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World Problems and Human Potential

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Published in World Union (Pondicherry), XVI, 11, November 1976, pp. 18-21


Is it possible and useful to assemble together, and interrelate within one framework, information: on the complete range of problems by which humanity perceives itself to be faced; on the organizational, human and intellectual resources it believes it has at its disposal; on the values in the light of which it is believed any change should be guided; and on the concepts of human development considered to be either the means or the end of any such societal transformation?

This is the question to which two organizations have attempted to provide a first answer in an ongoing joint project initiated in Brussels in 1972. The first results recently appeared in a 1136 page reference book entitled Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential (1976).For one of the bodies, the Union of International Associations (founded in 1910), the project is a logical extension of its functions as a clearing-house for information on the networks of international agencies and associations and their preoccupations in every field of human activity.2 For the second, Mankind 2000 (founded in 1964), it is a means of bringing into focus its prime concern with the place and development of the human being in the emerging world society. Both are transnational nonprofit associations for whom the gravity of the present and foreseeable problems-as well as the creative opportunities-merits a high-risk, innovative programme at this time.

Current Situation

The project has been undertaken in a period of progressive fragmentation in every domain-both social and personal. The remedies attempted have tended to involve simplistic unification, suppression of variety, and consequent alienation of those whose perspectives are ignored-thus aggravating the degree of fragmentation and increasing the spastic and violent aspects of social processes. At the same time, there is concern that the complexity and dynamism of the network of world problems may not be comprehensible in its totality because of the present limitations of the human being. Consequently much remedial action may either be a waste of resources or contribute directly to the aggravation of other problems. Such difficulties prevent greater attention to all aspects of the emerging crises and to the opportunities which they represent. They hinder development of the new organizational and conceptual approaches, of matching complexity and dynamism, necessary to facilitate the efforts of all concerned to respond appropriately.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for any group or combination of groups to make any significant contribution with such constraints, and with the usual limitation on resources. But it did seem very clear that what was lacking, as an aid to any thought or action at this time, was a framework in a context in which the dimension of human development had more than a token place.

The project has therefore become an exercise in the development of a framework to handle and interrelate diverse and seemingly incompatible categories of information. As such, it is a bridging exercise between those sectors, whether governmental or not, primarily concerned with: problem detection, research, policy formulation, organizational development, remedial programme action, educational re-presentation of information, and public information. It is hoped that the attempt to map the complexity currently perceived will help to stimulate new efforts in each of these sectors which will lead to a new type of "network strategy" more capable of portraying and containing the network of problems as it is now believed to be evolving.

First Results

The first edition of the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential contains over 12,000 descriptive entries embedded in a network of 57,000 interrelationships. Over 2,600 world problems have been described from the documents of international organizations and schools of thought (of every persuasion). These problems are themselves interlinked by some 13,000 relationships of several types (e.g., the aggravation or the alleviation of one problem by another).

Matching these problems are 3,300 international governmental and nongovernmental bodies in a section abridged from a sister volume, the UN-endorsed Yearbook of International Organizations. Some 900 multilateral treaties are registered (in many cases with an indication of which countries have not ratified them). Similarly, some 1,800 intellectual disciplines or sciences have been defined. Organizations, treaties and disciplines are all important but different means by which society may attempt to contain specific world problems. Hitherto, it has been difficult to determine which of these resources was relevant to which problem, or where there was duplication or inaction.

Of special interest though, are three other sections: on human development concepts; on interdisciplinary, integrative and unitary concepts; and on human values. In each case, whilst these domains are of considerable current interest, it has hitherto been very difficult to obtain a clear understanding of the range of concepts which have been formulated, advocated, or implemented in some way. And yet they represent the essence of our growing ability to respond more appropriately.

Some 220 concepts, associated with many different views of the meaning and process of human development and integration, have been described-ranging from the I Ching, through various forms of yoga and other spiritual disciplines, to orthodox psychological concepts and the many forms of psychotherapy. A similar approach has been adopted for 420 concepts with an integrative, interdisciplinary or unitary emphasis-ranging from mathematical elegance, symmetry and wholeness, through various concepts of social integration and world order, to cybernetics and general systems concepts. This section attempts to include descriptions of any concepts whose essential characteristic is to interrelate or integrate incommensurable (or in some way incompatible) concepts, modes of experience, or methods of study. These are the frameworks through which complexity can be grasped with the intellect. In the case of the human values, over 700 are recorded with both their synonyms and antonyms. The latter are often a clue to the world problems which are perceived in the light of the value-most problems being the disguised consequence of value distortion.

Simplicity or Complexity?

It may be argued that it is a luxury to indulge in the identification of 2,600 problems, when the most important 5 or 10 are known to all-others merely being components of these major problems or else of no significance. But unfortunately there is no consensus on what are the 5 or 10, and certainly not on their order of importance. (For the author, the "major problem" is the simplistic belief that the identification of the major problems Is an appropriate attitude at this time. For a biologist to attempt to identify the 5 or 10 major species essential for ecological stability would be equally ridiculous-many thousands define the nature of the whole.)

In order to understand the various ways in which problems can be relatively important, it is necessary to focus on the network of problems which establish or erode that importance through many unforeseen relationships-and for different groups at different times. But perhaps of greatest importance, individuals and groups may identify an "unimportant" problem as being of greatest importance to them-either because of ignorance or because they are better informed than others concerning its disastrous potential. Unless it can be shown how all the problems weave together to make possible the emergence of unforeseen macro-problems, it will continue to be difficult to persuade people to allocate resources to anything but the problem they know best. Little attention has been given to such matters.

Is it possible, for example, that even in an ideal society a certain minimum number of problems (per capita?) would be necessary to provide a focus for social action and a training ground for individual human development? Is a problem-free enviroment the social equivalent of sensory deprivation (which is the basis for current sophisticated methods of torture)? Does the surprising-almost superstitious-reluctance of sophisticated people to identify the problems with which their organizations are concerned, suggest a rich parallel between the Jungian concept of an individual's "shadow nature" and humanity's "network of problems"?


The mere assembly of information within the framework provided by the Yearbook is not sufficient justification for the project, however. Of greater importance is the clarification of the interdependence of areas or modes of attention which are usually kept apart. Problems can no longer be usefully perceived in isolation, nor can organizations or concepts. They are all embedded in networks of relationships which define them and their significance at any time.

Perhaps of greatest importance is the clarification of the interaction between organizational resources, intellectual resources, values and individual integration. To the extent that integration is facilitated in any of these domains, it will tend to stimulate, support and reinforce integration in the others-thus increasing the ability to respond to the problem complex. However, to the extent that fragmentation is facilitated or integration hindered, the reverse then becomes true-thus reducing the ability to respond to the problem complex.

Space does not permit more than a brief reference to related matters examined in the volume, such as: the production of problem and conceptual maps (analogous to road maps), methods for increasing the comprehensibility of networks, the extent to which problems "really exist" except in the minds of their proponents, the analogy between problem networks and ecological food webs between

species, the maturation of society, and the structural analysis of networks to locate their "weakest" and "strongest" points with a view to more effective action in a pluralistic society.

In the light of what has been achieved so far, and what that now makes possible, the collection of information in the Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential may be seen as an attempt to catalyze the process of conscious synthesis, wherever it may occur, as a basis for a more adequate response to our environment.

It is perhaps not surprising to detect, within such integrative concentrations of information, the very faint outlines of a certain convergent synthesis of great subtlety. This weaves together a new world order, a rich pattern of values, a new image of the human being, an intellectual synthesis, and a transmutation of the significance of the problem complex with which we choose to confront ourselves.

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