alt.thinking.hertz •3 Troubles •

Three Troubles From Nothing


The way we habitually approach problems can prevent us from finding a solution.  If we always seek only to break problems down into manageable chunks and then to solve these we can 'create problems out of nothing'.

Three problems:

Three problems: sewage, a need for artificial fertiliser, and a lack of fuel. These are created problems, problems which we created by the way we do things where perhaps no problem need have existed at all!

The solution 'society' adopts is to regard each of these three problems as a significant problem in itself. So, it breaks the problem into manageable chunks, and approaches each part of the problem as a challenge in itself.

Small Scale Methane producing biodigester design.
From "The Autonomous House" ISBN 0-500-93002-5. 

It is possible that an alternative way to look at the problems could solve all three problems. An integrated system using well proven biodigester technology could remove waste, it could produce clean fertiliser and also high grade bio-gas for heating. The gas output, at 3.0 KWh/person/day whilst not a huge amount is enough to cover a person's need for heat energy for cooking.  A biodigester system that achieved these goals was demonstrated in London in 1871.  Variations to the 1871 design to make it cheaper to build and easier to run have been developed since.

If we look at the three problems in isolation then strong arguments can be made for continuing our current way of doing things.  When instead the problems are looked at together, particularly with the knowledge of a biodigester solution, it is as if the three troubles come from nothing.

I will not here argue in detail the benefits and drawbacks of the biodigester. The advantages are less clearcut than I make them sound here.  To make the figures add up, other considerations, such as the folly of using high-grade energy (in the form of electricity) for heating and widespread under-insulation of houses need to be brought in to the picture. The biodigester makes most sense in the context of wholescale change towards self sufficiency.  Arguments for such a comprehenisve alternative way to do things have been made well elsewhere - notably in alternative energy design manuals.  On bio-digester, arguments for and against, and technical details for designs at various scales, from a small system using car inner tubes to a large system for a pig farm are given in "The Autonomous House", Brenda & Robert Vale, pub. Thames & Hudson ISBN 0 500 93001 5.  (recommended). Such ideas have not caught on because piece-meal changes simply do not do enough. The ideas are radical, they demand a set of changes, not just small improvements to the way things are done now.

My concern with this 'Three troubles' example isn't to launch in depth into alternative energy design.  Instead it is to use the example as a springboard for looking at the way we go about solving problems.

How We Solve Problems

As I see it, society has tripped up by treating problems in isolation and therefore ending up with three problems that would not otherwise exist. 

This is not an isolated trip-up, it is an example of a weakness in how we tackle interlinked problems.

A similar weakness in tackling interlinked problems happens when people are trapped and stressed in their jobs and at the same time not eating well - buying pre-prepared junk food - because they do not have the time or the energy to cook.  The problems isolated are:

Although the root causes of this problem in society go deeper and are not easy to solve, the two problems re-inforce each other. An individual trying to get out of the trap should look to tackle the problems together.  They should find it easier.

As I see it the 'creation of problems from nothing' is down to a fault in the structure of thought in our society.  

I have a scientific background and training. I was taught to use its toolkit of methods for solving problems. These methods are powerful at treating problems in isolation.  That is not the right way to treat all problems. Whilst the scientific method is clearly of immense value, it is not the correct tool in all cases. 

The dangers are in not recognising that the science way of thinking has become the dominant toolkit for thinking, yet it gives a strong bias in outlook.  If you want to dispose of sewage in the cheapest possible way, then yes, pumping it out to sea is a good way to do it.  If you want to maximise your earnings, then overtime in a stressful job is a good solution. 

If the alternative lifestyle solutions are indeed better, it could be argued that this arises from defining the problem better.  Instead of maximising earnings, people seek instead to maximise 'quality of life'.  Redefining the problem makes it look as if the 'old toolkit' still works.  All that is needed is to apply it correctly.  This is an illusion.  The limitations of the toolkit are not being recognised.

New Toolkit

The ways of thinking in the scientific toolkit have a common theme of isolating single elements and optimising these single parameters in isolation.  To update this toolkit we need to develop tools that do different things, for example tools for recognising related goals that can be combined.  Looked at again, one can see that the scientific way of thinking has a severe problem with 'optimising quality of life'.  'Quality of life' is rather a nebulous concept.  It is hard to define, and harder to measure.  One of the principle tasks in finding a solution is defining 'Quality of life'.  This is in contrast to a problem like optimising profit, where profit is something easy to measure.

The toolkit one needs for this kind of problem would take the place of a 'sciencewise' decomposition into independent pieces.  The toolkit would somehow have to draw attention to problems that were connected, where the connection might not otherwise be noticed.

Where could such a toolkit come from?

It could come from a method sometimes regarded as dangerous by scientific thinkers: analogy.  Analogy is an incredibly powerful tool.  It tends to be used only in an unsophisticated way.  Used correctly it can help us relate systems we understand to ones that we know less well.  Analogy must not be used mechanically - air is to water as birds are to fish, therefore fins are 'water wings'!  Instead it should be used to suggest questions.  Is there an analogy to 'stalling' for fish, do fish use thermal currents in the same way that birds do?

Used well analogies can find unexpected connections.  Analogies from biology are particularly useful.

As a molecular biologist I am interested in how single celled organisms evolve defences against toxic substances. 

The cell combines two adages "attack is the best form of defense" and "one man's meat is another man's poison".  As a minimum the cell analogy draws our attention to the connection between attack and defense (if we weren't already aware of it). The analogy suggests that we should aim not just to dispose of 'pollutants' but to find ways to use waste products to our advantage.  The analogy does significantly more, because it shows how a solution can be developed in stages.

Is analogy useful in drawing attention to problems that are connected?  I think so.  Pollution, food, the need for energy are such basic things that there are analogies to be found at many levels.

alt.thinking.hertz •3 Troubles •
"Three Troubles From Nothing" page last updated 5-July-2003