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How people solve global problems

Katie Cowart

What do the 3,000-year-old actions of an Egyptian pharaoh say about how we should tackle the biggest challenges of the 21st century?

Quite a bit, according to anthropologists at the University of Georgia who analyzed archeological evidence over thousands of years to examine how societies have approached adversity. Their work suggests that rigid, top-down approaches to complex problems have been a doomed strategy throughout human history. Instead, solutions to our most complex challenges begin and end with cooperation and varied, well-functioning institutions.

The researchers observed that healthy societies tend to have multiple institutions that deal with somewhat distinct problems – such as health care and environmental pollution — and that abolishing them or over-centralizing their functions usually blocks the path to critical solutions.

“Climate change and a global pandemic are some of the biggest problems humanity has ever faced,” said Stephen Kowalewski, Professor Emeritus of anthropology and the study’s co-author. “Throughout history, humans have always solved big problems by forming social institutions, groups of people organized to respond to a variety of issues. Since people are always faced with multiple, different problems, they tend to create institutions that are varied in origin as well as purpose.”

But societies that swiftly abolish old institutions or centralize power are not equipped in the long-term for complex problems.


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