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Overview: Significance

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


The significance of each of the sections of this Encyclopedia is treated separately in the introduction at the beginning of each section and in the Notes at the end of each of them.

The significance of this publication as a whole can best be briefly illustrated by the following quotations which, taken together, indicate the importance of exploring the kind of approach attempted here.

1. Antiquated concepts and attitudes

"It is unforgivable that so many problems from the past are still with us, absorbing vast energies and resources desperately needed for nobler purposes: a horrid and futile armaments race instead of world development; remnants of colonialism, racism and violations of human rights instead of freedom and brotherhood; dreams of power and domination instead of fraternal coexistence; exclusion of great human communities from world co-operation instead of universality; extension of ideological domains instead of mutual enrichment in the art of governing men to make the world safe for diversity; local conflicts instead of neighbourly co-operation.

While these antiquated concepts and attitudes persist, the rapid pace of change around us breeds new problems which cry for the world's collective attention and care: the increasing discrepancy between rich and poor nations; the scientific and technological gap; the population explosion; the deterioration of the environment; the urban proliferation; the drug problem; the alienation of youth; the excessive consumption of resources by insatiable societies and institutions. The very survival of a civilized and humane society seems to be at stake. The world is bursting out of its narrow political vestments. The behaviour of many nations is certainly inadequate to meet the new challenges of our small and rapidly changing planet. International co-operation is lagging considerably." (U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations on the occasion of United Nations Day, 1970).

2. Inadequacy of fractional approaches

"Many of the most serious conflicts facing mankind result from the interaction of social, economic, technological, political and psychological forces and can no longer be solved by fractional approaches from individual disciplines...Complexity and the large scale of problems are forcing decisions to be made at levels where individual participation of those affected is increasingly remote, producing a crisis in political and social development which threatens our whole future." (Bellagio, Declaration on Planning, 1968)

3. Crisis of crises

"What finally makes all of our crises still more dangerous is that they are now coming on top of each other. Most administrations...are not prepared to deal with...multiple crises, a crisis of crises all at one time... Every problem may escalate because those involved no longer have time to think straight." (John R Platt. What we must do Science, 1969)

4. Interwoven networks

"Society is not a crowd or cluster or clump of human beings; it is a set of networks of relations between human beings. Every human being is linked with others in a number of networks which are not mutually exclusive and are also not coextensive with each other." (Arnold Toynbee. Aspects of Psycho-history. Main Currents in Modern Thought, 1972)

5. Mismatch between organizations and problems

"The map of organizations or agencies that make up the society is, as it were, a sort of clear overlay against a page underneath it which represents the reality of the society. And the overlay is always out of phase in relation to what's underneath: at any given time there's always a mismatch between the organisational map and the reality of the problems that people think are worth solving... There's basically no social problem such that one can identify and control within a single system all the elements required in order to attack that problem. The result is that one is thrown back on the knitting together of elements in networks which are not controlled and where the network functions and the network roles become critical." (Donald Schon. What can we know about social change?, BBC Listener, 1970)

6. Entrapment by problems

"When anything becomes a problem we are caught in the solution of it, and then the problem becomes a cage, a barrier to further exploration and understanding." (J Krishnamurti. The Urgency of Change, 1971)

7. Arrogance of the disciplines

" is a practitioner of any one discipline to know in a particular case if another discipline is better equipped to handle the problem than is his? It would be rare indeed if a representative of any one of these disciplines did not feel that his approach to a particular organizational problem would be very fruitful, if not the most fruitful..." (R L Ackoff. Systems, organizations, and interdisciplinary research, General Systems, 1960)

8. Helplessness in the face of complexity

"Because our strength is derived from the fragmented mode of our knowledge and our action, we are relatively helpless when we try to deal intelligently with such unities as a city, an estuary's ecology, or the quality of life." (Editorial. Fortune, 1970)

9. Dependence on information

"Today, as we have seen, information is not primarily the triumphant standard of progress. It is the only means of maintaining sufficient control of evolution in order that humanity, strengthened by its knowledge and experiences and making appropriate use of all available information, can always maintain itself ahead of any threat which may lead to catastrophe." (Helmut Arntz, President, International Federation for Documentation, 1975)

10. Information overload

"The problem is that in most, if not all spheres of inquiry and choice, quantities of raw information overwhelm in magnitude the few comprehensive and trusted bodies or systems of knowledge that have been perceived and elaborated by man... Where, for example, does the novice urban mayor turn to comprehend the dynamic interrelationships between transportation, employment, technology, pollution, private investment, and the public budget; between housing, nutrition, health, and individual motivation and drive? Where does the concerned citizen or Congressman interested in educational change go for the best available understanding of the relationship between communications, including new technology, and learning?" (McGeorge Bundy. Managing knowledge to save the environment, US House of Representatives, 1970)

11. Category obsolescence

"The most probable assumption is that every single one of the old demarcations, disciplines, and faculties is going to become obsolete and a barrier to learning as well as to understanding. The fact that we are shifting from a Cartesian view of the universe, in which the accent has been on parts and elements, to a configuration view, with the emphasis on wholes and patterns, challenges every single dividing line between areas of study and knowledge." (P F Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity; guidelines to our changing society. 1968)

12. Evocation of fragmentation

"...the penalty for any principle which fails to express the whole is the necessity to co-exist with its opposite." (Lancelot Law Whyte. The Next Development in Man, 1950)

13. Challenge of synthesis

" face of the growing specialization of thought and action brought about by diversification in research and the division of labour, Unesco has a duty to promote interdisciplinary activities and contacts and to encourage broad views, in short, to emphasize the vital importance of the spirit of synthesis for the health of our civilization. I say vital advisedly since man - and I mean his essence, which is to say his judgment and his freedom of choice - is just as likely to be smothered by his knowledge as paralysed by the lack of it. Similarly, he is quite as likely to lose his identity in the confusion of competing social pressures as to atrophy in the condition known as under-developed." (René Maheu, Director-General of Unesco, Address to a symposium on science and synthesis, 1967)

14. Integration of elements of thought

"The synthesis we need involves a better integration of the elements of our thought, policies and institutions in order to solve national problems effectively, via the efficient achievement of national goals through the use, where appropriate, of such means as science and technology." (Robert W Lamson, Office of Exploratory Research and Problem Assessment, National Science Foundation, USA as read into the Congressional Record 93rd Congress, 2nd Session, 1974 by Charles S Gubser)

15. Facilitation of new forms of knowledge

"Interdisciplinary knowledge can only develop through interdisciplinary education; it is a question of facilitating the emergence of a new form of knowledge... Whilst operating according to the norms of his specific dimension, the researcher must be able to encompass a mental space vaster than the epistemological cell within which his research runs the risk of confining him... The new understanding must be based on an affirmation of the functional unity of the human being as a focal point for all research intentions in the different domains of knowledge... This new understanding must be embodied in a new pedagogy, oriented to compensating for the deficiencies of specialization by stressing the combined unity of all domains of knowledge." (Georges Gusdorf. Interdisciplinaire (connaissance). In: Encyclopedia Universalis)

16. Need for unified personalities

"The development of a world culture concerns mankind at large and each individual human being. Every community and society, every association and organization, has a part to play in this transformation; and no domain of life will be unaffected by it. This effort grows naturally out of the crisis of our time: the need to redress the dangerous overdevelopment of technical organization and physical energies by social and moral agencies equally far-reaching and even more commanding. In that sense, the rise of world culture comes as a measure to secure human survival. But the process would lose no small part of its meaning were it not also an effort to bring forth a more complete kind of man than history has yet disclosed. That we need leadership and participation by unified personalities is clear; but the human transformation would remain desirable and valid, even if the need were not so imperative.

The kind of person called for by the present situation is one capable of breaking through the boundaries of culture and history, which have so far limited human growth. A person not indelibly marked by the tattooings of his tribe or restricted by the taboos of his totem: not sewed up for life in the stiff clothes of his caste and calling or encased in vocational armour he cannot remove even when it endangers his life. A person not kept by his religious dietary restrictions from sharing spiritual food that other men have found nourishing; and finally, not prevented by his ideological spectacles from ever getting more than a glimpse of the world as it shows itself to men with other ideological spectacles, or as it discloses itself to those who may, with increasing frequency, be able without glasses to achieve normal vision. The immediate object of world culture is to break through the premature closures, the corrosive conflicts, and the cyclical frustrations of history. This breakthrough would enable modern man to take advantage of the peculiar circumstances today that favour a universalism that earlier periods could only dream about." (Lewis Mumford. The Transformations of Man. 1956)

17. Mental defences

"...That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed...a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world..." (Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)

18. Fostering self-knowledge

"The relations between world culture and the unified self are reciprocal. The very possibility of achieving a world order by other means than totalitarian enslavement and automatism rests on the plentiful creation of unified personalities, at home with every part of themselves, and so equally at home with the whole family of man, in all its magnificent diversity... Without fostering such self-knowledge, balance, and creativity, a world culture might easily become a compulsive nightmare." (Lewis Mumford. The Transformations of Man, 1956)

19. Concealed neurotic processes

"The fact which confronts us is that cultural change is limited by the restrictions imposed on change in individual human nature by concealed neurotic processes. At the same time there is continuous cybernetic interplay between culture and the individual, ie between the intra- psychic processes which make for fluidity or rigidity within the individual and the external processes which make for fluidity or rigidity in a culture. It would be naive to expect political and ideological liberty to give internal liberty to the individual citizen unless he had already won freedom from the internal tyranny of his own neurotic mechanisms... Therefore, in so far as man himself is neurotogenically restricted, he will restrict the freedom to change of the society in which he lives. This interplay is sometimes clearly evident, sometimes subtly concealed; but it is the heart of the solution of the problem of human progress." (Lawrence S Kubie. The nature of psychological change and its relation to cultural change. In: Ben Rothblatt (Ed) Changing Perspectives on Man, 1968)

20. New vision of selfhood

"Man's principal task today is to create a new self, adequate to command the forces that now operate so aimlessly and yet so compulsively. This self will necessarily take as its province the entire world, known and knowable, and will seek, not to impose a mechanical uniformity, but to bring about an organic unity, based upon the fullest utilization of all the varied resources that both nature and history have revealed to modern man. Such a culture must be nourished, not only by a new vision of the whole, but a new vision of a self capable of understanding and co-operating with the whole. In short, the moment for another great historic transformation has come. If we shrink from that effort we tacitly elect the post-historic substitute. The political unification of mankind cannot be realistically conceived except as part of this effort at self-transformation; without that aim we might produce uneasy balances of power with a temporary easing of tensions, but no fullness of development." (Lewis Mumford. The Transformations of Man, 1956)

21. Choice

"We can either involve ourselves in the recreative self and societal discovery of an image of humankind appropriate for our future, with attendant societal and personal consequences, or we can choose not to make any choice and, instead, adapt to whatever fate, and the choices of others, bring along." (Center for the Study of Social Policy of the Stanford Research Institute. Changing Images of Man, 1974)

In Summary....

It seems appropriate to attempt to bring together and interrelate within one framework information on: the problems with which humanity perceives itself to be faced; the organizational, human, and intellectual resources it believes it has at its disposal; the values by which it is believed any change should be guided; and the concepts of human development considered to be either the means or the end of any such social transformation.

Problems, organizations, concepts and human development are usually considered as though they were unrelated. But it is necessary to have a progressively more integrated conceptual structure in society before the interrelationships between the newer problems can be perceived. Both are needed before an attempt can be made to interrelate organizational units to handle the interlinked problems. Individual ability to tolerate and comprehend the complexity and dynamism of these interrelationships is directly related to the individual's own degree of personal development. Furthermore, a general increase in integration in any of these four domains will tend to increase integration in the other three. Equally, progressive fragmentation in any of the domains will provoke disintegrative tendencies in the others.

Even if the constraints make it impossible to achieve a satisfactory result through this particular exercise, it is to be hoped that through the process outlined here it will be possible to learn more about how information from very diverse sources can be concentrated and structured to the critical level required to provide the kind of integrative overview necessary for all to develop a sufficiently complex and strategically sound response to the world problem complex as it is now emerging.

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