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Group of Black women harvesting a field

Learning about local solutions to global problems can seed creative thinking among travelers. | Photo by Deepak kumar on Unsplash

The Problem with Problems — and Why Solutions Matter


Published on February 1, 2022


Regardless of how you look at it, the human race faces a multitude of challenges. It doesn’t matter where you live, what your career path is, what language you speak, or what your story is, we are all united in a host of global issues standing right outside our front doors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted every single person’s daily lives, put tens of millions of people out of work, and killed millions more. In addition, the doomsday clock is ticking closer toward midnight, and the ripple effects of a warming world are accelerating with increased natural disasters, urgent concerns over water shortages, and millions of people already displaced as climate migrants.

Fueling the fire of these universal challenges are deep roots of racism and oppression upheld by systems that continue to widen the gap between those with privilege and power, and those who suffer the consequences of that privilege and power. Additionally, we face a divisive political climate underpinned by individualism and nationalist sentiments. Many people would rather build literal walls and close borders instead of welcoming in the diversity and collective knowledge that comes with the fluid motion of people, cultures, and ideas.

Making sense of these issues is increasingly difficult when sifting through the 24/7 news cycle sprinkled liberally with misinformation bolstered by an ever-growing selection of news sources and social media platforms.

At times, these problems seem insurmountable.

It’s no surprise that we often feel overwhelmed by the weight of what we need to address together, especially when we all can rarely agree on what, exactly, the challenges are.

We end up locked in a vicious cycle: We stand among a host of global issues. The media (rightly) reports on the severity of these issues. We’re bombarded by the acceleration of these problems and the barriers we face to address them. We’re frozen in inaction. The problems compound, and the cycle continues.

Yes, we are overwhelmed.

And when faced with the enormity of our problems, we — as individuals, companies, communities, governing bodies, and the human race — can simply admit defeat and walk away.

But getting stuck in this destructive cycle creates the conditions for apathy and fatalism. When we feel like there’s nothing we can do as individuals or collectively as the human population, we have no reason to act. There’s no compelling argument for opening that door and stepping outside to face each of these challenges head on.

The Problem with Challenges

To be sure, we receive a lot of messages in our daily lives that tell us there’s no reason to act. For example, perhaps you’ve heard that individuals should not bear the weight of the climate emergency. Or that refusing to use straws or single-use plastics is meaningless in comparison to the top-level action needed from governmental bodies and corporations to make a dent in the climate emergency.

Even the language we use to talk about these urgent issues — “doomsday clock,” “sounding the alarm,” and “emergency” — reinforces the paralyzing fear that can lead to inaction.

Another reason people remain locked in a state of fatalism and apathy is because talking about potential solutions is not part of our common lexicon. Even the research conducted about our global challenges tends to stop at defining problems. A study published in Conservation Letters: A Journal of the Society of Conservation Biology in April 2020 found that 70% of conservation studies don’t propose responses to observed changes in conservation settings. This means that researchers continue to surface an increasing number of conservation challenges without offering any sort of blueprint for addressing them.

Even worse, this methodology doesn’t appear to be changing. According to co-author David R. Williams in an interview with Mongabay  about this research study, “We don’t seem to be developing this deeper understanding of threats or how to respond to them.”

We don’t know what to do or how to act because so many challenges simply stop with the definition of the problems. Transparent storytelling means embracing honesty, but overwhelming people with challenges not paired with possible solutions can be counter-productive. Without hints on how to move forward, it’s no wonder we often find it easier to stay where we are without doing anything. Meanwhile, the world and its weighty baggage continue to compound around us.

None of this is intended to dismiss the importance of thoroughly understanding our global challenges: the severity of the coronavirus, the climate crisis, racism, nationalism, or any of the other multitude of problems sitting on our doorsteps. In fact, it’s essential that we have a firm and shared understanding of what we’re facing as a unified global community.

However, we can not afford to be content with inaction. We must move beyond the problems and put effort into surfacing, creating, amplifying, and supporting solutions to them. 

More Alike Than Different

Humans span continents, populating dense urban centers and rural landscapes. We speak more than 7,000 languages , practice 12 major religions (and hundreds of other spiritualities) , and lean into a myriad of economic, political, and educational backgrounds. There are a lot of differences across the human race, and a lot of emphasis is placed on these differences. 

Yet, we’re more alike than we might realize or care to admit. There is a heart-centered part of the human condition that transcends all those differences. It is in those shared values, belief systems, and commonalities where we can uncover opportunities for connection. Finding the ability to connect with each other as a unified global community despite our differences is, in fact, humanity’s greatest asset.

Visualizing a clear path forward to a healthier, safer, more equitable, and more sustainable way of living and working can feel downright overwhelming. 

However, working toward this goal together is a bit more palatable. If we can tap into the deep wealth of wisdom accumulated over generations and across a wide variety of lived experiences and cultural knowledge bolstered by localized environmental understanding and historical lessons, we stand a very real chance of being able to address our current challenges. Even more, we collectively have the ability to create the framework for a world that is not only more sustainable but actually regenerative; a world where we all not only survive but thrive.

Is this a pipe dream? I know a lot of people would say it is. But it’s important to go back to this idea of a shared human connection. Regardless of where they live and what their story is, the vast majority of people have many of the same shared needs and beliefs. 

There’s a reason why Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is not tied to any one geographical location. This motivational theory of psychology is broken down into five tiers identifying human needs that dictate behavior. At the very bottom of the pyramid are physiological needs such as air, food, water, shelter, and sleep. The next layer of needs are those related to safety: personal security, health, employment, and resources. The final three layers, moving up the pyramid, focus on love and belonging (friendship, family, and a sense of connection), esteem (respect, status, recognition, and freedom), and self-actualization (the desire to become the best that a person can be).

Focusing on our basic human needs while also tapping into our individual experiences offers a huge opportunity for tackling global challenges. For as long as there have been people on this planet, they have come up with solutions to a whole host of problems out of necessity using the resources available to them. We are skilled at solving our problems and meeting our needs as outlined by Maslow because we have no other choice. Survival is our first instinct, but comfort and contentment follow in its footsteps.

Tourism’s Role in Surfacing Solutions

There is a largely untapped opportunity to acknowledge and recognize our shared human connection, values, and localized solutions. These solutions, in turn, can be used to develop the blueprint we need to follow, step by step, to lift ourselves beyond our global problems.

Because of its ability to connect a wide variety of people in uncomfortable and unexpected settings, the tourism industry is uniquely situated to capitalize on this opportunity. Travelers are naturally an engaged audience. After all, they are financially invested, have carved out time, and have expressed an interest in spending time in a foreign-to-them environment. Intentionally creating opportunities where travelers recognize shared human values while witnessing local solutions in action is a powerful opportunity to accelerate solution development and disbursement of these solutions around the globe.

While there is a need for large-scale public and private funding from the highest levels of society and government, cookie-cutter solutions to global issues do not address the differences among local cultures or the idiosyncrasies of local conditions. For example, on any given day, a community has likely come up with a way to address problems like crumbling roadways, teaching children with minimal material support, or ensuring there’s enough clean water for the next day. If those living outside a specific community can witness and learn from those who have developed customized, local solutions, they begin to see new opportunities for application in their own lives.

When travelers can see themselves reflected in these universal struggles born out of shared values and concerns — in this case, being able to drive from point A to point B, ensuring their own kids have access to a good education, and thinking about how to ensure they also have clean drinking water — then there is an opportunity to see themselves reflected in the solutions for these overarching challenges as well.

And if we, as a collective human race, are going to solve the myriad of problems barreling down on us — the coronavirus pandemic, vaccine inequity, the climate emergency, the systems of white supremacy and oppression — that greet us each and every single day, we have no choice but to lean into a solutions-focused mindset together on a global scale.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.


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