Ranking the world’s most pressing issues poses dilemmas

Feb 26, 2017

This week at Student Pugwash, the science, technology, and society discussion club undertook one of the most difficult exercises under our jurisdiction: listing and ordering all the problems humanity needs to face. A daunting task for even the most stable of governments, the challenge was taken head on by our team and we delivered a final ranking of all the issues we thought were important. By the end of the meeting, we had a definitive list — sort of.

Initially, we intended to make a short list of specific problems such as climate change, superbugs, and political extremism. However, in the first hour alone, we had produced up to 30 issues. Therefore, it was necessary to view the task through a different lens.

In an attempt to organize our list, we started categorizing the individual items, as many had overlapping root causes with potentially overlapping solutions. For example, the first category was concerned with ideological problems, such as extremism and xenophobia. Then, we moved on to another category: social issues, which includes problems like aging populations.

Eventually, our list was reduced to six unordered issues that could be categorized easily. They were ideological, economic, social, public health, technological, and environmental issues. Next, we undertook the slightly less daunting task of ranking these six groups. To lessen the potential for major disagreements, we began from the bottom with sixth most pressing issue almost unanimously agreed to be ideological in nature.

This is because there is one major difference that ideological problems have from the rest, in that the solutions are less definitive and somewhat ambiguous. Questions of what constitutes a good ideology have plagued philosophers and politicians for centuries, and even now there is no clear way to solve these problems without some level of ethical breaching. Therefore, it was accepted that ideology would be something not easily solvable, and so it was placed sixth.

The next to be put on the list was technology. Like ideology, we also had the unified opinion to place it second to last, since there seemed to be fewer pressing issues within the category than in others. Furthermore, most of those under the technology umbrella were also in other categories as well.

The fourth was health, which generated much discussion. This is because Pugwash recently covered the concerns over superbugs, which hinge on fears of a global epidemic without an effective cure. Unfortunately, even though fear of superbugs is a very legitimate concern, the lack of possible pathogens that could annihilate all humanity subtracted from the topic’s relative importance. Disease and disability also seemed to be more of an economic conundrum, with some treatment applications correlating with personal wealth and social standing.

We were then faced with the task of ordering the final three categories, namely economics, social, and environmental. Unfortunately, we never completed the rank¬ing, as it became clear that these three generated the most controversy over rank¬ings. In the end, we agreed to rank them all as first. The underlying connections between these three topics made isolating them challenging. Furthermore, varying time frames for their potential dangers and solutions confounded the ability to rank them.

The arguments for the ordering of these final three topics were impassioned and insightful, digging into the complexities of what exactly it means for one catastrophe to be more pressing than the next. Others began to reject the established ordering of the fourth, fifth, and sixth topics as well. By the end of the meeting, we certainly had not compiled the definitive, ordered list of our planet’s most dire needs. In fact, there are hundreds of extinction-level events that are more than possible of occurring.

We accomplished far more meaningful goals along the way. We explored the structure, complexities and relationships between the trials of humanity. By categorizing and considering these topics, the unfathomable challenges of the 21st century seemed more, if only by a bit more, understandable.