Problem shifting

Problem shifting, in essence, is fixing one problem but thereby creating another. For instance, moving from combustion engine cars to electric cars is seen as a move to clean technology and a solar economy. The question is, where do we get all the power to run the electric cars from? The answer is: fossil fuels, certainly in the meantime. Problem shifted. 

I liken the concept of problem shifting to the grass-is-greener-attitude. This is the attitude that we can improve things just by moving somewhere greener i.e. better. Elon Musk’s ridiculous idea to colonise Mars is a perfect example of this; although it’s not unexpected from a guy who produces, none other than, electric cars! The solution to wrecking the earth is not to move to another planet. With that type of thinking, we will just wreck Mars too. 

Examples of problem shifting

Problem shifting is a common practice in the attempt to manage resources sustainably. For example: 

  • Plans to protect one particular species may affect another species.
  • Efforts to mitigate climate change, such as building tidal power plants, may reduce fossil fuel consumption and mitigate climate change to some extent, but only with an adverse impact on coastal habitats and dependent organisms.
  • Hydroelectric dams may also help address water resource scarcity and tackle climate change, but with significant negative environmental damage and risk.
  • Replacing petrol/gasoline with biofuels – may lead to negative impacts in terms of deforestation (e.g. in the Amazon and Indonesia), water scarcity, eutrophication and land use problems as a result of changes in agricultural practices.
  • Reforestation will sequester carbon but at the same time it can reduce stream flow, salinize and acidify soils.

An example of problem shifting gone wrong happened in New Zealand when stoats and ferrets were introduced to alleviate the problem of previously introduced rabbits breeding like, well, rabbits. This was a really bad idea. It turns out that for stoats endangered native flightless birds are much easier to catch than rabbits; now New Zealand has a serious rabbit problem AND a serious stoat problem. In other examples, the jury is out on what genetic modification will do to the environment and nuclear power generation is a multitude of disasters just waiting to happen, along the lines of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011), the Chernobyl disaster (1986), and the Three Mile Island accident (1979).

The problem with problem shifting

The basic problem with problem shifting is two-fold. The first issue has to do with the inability to design solutions holistically, meaning thinking about how solutions affect whole systems. A solution here that produces a problem over there is not really a solution at all. By considering the whole system (e.g. the natural environment) and predicting the consequences of ‘solutions’, both positive and negative, people can make better choices.

The second issue is that in general, problem shifting is just dealing with secondary causes and effects (or symptoms). So, problem shifting is often about finding solutions that are less bad, but being less bad is still bad. Problem shifting doesn’t fix root causes, which is what is needed. In all the examples given above the root cause is overproduction leading to overconsumption. By reducing production and consumption to sustainable levels all these problems will go away.

Yes, we must move to a completely solar economy as quickly as possible but more importantly we must reduce overall consumption. For instance, in the case of combustion engine vehicles, a real solution would be to reduce the number of vehicles. If the reduction is large enough it might mean the problem doesn’t exist any more. If there is still a problem then change whatever vehicles remain to electric. The need for new power generation will be minimised and so will the negative effects that come with it.

Fixing the root cause will eliminate problems

We don’t need to colonise Mars or any other planet. We have enough resources to satisfy everyone on Earth without wrecking nature or society. This is not going to hurt anyone. Gandhi rightly said “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

It is greedy to consume more than you need for well-being. Greed, ironically, is another form of problem shifting. It is usually a way to mitigate anxiety caused by insecurity, inner conflict or some kind of psychological ‘lack’. However, greed creates its own problems both for the individual, for society and for the environment – and it doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem.

To recap, when there is a problem, it is prudent to think holistically and consider consequences. Don’t focus your attention on secondary causes, which at best will only buy a little time. Whereas, fixing the root cause will fix all negative effects. We have the know-how and ability to fix all problems without having to shift them around. It will just take the will of the majority to make it happen.