A Set of Hard Problems

The theory of computation studies a class of problems called ‘NP Complete.’ These are problems that are considered computationally hard in the sense that all known algorithms to solve them require a non-deterministic Turing machine polynomial orders of time. The traveling salesman problem is a classic example of this set. They all share one characteristic – indeed it is the test of membership in the class – that they are all isomorphic. An algorithm that solves any of the problems would therefore solve all of NP Complete problems.

The problems that humanity faces collectively at the global level, constitute a similar set and there are some interesting parallels and differences between the two sets. The set of global problems includes at the very least the problem of environmental degradation, the economic system and the population problem. All of these basic problems are in a sense isomorphic and any solution advanced to solve any one would also automatically address the others. However, the difference between the computational problem set and the global problem set is that whereas you can address the traveling salesman problem in isolation without regard to the assignment problem, you really cannot attempt to solve any of the basic global problems in isolation.

The reason for this is the basic fact that all global systems are interconnected in the present age. The economic system is part of the socio-political system which is tied to the population which exists in the ecological system and so on. No man, nation, system, organization or institution, is an island. The consequences of this fact are sobering. Firstly, it is futile to attempt to try to solve just one of them while disregarding the others — there is considerable evidence to attest to that. Secondly, any solution advanced has to meet the requirement that it must not leave any losers in the deal; the solution has to create a win-win situation. To borrow from a biology lesson, every evolutionary stable strategy is win-win: the win-lose strategy is not sustainable – both predator and prey disappear for good.

To go back to the computational analogy for a bit. To solve computational problems for any real-world situation where the size of the input would rule out computing exact solutions due to the fact that such a solution would require more time than the age of the universe, heuristics are used which provide approximate solutions which can be arrived at in a reasonable time. In a similar sense, to address the seemingly intractable global problems, we need to apply heuristic methods which limit the search for a solution.


Consequently, there must be a set of axioms that can be used as boundaries to limit the search for sustainable solutions to the global problems. In my opinion, as a first cut, I present the following:

0. It is all interconnected.
1. Nothing inequitable is sustainable.
2. The solution must be win-win for all concerned parties.
3. The solution cannot incorporate a growth in the physical throughput of the system.
4. Competition for scarce resources must be replaced by cooperative use of the resources.
5. There are real limits to basic resources – land, energy and water – currently available to humanity.
6. Growth centered development is inherently unsustainable.
7. The attempted solution must be appropriate to the nature of the problem.

The 6th axiom is to make explicit that there is a distinction between growth and development. Growth is natural and healthy at specific stages of a system and has to stop when the system reaches an optimal size. Development of a system, however, need not stop if it is defined as the expansion of the potential of the system and does not necessarily imply growth.

The last heuristic is meant to guard against the common folly implicit in the dictum that to a man with a hammer, everything appears to be a nail. No point in trying to attempt an administrative fix to a sociological problem. Or a technological fix to a ethical problem. Or a political fix to a technical problem.

The global interacting system can be understood broadly as the environment, the economy, and the population. Every global problem has a component which affects and is in turn affected by each of these three subsystems. Take, for example, the fact that economic factors have shaped environmental trends and in turn affected populations. Demand for resources has escalated pushed by the engine of population growth and led to the unsustainable exploitation of resources. Deforestation is a direct consequence of population pressures which is partly responsible for the 24 billion tons of topsoil lost every year. The earth’s carrying capacity has been sorely tested and it is evident that the ecological space that humanity has in a sustainable ecosystem is nearly, if not already, full.

However, there are economists like Julian Simon who would argue that global resource scarcity is not a serious problem on the grounds that prices of resources relative to wages would tend to decline over time. This view cannot be maintained if one posits the finiteness of resources available at any given time. It becomes even more untenable if one were to consider the loss of resources which are non -substitutable like biological diversity. No amount of money can replace the value lost in the extinction of species.


An attitude to life which seeks fulfillment in the single-minded pursuit of wealth –in short, materialism– does not fit into this world, because it contains within itself no limiting principle, while the environment in which it is placed is strictly limited.
E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful


Economist Thomas Schelling defined the ethics of policy ‘as what we try to bring to bear on those issues in which we do not have a personal stake.’ It can be convincingly argued that there are no issues in which we do not have a personal stake. Every action in an interdependent global system has far-reaching consequences. My desire for cheap hamburgers could translate however indirectly to rainforest destruction.

One has to grapple with the notion of social obligations and what we owe to the poor and the disadvantaged who have legitimate claim to the resources that are required for a decent human existence.


Over the basic subsystem of population, environment and resources, is the supersystem of another triad: the political system, economy, and the technological system. The political system, according to Lester Milbrath of Univ of NY Buffalo, is that its central focus is on power and domination. He writes: “Our civilization is a dominator civilization; that means it is oriented toward allowing some people to subjugate others. We no longer condone outright slavery, but the many forces of domination have the effect of bending the will of weak creatures to serve the desires of the powerful. Power is ingrained in our thinking that most humans believe they have a right, even an obligation, to dominate nature.”

The question of sustainable human activity is a very complex problem which needs to be examined very carefully. The temptation to assign blame should be firmly resisted for it will only be a useless exercise which can only hinder consensus building which is the only way to creating a solution acceptable to all.


Natural ecosystems are models of sustainability and it would be pleasantly ironical that we could learn from a system that we would otherwise in our ignorance destroy. Wider identification with the diversity of life on earth can mitigate against technological hubris implicit in the faith that human technological ingenuity is sufficient to solve all problems.

Natural ecosystems characteristically:

  1. Avoid pollution and resource depletion by recycling.
  2. Use a renewable source of energy.
  3. Maintain stable populations.
  4. Maintain biodiversity.

It is important to note that all the above desired characteristics correlate positively. The study of natural ecosystems corresponds to studying healthy systems. The study of ecosystems disrupted by human activity would constitute the pathological side of investigation. Both the study of health and pathology would contribute to the formulation of a computer simulation model. This model can be used to study the evolution of the system under varying circumstances and predictions made which can guide policy.

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