University of Earth
Projects Overview (Explanations)
World Problems Project (Explanations)

Significance: Precedents and parallels

World Problems Project

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1. Previous UIA initiatives

The Union of International Associations, an international non-governmental organization founded in Brussels in 1907 partly on the initiative of two Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Henri La Fontaine, 1913; Auguste Beernaert, 1909), had activities prior to 1939 which are of historical interest in relation to the current project. These include:

(a) Annuaire de la Vie Internationale (Vol I: 1908-1909, 1370 pages; Vol II: 1910-1911, 2652 pages) which included information on problems with which international organisations were concerned at that time;

(b) Code des Voeux Internationaux: codification générale des voeux et résolutions des organismes internationaux (1923, 940 pages, under the auspices of the League of Nations), which listed those portions of the texts of international organisation resolutions which covered substantive matters, including what are now regarded as world problems. It covered 1216 resolutions adopted at 151 international meetings. The subject index lists some 1200 items.

(c) Paul Otlet, co-founder of the UIA, produced in 1916 a book entitled Les Problèmes Internationaux et la Guerre which identified many problems giving rise to and caused by war, and proposing the creation of a League of Nations. In 1935 he attempted a synthesis which touched upon many problems and their solution within a society in transformation. The preface bore the title "The Problem of Problems". He also dealt with this question in 1918.

The different series of publications of the UIA since 1949 constitute a useful source of information on problems recognized by international organizations, especially the Yearbook of International Organizations. The programme to produce this Encyclopedia was initiated in 1972 with the support of Mankind 2000. The first edition was produced in 1976 (under the title Yearbook of World Problems and Human Potential). Work on the second was initiated in 1982, leading to publication in 1986.

2. Reference books and surveys

(a) By intergovernmental bodies: Several of the major bodies within the United Nations system publish reference books which include descriptions of a broad range of many world problems. The World Health Organization has published Health Hazards of the Human Environment. The International Labour Organisation publishes Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety. The World Bank has published Environmental, Health and Human Ecological Considerations in Economic Development Projects. It continues to publish annually the World Development Report. The United Nations Environment Programme (in cooperation with the World Resources Institute) publishes the Environmental Data Report.

Individual divisions within the United Nations system produce a very large range of document series which present summaries of the current state of a particular world problem area, eg the periodic Report on the World Social Situation produced by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Statistical yearbooks or reviews are produced by the major agencies.

Apart from the United Nations system, many of the 300 other conventional intergovernmental organizations (and the 1500 of other categories of intergovernmental body) produce detailed analyses, summaries, or statistical surveys relating to the world problems in their domain. For example, the Environment Directorate of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development produces a series of reports on individual environmental problems. The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance has created an International Institute for the Study of Economic Problems in the Worldwide Socialist System.

Some major international organizations periodically attempt to review the range of world problems with which they are concerned, in an effort to redefine their priorities for the future. Thus, for example, UNESCO has produced an Analysis of problems and table of objectives to be used as a basis for medium-term planning (1977-1982). This exercise resulted in the identification of 12 major world problems that were linked to 59 objectives. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development produced in 1973 a List of Social Concerns Common to Most OECD Countries.

Such bodies hold a multiplicity of international meetings, frequently on specific world problems, which give rise to meeting reports that may identify new world problems and contain valuable material on them. Overviews of this activity may be obtained from publications of the Union of International Associations such as the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations (1990).

(b) By international nongovernmental bodies: As with the intergovernmental bodies, many of the 4600 conventional international nongovernmental organizations (as well as the 4000 of other categories of international body) undertake equivalent studies.

The annual report of Amnesty International is a well-publicised example. The International Institute for Environment and Development and the World Resources Institute collaborate in the production of World Resources, initially intended as an annual publication, with each volume complementing previous ones rather than being updates of them. The volumes offer reviews of issues together with data tables.

Again, overviews of this activity may be obtained from the 3-volume Yearbook of International Organizations (1990).

(c) By individuals and other bodies: Encyclopaedias and similar general reference works contain descriptive information concerning a wide range of problems, although the problem is generally not recognized as a problem but rather as a phenomenon. Important problems may be omitted. Thus although Diderot's Encyclopaedia in the 18th century includes an entry on torture, the 1975 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica does not, nor does the International Encylopaedia of the Social Sciences.

A World Design Science Decade (1965-1975) was proposed by R Buckminster Fuller to the International Union of Architects at their 6th World Congress in 1961. This proposal called for the initiation, by schools of architectural and environmental planning around the world, of a continuing survey of the total chemical and energy resources available to man on a global scale, and of human trends and needs in relation to these resources, and of how the use of these resources may be redesigned to serve all humanity. This proposal led to the creation of the World Resources Inventory at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale) and to the production of a series of documents by R Buckminster Fuller and John McHale relating to each phase of the programme. Phase 1 was entitled World Literacy re World Problems, for which one of the documents produced in 1963 was Inventory of World Resources, Human Trends and Needs.

In the period 1970-72, the Institute of Cultural Affairs and the associated Ecumenical Institute (Chicago) undertook an extremely comprehensive survey of the range of contradictions with which society was confronted. This material was ordered in various ways in a series of unpublished studies one of which identified 385 contradictions grouped into 77 categories. These contradictions were perceived as underlying problems in many sectors (economic, cultural, social, etc). From 1974-78 this material was used to guide 50 community dialogues in some 30 countries. Each of these gave rise to further sets of contradictions described in a series of internal reports.

Lester Brown, with colleagues, has produced an annual State of the World report, since 1984, which is widely distributed. The English-language editions are published by the Worldwatch Institute (Washington DC) of which he is director. The report reviews current problems in fields such as ecology, resources, hunger, population and energy.

In an effort to reach a wider audience, two overviews of the planetary situation have been provided in similar formats. The Gaia Atlas of Planetary Management (1985) is edited by Norman Myers and reviews and illustrates problems and possibilities in relation to land, ocean, elements, evolution, humankind, civilization and management. The Gaia Peace Atlas; survival into the third millenium (1988) is edited by Frank Barnaby.

There are an increasing number of reports by individuals and organizations focusing on environment-related problems. For example, Jacques Cousteau and the Cousteau Society have produced The Cousteau Almanac; an inventory of life on our water planet (1979) which reviews many problems.

A number of school textbooks and teachers guides have been produced on world problems: World Problems in the Classroom; a teacher's guide to some United Nations tasks, which gives information on 12 problems (1973); One World; sources and study guide, which gives information on 5 problems (1971); World Problems, which gives information on 6 problems (1971); and World Problems; a topic geography (1973), which gives information on 36 problems in 8 groups. Many others have been produced in more recent years.

3. Independent commission reports

A series of "independent commissions", loosely related to the United Nations system, have produced influential, authoritative reports on broad ranges of issues. These have provided a vital focus for reviews of problems and strategies free from many of the constraints of particular institutional frameworks. It is unfortunate that these reports each fail to integrate the findings of those that preceded them, often failing even to mention them:

These reports derive much of their importance from their role in articulating possible global strategies. Intergovernmental and nongovernmental bodies may collaborate in this process, as is especially noteworthy in the case of IUCN, WWF and UNEP in producing a strategy document on the environment (1990).

4. Research and modelling

(a) By intergovernmental bodies: The United Nations University is chartered to devote its work to research into the pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare that are the concern of the United Nations and its agencies. This is done through a network of research and post-graduate training centres and programmes located around the world and coordinated by a central body. Its project on Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development (1978-82) strongly influenced the content of a number of sections of this publication.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research directs research into problems which are of interest to the Secretariat and the Assembly of the United Nations and which is primarily of interest to national officials and diplomats. UNITAR has undertaken a future studies programme, particularly in terms of impact on the United Nations. The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development conducts research into problems and policies of social development during different phases of economic growth. The United Nations Social Defence Research Institute undertakes research into the field of prevention and control of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality. Many other such specialized international research units exist.

The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (whose members are the principal scientific academies in each country) initiates and supports collaborative and individual research in relation to problems of modern societies arising from scientific and technological development.

The General Conference of UNESCO adopted a resolution at its 23rd Session (1983), creating a major programme concerned with reflection on world problems and future-oriented studies. This was reconfirmed at its 24th Session (1985). During the first two-year period a symposium was held on the creation of a decentralized network for analysis and research on world problems (1984). During the second two-year period, with a budget of $1.8 million, it was proposed to track the evolution of the global problematique and its perception by different schools of thought, encourage research on it and promote exchanges of information and ideas on world problems through the network. The programme, severely threatened by internal and budgetary problems, has given rise to a series of over 50 studies. The first of these contains the report of a Scientific Workshop in 1987 on world problems in the year 2000 (UNESCO, 1987). Another study, jointly by the Institute for Scientific Research on Systems and the Institute of Philosphy of the USSR Academy of Sciences, deals with the systems analysis of world problems (Institut de recherches scientifiques sur les systèmes, 1988)

Within the United Nations system efforts are being made by the various statistical units to move towards the implementation of a System of Social and Demographic Statistics which could serve as the principal data base on many social problems, but particularly for the preparation of social indicators by which many problems are identified and tracked (1974).

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, as the result of the first phase of its Social Indicator Development Programme, has produced a List of Social Concerns Common to Most OECD Countries (1973) with the object of identifying the social demands, aspirations and problems which are or will likely be major concerns of socio-economic planning processes. The social concerns identified are those "which are of sufficient importance, present or potential, to the governments of those countries for them to want to have indicators available on a comparable basis." A social concern is defined as "an identifiable aspiration or concern of fundamental and direct importance to human well-being as opposed to a matter of instrumental or indirect importance to well-being." Social concerns involving means rather than ends are excluded. The list identifies 24 concerns in 8 groups; 14 of the concerns also have a total of 56 sub- concerns indicated against them. Each of the 24 fundamental social concerns "may be viewed as the summit of a vertically linked hierarchy of an indefinite number of sub-concerns representing the important aspects and means of influencing the fundamental concern. At the same time, there are various kinds of horizontal linkages or relationships among these hierarchies; a particular concern or sub-concern may have simultaneous effects on a number of other social concerns...It will remain with the planners for specific sectors to extend the hierarchy further downwards to suit their more detailed sector planning, evaluation and programme needs and to establish horizontal relationships between the diverse components of the hierarchies." The document notes that "Commonality of social concerns among Member countries tends to be greatest at the highest level of generality, diminishing as the definition becomes more specific."

(b) By international nongovernmental bodies: The Club of Rome (created in 1968 by a group of 30 individuals and limited in membership to 100) initiated in 1970 a Project on the Predicament of Mankind. This had as its objective the examination of the complex of problems in the world, conceived as a world problematique in that: the problems occur to some degree in all societies; they contain technical, social, economic and political elements; and that they all interact. The project has been conducted in phases:

- The first phase led in 1972 to the very well-publicised study under Dennis Meadows entitled The Limits to Growth. This examined the interaction of five basic factors (or problem areas) that determine and limit growth on the planet.

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The second phase resulted in 1974 in the production of a report Mankind at the Turning Point by M D Mesarovic and E Pestel in which the global system outlined in the previous phase was disaggregated into ten major interacting geographical regions and analyzed with new methods.

- The third phase in 1976 led to the production of a report on Goals for Global Society (under the direction of Ervin Laszlo) which identified sociological, psychological and cultural inner limits which could give positive direction to human aspirations. The Club of Rome world system modelling exercise has stimulated many emulators and rectifiers. A survey of these has recently been produced (1982). The Club was also responsible for initiating in 1974 the project on Reshaping International Order, mentioned above.

The International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Study is a mechanism for transdisciplinary and transnational initiatives to assist society to cope with an increasingly complex, rapidly changing and interdependent world. The Institute sponsors global modelling activities. Since 1987 it has been active in establishing a Human Dimensions of Global Change Programme (also known as Human Responses to Global Change Programme) to complement the UNESCO-ICSU International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

The Battelle Memorial Institute, through its Geneva Research Centre, conducted the DEMATEL project (namely Decision-Making Trial and Evaluation Laboratory). The objectives were to help find better solutions to world and generalized problems based on a better understanding of the problem structure or so-called world problematique, in order to avoid the selection of solutions that are in fact problem-generating. A survey of problems perceived by about 100 responsible and knowledgeable persons was prepared in 1972, and led to the production of a list of 48 problems in 14 groups. The initial questionnaire and proposed follow-up questionnaire were designed to determine the perceived relative importance of problems and their affect on each other. Mathematical techniques for the analysis of these systems of interrelationships were then developed. An objective was to produce a map of the world problematique (1973).

The organization Futuribles International undertook in 1986-87, under UNESCO auspices, a world-wide survey among eminent persons from varying geopolitical and ideological backgrounds selected for the quality of their thinking on major world problems and the prospects for change (Futuribles International, 1987).

The experience of elder statesmen has been harnessed through the InterAction Council of Former Heads of Government. The reports of its meetings endeavour to provide a synthesis of perspectives on the longer-term issues to which society is vulnerable (InterAction Council, 1990).

(c) By individuals and other bodies: A large number of research-oriented institutes have programmes which attempt to identify and focus on one or more of the most critical world problems. Such institutes are usually related to some aspect of planning, forecasting, futures, technology assessment, or policy sciences. An overview of the range of this activity may be obtained from Michael Marien's Future Survey Guide to 50 Overviews and Agendas (1990). This is essentially an update of his Societal Directions and Alternatives; a critical guide to the literature (1976) and to the regular Future Survey Annual; a guide to recent books and articles concerning trends, forecasts and policy proposals, produced by him for the World Future Society which publishes it.

A number of institutes maintain the results of extensive surveys of current activities around the world in their own data banks. Such a survey, in the field of future studies, has been conducted for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) by the Center for Integrative Studies. The World Future Society produces a directory of future-related resources and a periodical surveying them.

Most institutes are primarily concerned with a limited range of major problems, such as population, resources, or environment (within which are of course grouped many other problems although usually not distinguished as such). An exception is the Hudson Institute which has identified 78 technological crises in 7 groups. Many institutes necessarily conduct such research to identify the problems which will affect the body or area from which their funding is derived, eg Europe 2000, Hawaii Commission on the Year 2000, or individual corporations interested in predicting the environment within which their products must be profitable. There is a well-recognized tendency for institutes to switch programmes from year to year as new problems appear on the horizon of funding bodies.

There is a tendency for special institutes to be created in each country for the comprehensive analysis of policy alternatives, national goals, and national priorities. These necessarily involve a focus on the world problem context. An example is the Institute for the Analysis of Public Choices established by the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies.

There is of course an unknown amount of government-sponsored classified research as well as corporation-sponsored proprietary research. This may well be superior to anything that is publicly available, although it is likely to suffer from the disadvantage of being oriented in terms of the sponsoring body.

Numerous books and articles by individual researchers identify specific world problems or groups of problems and propose taxonomies for them. However the number of problems taken into consideration is usually less than 10. An exception is Hasan Ozbekhan's series of 28 Continuous Critical Problems (1969). During his period as Executive Director of the Club of Rome (prior to the Limits to Growth exercise) this was extended in an internal document to approximately 50 problems. These problems are system- wide and are characterized by the fact that they cannot be solved independently of the rest of the set.

There is a very extensive literature on social problems and social issues. An Encyclopedia of Social Reform was even produced at the end of the 19th Century. There appears however to be an important difference between what are currently included under the term world problems and what is currently meant by a social problem, although even amongst sociologists there is disagreement as to the definition of a social problem. Thus in Contemporary Social Problems edited by R K Merton and R Nisbet, 15 major social problems are identified. The exclusion of other possible problems is justified by the statement: "Sociology is a special science characterized by concepts and conclusions, which are based on analysis and research, yielding in turn perspectives on society and its central problems. For many decades now, sociologists have worked carefully and patiently on these problems." (1971) Social problems would therefore appear to be those problems perceived by sociologists as being the central problems of society.

A major study was commissioned by President Carter and resulted in the production of the Global Report 2000; a report to the President by the US Council on Environmental Quality.

Numerous studies of world order have been made in which the focus is placed on the political-social-legal forms, organizations and institutions envisaged as being relevant to the solution of world problems, especially those connected with organized violence. The most extensive of these is the World Order Models Project (sponsored by the Institute for World Order), which has given rise to a series of publications (1972-1979).

Numerous surveys have been conducted of community attitudes towards local problems and problem-solving. An example is the Benchmark programme of the Academy of Contemporary Problems (Ohio State University). Other surveys have been made of some special-interest membership organization concerning the relative importance of current problems or those that they perceive as emerging in the foreseeable future. A few nation-wide surveys of this type have been conducted. Thus, for example, in 1968 the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom requested that readers write in to draw attention to problems or suggested remedies, and then published a compilation of the results.

In 1984-85 the BBC sponsored a Domesday Project in which 10,000 British schools participated. The results have been made available to the schools on laser disk. An international equivalent is envisaged. The Institut Français d'Opinion Publique conducted a survey in France concerning 40 problems to determine their relative probability, gravity, and ability to stimulate individuals to activity. (The results were reported at a Colloque International sur la Perception Nouvelle des Menaces in 1973). The Center for Integrative Studies, on behalf of the World Academy of Art and Science, questioned 3000 international organizations concerning the relative importance of 25 problem areas in an effort to identify world priorities; the survey respondents added 196 other items. (The results were reported at the second Conference on Environment and Society in Transition in 1974).

The Educational Policy Research Center of the Stanford Research Institute, produced a study in 1971 on Contemporary Societal Problems. This attempted "to identify and to interrelate the driving problems of our time, both national and international, to develop a useful perspective from which to better understand these problems, and to thereby identify crucial dilemmas whose understanding seems necessary if societal continuity is to be ensured." The report explored the use of resource allocation analysis as a tool for the identification of neglected societal problems and presented it as part of a more general problem analysis procedure. The study made "a comprehensive attempt to list all relevant societal problems." Three overlapping procedures were used: (a) a selection of prominent (mainly American) persons of known divergence in both ideology and professional background were asked to nominate other persons whom they regarded as having the best grasp of current problems, to identify key materials on current problems, and to identify they key problems they saw as being most crucial at that time and in the future; (b) published results of previous systematic attempts to identify, categorize, or list societal problems were collected; (c) using the information collected a core sample of texts was collected for detailed analysis. The body of the report (27 pages) distinguishes between substantive, process, normative, and conceptual problems, and then compared the conventional and a proposed transformational view of societal problems. The appendix (46 pages) listing societal problem descriptions and taxonomies, consists of six items: Ralph Borsodi's Seventeen Problems of Man and Society; the US National Industrial Conference Board's Perspectives for the 70's and 80's. Karl Deutsch's Issues which the proposed center for national goals and alternatives should address; the Institute for the Future's Future Opportunities for Foundation Support; and John Platt's What we must do. These identify 17, 118, 35, 64, and 8 problem areas, respectively. The sixth item, resulting from the literature search and the leading thinker survey, lists 46 problem areas in seven groups.

A proposal was made in 1972, by Richard Cellarius and John Platt for the creation of International Councils of Urgent Studies to seek out and support the kind of research effort on world problems that would be inappropriate (or suspect) if sponsored by national governments. They identified some 210 areas of urgent research under 25 headings within 6 main groups.

A number of universities have courses on problem-solving. For example, the Mershon Center Program of Transnational Intellectual Cooperation in the Policy Sciences (directed by Chadwick Alger) at Ohio State University has a graduate course in problem-solving in international organizations. In addition to identifying and comparing the various problem networks and their interdependencies, a focus is placed upon the networks of organizations concerned with the networks of problems. At Swarthmore College there is a programme on problem complexes in public technology. Southern Illinois University, through a programme originally directed by R Buckminster Fuller, operates a World Game that introduces students to interactions between problems and resources.

5. Historical and traditional initiatives

See following note


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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