On Problems and Predicaments

“‎Dancing is not just getting up painlessly, like a leaf blown on the wind; dancing is when you tear your heart out and rise out of your body to hang suspended between the worlds.” ~ Rumi

My son walking through a local trail
My son walking through a local trail

When I was a high school teacher, I posted a dilemma to my computer science students: If you are a hacker and discover that a giant meteor will hit the Earth and the likelihood of massive extinction is there, would you go public and share the doom news or would you keep them for yourself?

Ours was not only a “computer-science” class but I also managed the research centre of the school, so the intention of this dilemma was to make them think…critically and ethically. This one in particular is known as “the hacker’s dilemma” because the protagonist is a hacker who goes into the NASA system. Ethical dilemmas, by definition, don’t have a right or wrong solution because they are no “problems”, they are dilemmas…or as John Michael Greer mentions in his book The long Descent and his blog, they are no problems, they are “predicaments”.

In his recent book, George Marshal also talks about this distinction: there are linear problems and “wicked problems” (as he calls them) and as such, you can’t apply the same strategy or mentality to both.

The process of waking up, taking the red pill and disengaging from the delusional “Matrix” is a personal one: Like Neo in “The Matrix”, you have to get there by yourself, you need to be able to “feel” that something is wrong, unsettling and the process once you embrace it doesn’t have a “reverse” but can be both painful and liberating.

You can be exposed to the facts of resource depletion, pollution, social injustice, financial collapses and climate change for years or decades and not react till something “clicks” in your head (and your heart) and suddenly you realize that we are on the brink of a series of collapses that may have catastrophic consequences for all life and systems on Earth, including ours.

Problems, as stated by Greer and Marshal, are different from predicaments. Problems have solutions: you define the problem, find a fix for it, apply it and voilà…you are done!…that is the essence of most of today’s approaches: fix the problem and go on with your life…

That would be really nice if we had problems. But we don’t. We have predicaments, dilemmas, wicked problems which are non-linear and not simple: they are inter-linked, systems within systems.

The Blackcomb
The Blackcomb

Imagine for a second that you live in wonderful land: you have rich organic soil on the ground, clean water flowing through a nearby river, the perfect temperature and climate. You have seeds and you know how to grow things. You also have crop variety (biodiversity), have integrated animals and have designed and planned for succession.

Now it is 7 am and you are really hungry: you have a “problem”. You go outside, collect a few eggs, go to your root cellar and take some potatoes, onions and whatever else you like and cook some yummy breakfast: you have solved your “problem”.

Now imagine that you got the land, the water, the seeds, etc. but you haven’t planned or designed anything. It is 7 am again and you are really hungry: you look all around the house and can’t find any food, go outside and may find (if you are lucky) some berries…if you are truly hungry and the situation continues, you may start thinking on killing a small animal (a bird, a hare, even a snake)…you have bigger problem, but it can still be solved: once your immediate “problem” is gone, you can design/plan and make things better…you may not be so well while your seeds are germinating and you build all you need, exchange for what you don’t have and learn the skills. But you can still solve the problem.

Let’s now imagine that you found the land so friendly that forgot about any planning or design and started running party after party: you polluted your river, depleted and polluted the soil, allowed 75% of your seeds and animals to become extinct and made such a mess with your land that the climate started to become well…weird.

It is 7 am and you are really hungry: your house is so messy and full of stuff that you can barely find your way around but no food except an almost empty bag of chips and a heated can of soda. As you have become fat and addicted to easy food, you become upset and are still hungry; you go outside just to find yourself in the middle of huge storms and sudden changes in temperature: you are also thirsty but your river has almost disappeared and what’s left is polluted. Nothing grows in that soil, not even weeds…you go inside again and turn the TV on…they are talking about nonsense and all leaves you empty, but you stay tuned…days pass one after the other and you start thinking that you should have known better, you should have seen the potential consequences, you should have cared for that soil, that river, those seeds, those animals…the TV goes dark…you don’t have a problem anymore: you have a wicked problem, a dilemma, a huge load of predicaments.

Summer in Tofino
Summer in Tofino

Today I came to work and it was dark, windy and stormy: a really strange day as I was completely alone. My DM coordinator had sent a warning to all DM volunteers: stay alert for extreme weather, you may be called. For a second, the idea of quitting my job, taking my backpack and dedicate what’s left to what I believe in crossed my mind: then I remembered that I have what I have and that I’m not alone, my decisions affect other people. Tachycardia, my old friend, stay with me longer than usual…I turned the computer on and logged in: then somebody from a group I belong asked the same question that I used to ask my students 17 years ago: if you carry the burden of a big secret that affects billions, would you tell or would you hide it and continue smiling?

I responded with my thoughts, then turned to my window and started to breathe: the tachycardia disappeared but I was left (as usual in these cases), weak. I took another sip from my coffee and started to work…

We dream — it is good we are dreaming —
It would hurt us — were we awake —
But since it is playing — kill us,
And we are playing — shriek —

What harm? Men die — externally —
It is a truth — of Blood —
But we — are dying in Drama —
And Drama — is never dead —

Cautious — We jar each other —
And either — open the eyes —
Lest the Phantasm — prove the Mistake —
And the livid Surprise

Cool us to Shafts of Granite —
With just an Age — and Name —
And perhaps a phrase in Egyptian —
 It’s prudenter — to dream —
~ Emily Dickinson, Final Harvest: Poems

Walking on the coast
Walking on the coast

5 thoughts on “On Problems and Predicaments

  1. As I read your discussion, Sylvia, I couldn’t help thinking about Aesop’s story about the Ant and the Grasshopper (http://www.umass.edu/aesop/content.php?i=1&n=0). The dilemma, as you point out, is complex. I remember my innocent excursion into communal living, expecting those who made this choice to be like the ants – working together in a collaborative way to build a better future for everyone – not just members of the commune, but for the wider world as well. Of course, like Aesop’s fable, many were like the grasshopper – as it should be. Herein lies the conundrum – we all see life differently. Can we work and play and care for the earth at the same time?

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    1. Different worldviews have always existed and may never disappear: diversity and dissidents are needed to balance groupthink and stagnation…but there are common “truths” that affect all of us and the way we face predicaments needs to address this more than the different points of view. Thank for the sharing, gave me an idea for my next post 🙂

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  2. Thanks for this, I enjoyed reading through Greer’s blog on ‘Problems and Predicaments’ as well, thanks to your link. He is one of the best writers out there that I’ve found so far!

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