What are the world's root problems?

Philipp Lenssen sez, "I've set up RootStrike as a minimalist site for easy referencing of root problems in online discussions. Problems -- like the corrupting system of US campaign funding -- which, if solved, would also help us a lot in solving many other problems. The site was inspired by Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost, and many other sources and people."



    1. This is pretty narrow, yes. Also, it doesn’t bode well that Mr. Lenssen doesn’t seem to have any kind of forum for debate set up–I mean, God forbid OTHER people are able to think of a few fundamental problems in the world (see: corporate personhood.)

      1. Narrow temporally, too. What would the answer be fifty years ago or fifty years hence? Problems with wide ranging effects are not the same as root problems. Root problems it seems to me would require us all to change. So, some forum for the discussion of wide ranging problems would be handy and then I would concur that US problems are world problems.

      2. Jack, I will closely watch discussion on this and read the email feedback (already changed parts of the site based on it), but my main aim was not to replace the many existing discussion sites — like Reddit-politics — which I believe already do a terrific job of debating this. My main aim instead was to have 1-page introductions to each argument for easy referencing. Note I also link to Wikipedia for many of these issues, another good way to have an instantly publicly-editable discussion of these issues.

        On a side-note, consider all of what’s on the site an eternal draft. Again, I closely watch feedback to amend.

        By the way, I’m from Germany. The reason I consider the US issues very important for rootstrike.com/1 and for the whole world is that a lot of the media/censorship/ copyright issues, we’re circling around laws, companies, and politics made in the US. I’m a webmaster in Germany, but 95% of my Cease & Desists come from the US. Rootstrike.com/2 and rootstrike.com/3 are less US-specific, but again, many of the root problems are also circling around US issues as soon as the internet is relevant to them.

    2. Exactly! the “root problems” in the US are quite distinct from those of the rest of the world.  In the US: education and an out of control corporatocracy; whereas outside it’s education and an out of control corporatocracy  ….oh, and population control and environmental concerns could really use a boost in both places.

      1. I thought about where overpopulation and pollution would belong. If you expand the question mark on the frontpage of the site, please notice they both get mentioned as fundamental problems — I even specifically mention overpopulation as one problem carrying further symptom problems, so we seem to agree on the importance of this.

        What I did think, however, is that the root problems mentioned as 1, 2 and 3 are focusing on setting up a system to debate and solve the other problems. In other words, once we have a working democracy, media and communication, we can debate these issues and implement solutions as we see fit. Right now, I would presume that even when a great solution was found to a fundamental problem — say, pollution — it might not get far with a root problem like US campaign funding being present. This is precisely what Lawrence Lessig discusses in his book, Republic, Lost (see the mention of pollution at rootstrike.com/1 ), which I can wholeheartedly recommend for a deeper discussion of the subject.

        By the way, I consider the site an eternal draft, so both the actual texts as well as the number of root problems may change. I consider it a starting point, certainly not something finalized. I depend on feedback like yours and will actively seek it.

    3. Well it is the one nation that still maintains a number of military bases in other nations…

      But still agree that it is a all too common myopia…

  1. The description of problems here is frustrating, because they really aren’t root problems.   They may in a sense be closer to the root than the problems we normally discuss, in the sense that if you could eliminate these problems, the problems we are discussing might become less.

    But the real problem that underlies the RootStrike problems is that the average person doesn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time thinking about the world’s problems, and hence is extraordinarily vulnerable to anyone who offers them a solution that they can believe in, or even a problem statement that allows them to believe that they at least know why things suck, and who to blame.

    Getting money out of electoral politics, fixing the media, and stopping online censorship are all things that can happen easily if enough people want it and actually make it a litmus test when voting.   But they can’t happen at all if people are all caught up in solipsistic fantasies about the world, and aren’t willing to pay attention to the world itself.  Right now people seem to make their voting decisions based not on the fundamental issues that are important to them, but rather based on ideological labeling.

    A movement that attempts to solve this problem, and in fact does solve it, will at the same time correct the RootStrike problems.   A movement that doesn’t systematically attack this problem will always be fighting a losing battle against the RootStrike problems, because in fact it’s not striking at the root.

    1. Brilliantly put. That is the biggest root-cause for the failure (or at least mediocre performance) of democracy.

    2. “But the real problem that underlies the RootStrike problems is that the average person doesn’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time thinking about the world’s problems, and hence is extraordinarily vulnerable to anyone who offers them a solution that they can believe in, or even a problem statement that allows them to believe that they at least know why things suck, and who to blame.”

      But isn’t that exactly why we need to solve rootstrike.com/2 — i.e., we need journalists to help us (rather objectively and unconflicted) make sense of the world? And if journalists fail on us and we can’t change mainstream media, then let it be citizen journalists and thinkers — at Blogger, Reddit, Boing Boing, Twitter etc. — to do the job.

      1.  Not only does our trad media fail us spectacularly, over and over again, but they also are working tirelessly to cripple the interwebs. And they have some very deep pockets helping with that little project.

        You want root causes? Money and religion.  Done.

      2. Unfortunately, no: this is putting the cart before the horse.   Who is the “we” who needs these journalists?   How will “we” get them to help us?   Let’s draw a cause and effect graph, starting with the effect you propose that we want: an informed electorate who can change things for the better.   Call this A.   B is “journalists change in such a way that they can help us.”   B causes A.   Okay, but what causes B?   The answer, of course, is that we need A—an informed electorate who can change things for the better.   So A->B->A.   This is circular.   There is no initiating actor here.

        Of course, this is an oversimplification.   Suppose C is a small subset of the electorate who is already well informed.   Perhaps C can be the cause of B, which can then be the cause of A.   This is a nice, virtuous cycle, and it sounds pretty good on paper.

        The problem is that the way we’re proposing to reform things is by getting people either to vote for politicians who will reform these systems, or by getting people to write to politicians already in office and give them a strong and (hopefully) accurate impression that they will lose the next election if they don’t do something.

        But how realistic is that?  I don’t think it’s realistic at all.   I don’t think any politician in today’s electoral environment has any real worry that they will lose an election because they fail to implement these reforms.   The reason is that C doesn’t currently exist, and so the electorate has no immune system to repel politicians who aren’t really working for their benefit.   A politician can safely pay lip service to the principles that A is pushing, while never actually taking any effective action to produce B, and hence C will never be produced either.

        As long as we put politicians in as intermediaries to do our bidding and make things better, I think it’s a losing battle.   This is not because politicians are bad people—I’m pretty pissed off at Pat Leahy for sponsoring PIPA, but he’s a pretty good guy.   But the people who speak to him most loudly are the legacy broadcast media.   Garbage in, garbage out.

        What I mean to say is not that we needn’t bother to try to change politicians, but that we need to achieve A before we can.   Any path to A that involves B isn’t going to work because of this.

        What I’m getting at is that we need to actually work on a grass-roots organizing movement that operates person to person and tries its damnedest not to get involved in divisive issues.   It needs to be a movement that values truth over short-term effectiveness, because propaganda is like a sugar rush—it gets people all riled up, but it doesn’t have any staying power, because all you need to fight it is more propaganda.

        1. “What I’m getting at is that we need to actually work on a grass-roots organizing movement that operates person to person and tries its damnedest not to get involved in divisive issues.”

          Sounds very interesting. Have you heard of the starting Humans Inc effort? I mention it in rootstrike.com/2 as it branches out into “what if mainstream media fails us”, which I think is part of what you’re saying. Humans Inc try to set up a problem solving online platform where people can submit and discuss problems, of global and local impact, and suggest solutions. There is no site yet, but there is a group of people involved for a while now in discussing this site’s creation.
          I’m currently compiling a list of root problems people identify outside of the 3 problems the site mentioned. I would be interested if you could help me by wrapping up the issue you mention and which you’re getting at (or would you say it’s not a root problem, but should be called something else?). Also, I’m curious about more details in regards to your sketched solution of a person to person network.

          On another note, I agree with the circular nature of some of the root problems.

          “Who is the “we” who needs these journalists?   How will “we” get them to help us? ”

          Just to add, I think “we” ourselves can become these journalists — this is the citizens media the Dan Gillmor quotes refer to in rootstrike 2.

  2. Overpopulation. Since war is terribly destructive, and most people wouldn’t voluntarily want to have fewer children, an epidemic of massive proportions would be messy but at least wouldn’t discriminate.

    1. War never really puts a significant dent in population anyhow. Microbiologists take pride in the fact that the Black Death is the only thing you can see hurt the population in a graph. That being said, even a similarly virulent disease wouldn’t be as deadly today just because even in the absence of cures we understand the need for quarantines and the like.

    2. That is just so… old… a solution, I heard enough of it growing up from this guy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pentti_Linkola

      Yes it discriminates. It discriminates between the have and have nots… the ones that have access to health care and the ones that haven’t.

      The solution to overpopulation is education, and especially education of girls/women. And better health care and nutrition, and a social safety net for people in old age so you don’t have to rely on having a bunch of kids so at least one of them will be there to take care of you when you are old.

      1.  I was wondering whether to include education as a root problem (as we base so many of our later life decisions on it, including who to vote for, how to get politically active, where to get active in society, how to read media etc.). For now, I figured that making sure we can pass proper laws to enable better education might be the real root problem. Lawrence Lessig specifically mentions this in his book in regards to rootstrike.com/1 , “Republic, Lost”. But education is definitelu a fundamental problem with quite a large share of symptom problems, so we agree on this.

    3. Yes, I mention overpopulation as a fundamental problem when you expand the question mark on the frontpage of the site, as I also consider it to be a root for other problems. To explain, the reason why I didn’t — yet — include it in the main root problems section is that I believe that if we have a working democratic system for debating issues and implementing them, then we could take action in controlling overpopulation where we find it to be a problem. Right now, it would seem that too many conflicting interests caused by other problems — like rootstrike.com/1 — would get in the way *even provided we had a solution for the problem you mention*.

      Please note the site is an ongoing draft and I’m closely reading through comments like yours to amend it (and already amended parts after feedback today). Thanks!

    4.  And that’s why birth rates in first world nations are falling below replacement levels, because selfish greedy couples are only having 1 kid, or less.

      People that talk about ‘overpopulation’ frost me because they generally come in 2 flavors.

      The first is the “There are too many * people on the planet” school, where * is an unspoken ‘brown’, ‘black’ or ‘yellow’.  They don’t want to admit to this, sometimes not even to themselves.  Which leads to a certain cognitive dissonance when they want to talk about overpopulation and pollution, but not when it involves 2 of the biggest elephants in that room, the rapidly industrializing China and India.

      The second, more common school, is simple elite smugness.  You ask an overpopulation shill which of their own 2+ kids they’d euthanize, and they’ll gladly tell you that they are exempt.  They’re the Chosen, see?  They know the Truth, and will be raising their heirs to be righteous and noble stewards of Mother Earth.  That’s also the reason they’ll still get to fly around in jets and enjoy the other wonders of technology, while the rest of us dirty peasants are expected to be happy with tar-paper shacks.

      From the divine rights of kings and feudal lords to the self-anointed high priests of Gaia.  Truly, it makes one misty-eyed at how much sin and decadence they are willing to shoulder on our behalf, to spare us from eternal damnation, and to save us from ourselves.

      1. And then there’s the third kind, who actually don’t want to have kids, and think that the overpopulation problem is actually worsened by high resource usage peoples.

        That is, my ideal cure for overpopulation would be nuclear war, with the targets being US population centers, and I’m not contributing to the problem, by being childfree.

        1. I’m sure you’d like the War on Terrorism to get worse.   That’s what this particular deus ex machina will bring, along with shortened lifespans, lots of people who are relentlessly crazy from grief, and much, much higher taxes to pay for all the war machines that will get bought.   Be careful what you wish for.

    5. most people wouldn’t voluntarily want to have fewer children

      You must not know many people.

      1. Ahaha. I should have worded my original post differently.  “Most people wouldn’t voluntarily want to forego having children”, perhaps, but that would rule out couples who only want one child. When I made my post, I wasn’t thinking of over-burdened parents trying to get a gaggle of misbehaving toddlers to behave; I was thinking of religious or cultural groups that believe having large numbers of children is the way to go. Very difficult to change that mindset.

        1. I just know a lot of women who had one and were quite, quite determined not to have another.

          Husband: What shall we call her?
          Wife: How about Itoremommyslabia?

    1. The Singularity, if it comes, will eat us.   Why are people always so eager to call Cthulhu out from the deep?   If you want the world to be a better place, you have to get involved in making it a better place and stop waiting for some deus ex machina to come to the rescue.

    2. ah yes, lets just sit and twiddle our thumbs waiting for science to save us and let us continue our unsustainable consumption habits

  3. This is all _awfully_ subjective, though, isn’t it? One person’s root problem isn’t necessarily another’s.

    1. I’m currently compiling a list of root problems others identify, as certainly I don’t consider the site to be all-encompassing and all-knowing. So all feedback is appreciated. Many problems however that we have in our everyday lifes can be traced back to other root problems, so it helps if we understand some of the roots here. For instance, you may be dissatisfied at the pollution you can see in your local community, but perhaps you could very effectively work against it if only politicians would listen to people, not campaign funders?

    2. no not at all, food insecurity for example is a root problem, especially for the third world. That’s pretty fundamental.

  4. Problems — like the corrupting system of US campaign funding..


    I know that what people would consider a “root” problem varies widely, buy in my view this isn’t even in the ballpark.

    If you’re talking about what’s wrong with the US democratic process, I would think the things that make people susceptible to the things that this funding buys — i.e., campaign ads — is a lot more “root.” After all, a trillion dollars of dirty money wouldn’t have the slightest effect if people could see and understand those ads for what they are.

    But I guess it’s easier to point to funding methodologies than take a deep look at what makes them effective in swaying the opinions of the electorate.

  5.  It is often said the money is the root of all evil.  I tend to disagree, as I think mankind is fatally flawed.  But the subject of money needs more discussion … .

    An ecological catastrophe, the depletion of natural resources, social disintegration and a breakdown of the financial system are at the verge of creating a humanitarian crisis of unseen proportions. The main underlying cause of those developments is interest on money, often called usury.

    SEE  http://www.naturalmoney.org/index.html

    1. Thanks for this pointer, I added it to 

      But what would you say is the solution, and in relation, what is the underlying root problem of why humanity hasn’t fixed this then using this solution? Do you think the solution is not dependent on, say, rootstrike.com/1?

    2. Hi Tom,

      The adage originally went: “the love of money is the root of all evil” which is quite a different thing. I think it’s interesting that the old phrase has been changed like this, possibly unconsciously, and now means something quite different. 

      As for the root problems, here’s my (completely unhelpful) take: The human race is still very young. We haven’t even managed, yet, to see all the other humans as cousins, probably because we are so few generations distant from our expansions out of Africa, which required us to see each other as potential threats.

      We just need to grow up. We might not get there, but, for the time being, blundering from one crisis to the next, and shouting “it’s not fair!” (in a typically teenage manner) is all we can do.

      It’s just not fair.

  6. Perhaps we should set up a site to solve the root problems behind Mr Lenssen’s root problems. 

    Personally I’ve always thought that a great number of the world’s problems come from a tendancy to see everything in terms of polar logic.  “You’re either with us or against us”;  “Either I’m right or he is”; “Either I love Mary or I love Jane”; …

    IMO the only cases in which polar logic is at all applicable are artificial ones, and even then you need to take the idea with a pinch of salt.  A switch can either be off or on, right?  …well, unless it’s broken…

    1. What kind of site would you suggest?

      I’m briefly mentioning an effort that’s underway called Humans Inc (project name) which, when implemented, aims to be a platform to post global and local problems and solutions (though as I understand it, not just root problems).

      In each of the sections, I’m also pointing to some sites which might help the goal of solving these root problems.

      Perhaps one could also maintain a rootstrike Reddit group dealing only with relevant “deeper cause” issues.

      1. I just noticed a bunch of your comments in the spam bin. If your comments seem to be disappearing en masse, you can e-mail me at my name at this domain to check. If you put the same comment through several times, it only confirms the filter’s impression that you’re a spammer.

        1. Thanks Antinous, will keep that in mind. It was tough for me to reply here because my comments kept disappearing :) Anything I can do to prevent the original comment from being flagged as spam? I suppose not listing a URL might help?

          1. If a comment has the same domain name (or close thereto) more than once, that seems to be the kiss of death. More than one comment from a user with the same domain name would also be a trigger.

      2. Well, I was being snarky to be honest.

        Most of the world’s problems come down to “human nature” or “power vaccum”, IMO — the polar logic thing coming under the first heading.  Not sure what we can do about human nature!

        As for power vaccuums, and the idiots that fill them, we’ve been working on that problem for how long now?  The workable solutions don’t seem to be acceptable.  The closest thing we have to a new solution is called Occupy, as someone else here said.  And I think it’s still a work in progress…

  7. Considering supposed root problem #3: ”
    3. Online Censorship Through Blocking and Overly Restrictive Copyright:”, it’s depressing to find out about this project via a site that routinely censors reader comments for reasonably criticising the site and its writers. 

  8. For god’s sake, let’s stop getting so meta. We already did this “what are all the problems” thing, it was called Occupy. We figured it out. Now is the time for focused, specific action that looks boring to hipsters who want to solve the world’s problems at a stroke.

    Seriously, what kind of giant-ego Neo-wannabe do you have to be to try to “solve the  world’s problems?” Just do some good and make some noise.

    1. Rootstrike was aimed as a simple tool to reference root problems, as I found myself needing this quite a bit recently in online discussions.  Rootstrike 1 is about campaign financing laws, and Lawrence Lessig in his book “Republic, Lost” (the inspiration for rootstrike 1, and the site at large) offers a way forward to solutions, partly quoted on the site — not meta, but action. I’m not from the US so I’m probably not the right person for local action there, though many US policies will affect me as webmaker, and I participate in the online discussion.

      Now, “Just do some good” is great, but to quote Henry David Thoreau as RootStrikers dot org do, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” I feel like ACTA, SOPA, financial crisis etc. will keep coming back to us (if under different names) unless something more fundamental is fixed. I don’t see it as a one-dimensional “either Occupy OR rootstrike OR …” issue, by the way — I am very happy if someone active in Occupy, or any other movement, finds the site helpful as argument link reference. If not, no harm is done.

      Now, I’m curious if you might want to give the book Republic, Lost, a try, and to then hear your thoughts on this. I find Lessig’s argument highly interesting.To add, as mentioned elsewhere, the site is a draft, so it’s by no means final or perfect.

  9. Eat us? Assimilate us? Attempting my best Agent Smith intonation: “…it’s the sound of inevitability…”

    At least those overlords offered their livestock a pleasant dream of a blissful reality–even if it was rejected for the more dystopian (read: accurate and realistically human) Matrix. Far more humane to their subjects than humans have ever been to ours.

    I’m not too attached to the idea of human (or any) biology having to be a prerequisite for an advanced intelligence. I think that life, at least as humans have come to define it, will increasingly become a maladaptive vestige, and a new epoch is emerging. In that sense, I agree with Robert. It can’t come soon enough.

    Biological evolution on Earth once relied upon random mutation to bring variation to the clone-pool. Then natural selection (sex and death and uniquity) for a quicker and more consciously guided approach. Then artificial selection, genomics, and so on.

    The trend is likely to continue, but none of the above has superseded its predecessor(s). In that sense, humans might coexist with ‘higher’ life forms and not fully recognize it. For example, societies could be considered an organism taking advantage of resources just as any opportunistic lifeform has always done. I suppose you’re right in that they can, and often do, eat us ;)

    Eventually, I suspect life on Earth will be as adept at adaptation as a cuttle fish would be in blending with its environment. Nearly instant, and without needing conscious thought. The nanotech coursing through its bloodstream would sense (and with great accuracy, predict) environmental conditions and make any necessary adjustments. Instant adaptation. Just another phase of evolution on this planet.

    After that? No need for a physical receptacle at all I’d imagine. Matter, and any associated maintenance, transportation, etc., would be inefficient and quite an impediment.

    No gender, mortality, fear or desire, and eventually, no mass–at least in any form it would be dependent on. Essentially, it would have no limitations in its abilities to gather information, store it, access it, and process it in an exponential curve toward omniscience, and likely, omnipotence. Maybe a Type V entity on some extended Kardashev scale? In a word: transcendence.

    I could see how this wouldn’t appeal to humans, as individuality is so highly (though it would seem, superficially) valued. But this Singularity, at least as I can imagine it, would be the ultimate realization of oneness. The Cosmos fully awake and self aware. An individual if ever there was one.

  10. I believe the author has confused root causes with bottlenecks.  Everything he names is about improving mechanisms for solving problems rather than the actual problems that are really problems. A biggie I would call a fundamental problem is the issue of cheap, sufficient sustainable energy. Solving that would solve water, waste management, and possibly food. It would make a big difference on many extractable resources by making recycling economical. 

    1. Let me add your angle to the more page at roostrike for now.

      I guess we basically agree, except for choice of words then. To me, a bottleneck is something unintentional that merely slows down the solving of a task. The mechanisms of media bias, censorship and corrupting campaign funding, however, are very actively and intentionally trying to go in a different direction altogether. Differently put, they’re trying to subvert the system to solve an *entirely different* task — often the task of getting a few rich at the cost of society at large.

  11. I suggest he study systems dynamics, to understand why the very concept of “root problems” is the wrong way to look at things. Maybe start with Rittel and Weber’s essay on Wicked problems: 
    Then perhaps read stuff by Donella Meadows:
    If you really want a general concept on which to hang everything else, you might want to start with “resilience” – a property that’s sadly lacking in most of our social and ecological systems right now:

    Or, putting it all together, you can apply systems thinking to identify what kinds of change are most likely to be effective:

    1. Very interesting links, thanks. Will add to rootstrike – more for now.

      By the way, a lot of what’s at planet3.org seems to specifically address are *meaningful solutions* to a problem like climate. However, the argument in Lessig’s book “Republic, Lost”, which is the basis for rootstrike 1, is very specific in saying that *good and meaningful solutions to problems do not get implemented*… because the campaign funding laws corrupt the system to benefit a whole other task (getting a few rich, not changing climate for the better).

  12.  I guess you can do this at different levels of abstraction. On a really abstract level I’d say that human lack of long-term rationality is the biggest root problem. On a more practical level I’d say that alcohol is the biggest root problem, at least in the western world. Worldwide alcohol probably causes about 2,5 million deaths yearly, which is more than all violence combined (much of which involves alcohol). Health issues from alcohol use up medical resources and strain the economy. Millions of children live with insecurity and the risk of abuse in their homes, because of parents who are heavy drinkers. In many cases the child is hurt by alcohol already in the womb.

    And what response does the society give to this problem? It puts all the guilt and responsibility for change on alcoholists and risk users! It expects the people who are least likely to be able to abstain to do just that, so the rest can just go on with things as usual. That’s a terrible strategy. In order to rid ourselves of this root problem, we have to address it on a cultural level. The part of the population that doesn’t have any alcohol problems should be the first to stop drinking, making it easier for the other part, and stop introducing new generations to this destructive habit.

    Lack of long-term rationality make people unable or unwilling to draw that conclusion, however.

    1. are you saying that i should forgo the pleasure and health benefits of my wine ?
      to set an example to undisciplined people ?
      mate, are you bat crazy ?
      life, lived irresponsably, kills.

  13. are we, like chickens, hard wired for pecking order ?
    is it fear that drives this ?
    our knowledge of the cruelty inflicted on the weak ?
    that we would rather not be subjected to ?
    is this what gives status its importance ?

  14. I have a theory that people endlessly discussing problems like politics, the environment etc etc etc on line actually prevents people getting off their backsides and actually doing something about it.

    Change may or may not come through the barrel of a gun but it sure doesn’t come through a keyboard.

    1. i think you underestimate the power of the keyboard.
      see recent backdown on a number of “copyright” laws.
      see recent online petitions.and their efficacy.
      occupy made great use of the keyboards of many.
      perhaps not as dramatic as confronting armed police, but…….

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