Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Solving the World's Problems?

I find it frustrating that most politicians, along with the mainstream media and every other source I can find, seem to think that there can only be one solution to each of our problems. None of them seem to believe in compromise or—perhaps more importantly—attacking problems from many directions. I mean, really, does anyone honestly believe that taking one big step is going to solve a problem? A much easier, more workable, and ultimately effective plan will be to take many smaller steps. I’m going to use the two highest-profile issues as examples here, but I welcome comments suggesting other issues that need to be addressed, as well as other solutions to these two problems that I haven't discussed.

First, let's take healthcare. I watch newspapers and politicians lament the state of our healthcare system, then propose a single solution that, they say, is the only way to solve the problem. “Tort reform to lower malpractice limits!” says one. “Higher taxes!” says another. “Encourage innovation and competition!” says a third. We need to look at multiple strategies to fix a problem as big and complicated as this is. We need all of the means listed above, plus tactics like encouraging preventive medicine to reduce the need for more drastic healthcare. This, of course, means making it easier for people to do healthy things like exercise and eat vegetables. Some of it is education; some of it is accessibility. If a pound of apples costs $2 and a box of Twinkies costs $1, it’s very easy to look at the short-term cost and buy the Twinkies. What it’s hard to know is the long-term cost of eating the junk food instead of the healthy option. Likewise, it makes much more sense to drive to work than walk or bike. After all, traffic might be too heavy to ride a bike safely, and most of us work too far from home to do anything but drive. What we don’t see is the cost of a sedentary life where we drive everywhere, spend 8 hours each day sitting at a desk, then spend another few hours sitting on a sofa. If the apples were cheaper than the Twinkies, it wouldn’t be hard to decide for the healthier option. If there were a reasonable way to safely bike or walk to work, we’d be happy to leave the car at home. I don’t know how to make apples less expensive or biking/walking more realistic, but I know it’s possible. More to the point, I know it's necessary. Many places in Europe, for example, rely on feet and bicycles as the first choice in transportation, and cars only as a distant second. When I lived in Germany a few years ago, I rode a bike several miles to work each day. I didn’t have a car, so if I wanted to go farther than around town, I rode my bike to the train station. It was simply the way of life, and it was accepted. This brings me to my next example: the environment. If we can take steps like helping people to use their cars less to improve health, that will certainly have a positive impact on the environment.

There is no doubt that humans have an influence on the environment, and that, quite often, we don’t take good care of our planet. But it seems to me every information source I can find focuses exclusively on climate change and emissions control. I believe that reducing the amount of carbon dioxide, methane, and all those other greenhouse gasses is important. We can do that in plenty of ways: lower-emissions cars, lower-emissions fuels, increased availability of public transportation, increased ease & access to walking & biking instead of driving, etc. But we forget that there are many additional steps we should be taking to stem the tide, and hopefully prevent our grandchildren from having to clean up our mess. Things like: planting trees, reducing deforestation, painting roads a lighter color (an off-the-wall solution I read about somewhere that made surprising sense once I stopped to think about it) so they reflect the sun’s heat instead of absorbing it. In general, I think we need to be less consumer-ish and wasteful. Also, there are plenty of other environmental issues we need to deal with. What about land and water pollution? Over-use of resources? I believe it ultimately comes down to changing the way we think and behave. Instead of trying to change the world to suit our needs, we should change ourselves to suit what’s available. I think that we need to make recycled products more available and affordable, make recycling easier, cheaper, and more accessible. I think we need to use less of everything. This will probably be difficult in the short run, since changing habits is hard, but in the long run, it’s the best thing we could do for our selves, our children, and our planet.

I realize that there are major obstacles to solving huge problems like healthcare and problems with the environment, but we can’t ignore the need for solutions. The solutions may make our lives temporarily more difficult (it is easier, after all, to use disposables and drive everywhere), but in the long run, they will give us a healthier society and a healthier planet. Aren’t those the gifts we should be giving our children? And, wouldn't it be great if we could approach solving problems like these in a comprehensive, multi-faceted way instead of trying to attack them from one angle?