No Simple Solutions: Divergent Problems and the Need for Consensus

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Cover Courtesy Tower Press
Focusing on the United States in particular, “The Poised Century,” by David A. Robinson, invites and challenges his readers to find a way of living and consuming that does not diminish either the planet or its people.

In The Poised Century (Tower Press, 2011), David A. Robinson
shows us what a century “on the brink” looks like and what each of us
can do about it.
From oil depletion and climate change to growing
inequity and mounting debt, he presents persuasive reasons why each of us must
live today as if tomorrow mattered. Focusing on the United States in particular, he
invites and challenges his readers to find a way of living and consuming that
does not diminish either the planet or its people. The following excerpt comes
from chapter 4, “The New Liturgy.”

professions are conspiracies against the laity.”
Bernard Shaw

“The time
has come to take the syringe out of the hand of the doctor, as the pen was
taken out of the hand of the scribe during the Reformation in Europe.”

“One of the
principal problems in the modern world is that we have delegated our survival
instinct to the state.”

loves a dead battery.

It was a
do-it-yourself crowd. We stood six deep at the auto parts counter at Sears, all
asking for the same thing: “Give me the biggest battery you’ve got for a
Belchfire.” A cart full of dead batteries next to the counter gave witness to
what had brought us there and made “Cold enough for you?” the conversation of
the day.

A dead car battery, like a broken leg, is not something you
wish for. But when you’ve got a problem, it’s the kind you want. We value these
problems because they are clear–my car engine won’t turn over, or my leg has
left me immobilized. Equal in value to their clear definition is that such
problems also have clear solutions: get in line at Sears for a new battery, or
call 911 and get carted to the hospital. Our problem is then quickly solved by
the person behind the counter who provides a new battery or the emergency room
physician who sets our leg. With a new battery our car will run again, and
after a period of time to heal, so will we.

We like these kinds of problems not only because they are
easy to identify and solve, but also because we need to do little more than
show up and play a passive role while the problem is solved by someone else.
But not all problems are so nice. Some, such as type 2 diabetes, cannot be
readily solved by medical intervention but must be actively managed by the
affected person. Here medical intervention fails, and the work of coping with
impaired sugar metabolism belongs not only to the physician, but to the
individual as well.

By looking at who needs to do the work, we can divide
problems into two broad categories. E. F. Schumacher, in his book A Guide
for the Perplexed
, describes these as convergent and divergent problems.
Convergent problems are those problems we prefer, those best solved by someone
else, like a dead car battery or broken leg. More onerous are Schumacher’s
divergent problems. Such problems lie beyond the work of the expert and require
the work of all who are affected. The principal difference between convergent and
divergent problems is that while convergent problems can be solved using the
consensus-based solutions of experts, divergent problems may only be
ameliorated–made better, not solved–through the cooperative work of those

Most problems in technology are convergent. For example, the
first commercially successful airplane, the Douglas DC-3, is an example of a
convergent solution to the problem of building an airplane that could both fly
and make money. Five critical design elements were required for its success: a
variable-pitch propeller, a retracting landing gear, a method of lightweight
construction, a radial air-cooled engine, and wing flaps. The convergence of
these five technologies in the DC-3 caused commercial aviation literally to
take off. The great attractiveness of solving such convergent problems comes
from the creative pleasure and commercial success that issue from such

But life is not always so nice. When our problems become
organic and alive, they become complex and messy, and finding consensus-based
solutions becomes difficult if not impossible. These complex and messy problems
of life that have no simple solutions are what Schumacher calls divergent
problems. For example, there is no simple consensus on what constitutes a good
education. Some will say education involves authority, discipline, and
obedience. Others will claim that we learn best when we are set free and
allowed to test or even break the rules. When it comes to education,
well-meaning and reasonable people can differ sharply on what is proper or
good. In this case, the problem of education is divergent, and reaching a
consensus is not possible or even desirable, since different students learn

Problems, such as abortion, are difficult and divisive because
well-meaning people can hold opposite points of view. My own view is that I am
both pro-life and pro-choice. It is my desire that all children be wanted
children and that both fathers and mothers, when presented a choice, choose
life. For me, the recommendation that abortion be legal, safe, available, and
rare presents enough work for the advocates of either position. While taken
together these goals might not be considered an ideal solution by either
pro-life or pro-choice advocates, they can, in whole, serve as a remedy. Rather
than presenting a singular solution, the recommendation that abortion be legal,
safe, available, and rare becomes a remedy that allows a variety of people of
differing views to work toward a common goal of few or no abortions. Although
such work may leave advocates on either side less than satisfied, it is likely
to be the best action that can be taken for the good of all.

A large part of living is the work of discerning between the
convergent and divergent problems that we encounter in life. Most important is
our need to accept the reality that divergent problems, unlike convergent
problems, cannot be solved, but only be made better through the application of
remedies. Remedies require the cooperation of many people and lead not to the
solution of the problem, but only to its amelioration. While convergent
problems may be solved by the work of the expert, divergent problems can be
ameliorated only by the work of those affected.

The importance of separating the problems of our lives into
convergent and divergent types cannot be overstressed. Conscious evolution
mandates we recognize that our future survival cannot be guaranteed by
ever-more clever solutions to convergent problems. The vast majority of our
most serious problems–wage equity, housing availability, health care,
transportation access, unemployment, poverty, drugs, and violence, along with
worldwide resource issues such as water, food, energy, sanitation, and
environmental degradation–have no single or simple solution. As divergent
problems, they lie beyond the convergent responses of either the technology of
science or the programs of government. They require the work of everyone.

The central characteristic that makes divergent problems so
onerous is that they require us to show up, pay attention, and get to
work. They are the problems that we would rather have someone else solve for
us. We would all rather pay our taxes and have the government feed the poor,
educate our children, keep our streets safe, and provide for us ready
transportation and low-cost energy. But all of these are divergent
problems–problems over which reasonable people can hold widely divergent views
and for which there are no single or simple answers. They are problems that
deal with the complexity of life itself, and as much as we wish they would go
away, they won’t. Wishing becomes the hard work of laziness as we work to avoid
the reality that these problems belong to us and no one else.

The work of reducing the difficulties caused by the
divergent problems that surround us today is the work of the new liturgy. The
word liturgy has its origins in two Greek roots meaning “work” and
“people,” and it literally means “the work of the people.” Liturgy is
most often used to describe the order of worship in Christian ritual, but I now
wish to extend its meaning to include all the work that life requires of us.
The new liturgy describes the ordinary work that brings meaning to our daily
lives. Discovering what this work is and getting on with it is fundamental to
the work of conscious evolution. The new liturgy tells us that divergent
problems return our work to us no matter what.

This excerpt has been
reprinted with permission from
The Poised Century: On Living Today as if Tomorrow Mattered,
published by Tower Press, 2011.

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