horizon disaster

Around the time the Deep Water Horizon disaster had everyone frantically adjusting their shame/blame levels, many whispering to themselves "OMG, what have I done?", I started to ask whenever the opportunity arose, "What do you feel is the most pressing issue confronting humanity today?"

In other words, where might parent or artist or poet activist focus since it seems there is so much going on? In another time "the issue" might be self evident – not even up for discussion – like a pimple about to pop. The way forward clear. Yet nowadays it seems some research is required and what loom as really painful points for the millennium generation in the years ahead are neither self-evident nor all that easy to remedy.

Personally, I'm fond of the red flag waved by the Global Footprint Network (GFN) that we're consuming one and a half times more than our world can sustain overall and therefore on the road to ruin. You rarely find folks who will argue with this analysis, unlike climate change or peak oil which can spilt a family table in two or more pieces. Still, the fact that our patterns of consumption are largely unsustainable is so part and parcel of our culture that while we accept the facts we'll continue to simply ignore it. In fact we are generally more likely to reward and esteem the devil-may-care attitude in this regard both personally and politically.

Today the World POPclock says 6.9 billion. We know that in 2012 we'll be thinking of ourselves as 7 billion – perhaps positively Malthusian. While we continue to grow in numbers, we actually need to better share our wealth and resources and shrink our demands on the planet conservatively by half (as the GFN forecasts we'll require 2 planets by 2030). Now that seems like a rather large and significant issue.

Our eco-footprint, C02 and GHG emissions, the size of our fossil-fuel and fresh water reserves, the struggles of flora and fauna to maintain the face of adversity are among the many facets of reality that the average subway or highway commuter may not be aware of. Similarly, that 8 million (the population of Switzerland) young children die of starvation or preventable disease each year, or that the planet's unwaged and unemployed sits at a record 300 million (the population of the U.S.A) really isn't on the average Joe's radar. Perhaps the most important issue is access to reliable and trustworthy information.

And yet again we have so very very much information. All of us have lived life with the famous Doomsday Clock set by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It grants us 6 minutes to midnight in 2010, which is a minute less than when the clock started in 1947. From the clock setters' point of view we must be mindful of three issues: safe stewardship in the nuclear age; climate change; and biosecurity in the face of rapid advances in the science of genetics – meaning a slip up in any category could spell disaster. Evidently the proximity of technological singularity and it's implications is below the concern horizon.

A decade ago we (collectively) set Millennium Development Goals to be realized by the year 2015:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality rate
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

These provide a focus for the many that are aware of them. For subscribers to Olduvai theory it must be purely coincidental that the MDG vision would strive to be realized in 2015 when "World Dieoff begins in earnest." In any case, we really have to ask as no doubt the youth in Universities the world over are, how can the Millennium Development Goals be realized in an age of environmental, energy and economic crises? Detailed progress reports and charts are available at the UN MDG website.

Google "Most Pressing Issue" and one finds an array of religious and organizational themes along with the geo-specific, and some polling/survey sites but also a site run by Anup Shah for the past twelve years. Anup's focus on "Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues That Affect Us All" identifies 34 categories of issues and attempts to show how they are inter-related.

If you're a visual person researching multiple global problems it's not long before you find yourself screaming for a whiteboard to try to diagram the deep causal connections between issues, much the way the Buddha's realization resulted in the Wheel of Life, as an illumination of the larger issues and propensities of existence.

If one could diagram today's most urgent and important issues, you could then create the software application the World Bank is calling for. "Wanting to Solve the World's Most Pressing Issues? There may soon be an App for that." We might design an application where issues to auto-link to a corresponding and brilliant TED video, et voilà problems find solutions! Nice try and definitely the way of the future but where are we now? Surely we can arrive at a consensus about what we know for sure. Are there as many pressing issues in the world as there are NGOs? Or is the root of all global problems really quite simple and basic?

I recall asking a very kind vegetable vendor at the Farmers' Market the big question and being stopped dead in my tracks by his four letter spontaneous response: LOVE

So what do you think? This past September, just in advance of Zero Emissions Day, I summoned the courage to engage facebook friends in the debate. What follows is a lightly edited transcript:

Ken: is continually contemplating the most pressing issues... What would you say is the most pressing issue confronting humanity today?

Jane: Wars Starvation Homelessness. These issues are all inter-related.

Heather: Surviving the polarity of so many countries. I question the survival of humanity, as history has shown us, divisiveness destroys civilizations.

Ken: What would be the root cause of "Wars, Starvation and Homelessness" Jane?

Ken: Are you saying survival altogether is the big issue Heather?

Jane: Just drifting off to sleep-will focus on the answer in my dreams and respond tomorrow:)

Birgit: We need to wake up on a massive scale and act locally. Find revolution in the ordinary under our noses. Communicate and collaborate.. Collaborate at producing safe food sustainably. Money can no longer be the only motivator. We need to reinvent the social glue necessary to tackle the issues that threaten us all. Don't wait. Do something...Anything at all. All of it at once.

Chris: Greetings Ken. Since we all seem determined to blissfully glide into our extinction, I'd say climate change.

Ken: Doing our best to tone down the anthropogenic causes of climate change in other words is a pressing issue for us all, is this what you mean Chris?

Chris: Yes Ken. I also believe that here in Canada we are very lax in asserting ourselves politically. Given the extreme threat to humanity, there ought to be a strong Green Party caucus in Parliament and in the provinces. The other parties will not look after this over-arching issue. My sense is that we are collectively sleepwalking to disaster thinking that other people will do something about it.

Ken: Is action on climate change -- or any pressing issue we become aware of -- an individual or collective political responsibility?

Birgit: It's both. You can't wait around to be able to join the movement that is supposed to magically arise out of nothing. This is it! What you see is what you get! Santa Claus is not coming to the the rescue. If we're are all we've got, we have to work with the situation as it is with what we have and where we are... Something will come of it. So... In conclusion I think it starts with the personal and naturally becomes collective. If we try to do it the other way around, no-one will bust a move until hell freezes over.

Paige (Ken's daughter): Get rid of that question.

Barb: The biggest human rights issue facing the world today is the removal of women and girls off of the planet (Half the Sky - source). Interestingly, this issue of gendercide can be linked to the environment. Until women in every nation on this planet can control how many children they have, (many women die in childbirth) we will continue to have issues of war, poverty and the environment. When women can control how many children they have, say a couple to a few children instead of 16 children, then women can become educated, they can go to work and women in third world countries will reinvest 90 per cent of their incomes back in their families if conditions are met.

When parents can buy shoes and books for the children they have in a safe environment we are on our way to peace. And this is one thing people from around the world can agree upon.

Many terrorists, sadly, are children whose parents could not provide an education for them, 90 per cent of some countries that breed terrorists are illiterate countries. These countries also do little to empower women to have basic health care. So we need to spend more on the lost young boys in the refugee camps. The strategy required also has one major piece missing. We need to do more trade with war torn nations. The business community needs to step up more and stop waiting for government alone to fix these issues.

It seriously takes a global village. It can be done.

Jim: tight jeans

Kyle: eco church hysteria

Ken: Barb, you're pointing to what might be a really good leverage point, or place for action altogether: Daniel Nocera, the MIT Chemist, states in his talks that the best way to limit pop growth and therefore energy demand into the future is to educate women in developing countries -- because once educated, they are much less likely to reproduce so prodigiously. So perhaps reaching out to the less advantaged could have all sorts of advantages...

Raymond: The most pressing issue facing humanity? Being good to your neighbour.

Ken: A more loving, caring world Ray? An Empathic Civilization perhaps? Are people on the other side of the world our neighbours?

Jane: Not enough time/space to get into root causes-simply put, citizens of the world who have no home, who are hungry and live in war torn space have no interest in global warming,the environment, or any of the issues we consider important.We are concerned about recycling, composting, they are concerned about feeding themselves and their children, who die and are quickly replaced due to lack of birth control. Live in a tent for 5 years and share dirty water and starvation and realize that global issues mean nothing without food, shelter and peace.

Ken: As a friend so pithily states, "The problems in the world are not going to be solved just by sorting your garbage."

Jim: But it's a start. And if you won't take the trouble to even do that, what will you do?

Raymond: If there is to be peace in the world,
There must be peace in the nations.
If there is to be peace in the nations,
There must be peace in the cities.
If there is to be peace in the cities,
There must be peace between neighbours.
If there is to be peace between neighbours,
There must be peace in the home.
If there is to be peace in the home,
There must be peace in the heart.
Lao Tzu

Jim: well said

Angela: The loss of our humanity; the robots will win.

Suzanne: Overpopulation.

David: Ditto what Suzanne said. Too many of us. Competing for resources creates wars. Using those resources for growing populations that expect to gain the comforts Americans are accustomed to, ravages the earth, pollutes without end, including Americans continuing to push the curve upward. Overcrowding creates environmental fear and claustrophobia which engender aggression toward others. Crime rates go up as the sense of neighborliness goes down as soon as a town's population goes over around 100,000. Mass communication - has necessarily replaced direct human contact which tends to temper conversation between opposing viewpoints. Without sharing the ground with someone else, it is much easier to be impersonal, accusatory, unforgiving and biased in what one sends out into the world, increasing the sense of alienation that people live in and cutting off a sense of responsibility toward each other.

Of course, the issue of whether someone is going to be reasonable, compassionate and generous is there whether the population is too large or not - that's always been there. But in the past it has been handle-able by smaller communities. Arguments and wars have always been here too. But now there are so many interlocking pieces and so many of them without basic sanity. It's a veritable Rube Goldberg contraption of a world.

So, the most basic issue is recognizing and transforming passion, aggression and ignorance. But looked at from a global, survival point of view, it's overpopulation driving the big stuff.

Jim: The most pressing issue is the same as always. People believe that to be real which isn't.

David: That cuts it to the quick, Jim. Hard enough to get Congress to act on materialistic needs!

Raymond: I think overpopulation is a ruse. The world can comfortably accommodate the people it's got. What we cannot accommodate any longer is a Western civilization addicted to adolescent consumption -- that is 20% of the world consuming 80% of it's resources. That's an imbalance that has to be 'grokked'. The fact we are experiencing 'shortages' of resources now has more to do with the rest of the world wanting to emulate OUR bad habits -- because it's perceived as a sign of 'success' and 'prosperity'. The growth in the developing world is a monster of our own making.

Suzanne: Yea -- so It seems Jim has the best answer ... people perceiving to be real that which ain't

Ken: I'd venture survival, starvation, the accuracy of perception at any given time (our personal confusion of mental maps with reality), and war -- loving or fighting one's neighbour and so forth, as somewhat constant companions on the human journey so far.

If we consider these essentially background noise that the civilized world is built to mitigate as its terms of reference, what are today's unique issues that call for intelligent and skillful response? What can we see on the horizon, and what course changes need to be made individually and collectively?

In this discussion tight jeans, eco church hysteria, climate change, overpopulation and over consumption (ecofootprint stresses) and robots (technology and the singularity) are on the other hand relatively new. It used to be when there were too many people or you didn't like the weather you could go somewhere else...

What do we know for sure here?

Birgit: ! There are sooo many pressing issues. Everyone just needs to pick what's closest to their heart and run with it. Thought about all this today... I think safe drinking water is a big issue for absolutely everyone One that Coca-Cola bottling company is trying to make lots of money on..Thankfully the world still has Vandana Shiva.

Alice: Society's values lack humanitarianism. To me it seems that pressing issues would include materialism/capitalism, grassroots/governments, and yes a definate lack of realism. I cannot help but see people in Ethopia, in Mexico, in Russia etc., who face starvation and are trapped in their circumstances.

Ken: Water is a really good one Birgit. Yes overall humanity needs to think about and pay attention to water like it has never really has had to before.

Eddie: I would have to say that anger is the most pressing issue. All sorts of anger. Societies, countries, religions, everyone is angry. Hard to solve anything when everyone is pissed.

Waylon: GMOs. Unalterable and rapid change to our food system, upon which we all depend. 100s of varieties of corn, soy, tomatoes etc reduced to just a few. Just a few homogeneous crops are of course far more vulnerable to control by whomever owns patent, and to disease.

Ken, this would make a great article on elephant, we could post it there, encourage further discussion.

Cathy: Without reading any comments i say... the willy nilly developing of concrete shit where trees and stuff used to be, poisoning lakes and planet and air, the people continuing to be bullied by thugs and thieves (corporations) us still buying dangerous shit instead of boycotting it, mining, clear-cutting, and being dictated to and distracted by dangerously anti-feminist anti-child anti-human media and us still playing along with materialistic hubots.

Liz: Biggest issue on the planet for me is slavery. Children are conscripted into factories, armies, or into the sex trade. Torture is a huge issue as well. But naming the kinds of depravity out there is so negative. So I need to point out that being in the peace movement, learning from feminism, opening up to spiritual life, taking real action - these are the things we do. I focus on the doing more than on the problem. I may be just protecting myself - I'm never too sure of the balance between 'looking' and 'acting' as acting without looking could be foolhardy, but looking can be soul-destroying. Such is life -_-

Charles: i have grown not to care anymore Ken
i have long ago given up
i watch i listen
but i am now a wolf
i will most likely walk in the shadows for the rest of my days and the rest of what few days the great planet may have left
so be it
Radiolab and NPR Present Words

Elizabeth: My 2 cents worth concerning the biggest issue we/the planet is confronting is an overload of mumbo-jumbo of intellectual babble and a severe lack of kindness

Birgit: I like it Waylon... So maybe we could list all the top concerns and then juxtapose them with the activism out there that targets them and it's rate of success... I like what Liz said "focusing on the doing"... We should focus on the doing at least as much as on the problem.

David: This has gotten me to remember an anthem for the woes of the modern world. Please enjoy. Lyrics follow:

The Kinks - Apeman 1970

I think I'm sophisticated
cos I'm living my life like a good homosapien
But all around me everybodys multiplying
Till theyre walking round like flies man
So I'm no better than the anI'mals sitting in their cages
In the zoo man
cos compared to the flowers and the birds and the trees
I am an ape man

I think I'm so educated and I'm so civilized
cos I'm a strict vegetarian
But with the over-population and inflation and starvation
And the crazy politicians
I dont feel safe in this world no more
I dont want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore
and make like an ape man

I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man
I'm an ape man I'm a king kong man I'm ape ape man
I'm an ape man

Cos compared to the sun that sits in the sky
Compared to the clouds as they roll by
Compared to the bugs and the spiders and flies
I am an ape man

In mans evolution he has created the cities and
The motor traffic rumble, but give me half a chance
And I'd be taking off my clothes and living in the jungle
cos the only time that I feel at ease
Is swinging up and down in a coconut tree
Oh what a life of luxury to be like an ape man

I'm an ape, I'm an ape ape man, I'm an ape man
I'm a king kong man, I'm a voo-doo man
I'm an ape man

I look out my window, but I cant see the sky
cos the air pollution is fogging up my eyes
I want to get out of this city alive
And make like an ape man

Come and love me, be my ape man girl
And we will be so happy in my ape man world

I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man, I'm an ape man
I'm a king kong man, I'm a voo-doo man
I'm an ape man

I'll be your tarzan, you'll be my jane
I'll keep you warm and youll keep me sane
And well sit in the trees and eat bananas all day
Just like an ape man

I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man, I'm an ape man
I'm a king kong man, I'm a voo-doo man
I'm an ape man.

I dont feel safe in this world no more
I dont want to die in a nuclear war
I want to sail away to a distant shore
And make like an ape man.

La la la la la la la.

Cliff: It's excessively large populations, all saying "Don't make me think! Just keep me entertained!"

Lee: "The biggest problem in the world today is not accepting the First Noble Truth." – Chögyam Trungpa


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