Setting Our Priorities

April 17, 2012

By Matt Palmer

A well-managed life hinges on setting priorities and finding balance points, and the same is true with well-run societies. Yet, the fervour of the moment, the hype of the media machine dominated by sound bites, often results in rushing into implementing programs or systems  to solve problems, and then not getting the desired outcomes. Could the lack of desired results have to do with how we prioritize the problems?

I’ve written a few times about Bjorn Lomborg, someone whom I admire, although do not always agree with. What I like about Mr Lomborg’s approach is his mission to adapt common sense thinking to solving some of the biggest issues facing humanity. His recent article, “The Problem of Priorities”, about the upcoming 2012 Copenhagen Consensus outlines a methodology of how to deal with big issues, that has the potential to elicit real solutions, by figuring out which problems to prioritize, and setting an action plan accordingly.

Since 2008, the global economic crisis has made it even more necessary to ensure that development and aid spending is used wisely, where it can make the biggest difference. The Copenhagen Consensus project carries out the difficult task of comparing one set of initiatives with another by using fundamental economic tools and principles.

First, teams of world-renowned expert economists write research papers on the costs and benefits of a range of investments that address specific challenges. Debate and discussion is encouraged by ensuring that three papers are written for each topic, so that a range of expert opinions is available.

This provides a framework with which we can see the full price tag, incorporating all of the costs, benefits, and spin-offs to society from using a limited amount of money in a particular way.

In 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus focused attention on micronutrient deficiencies. Now here is an interesting thing to consider – we might think this is a Third World problem, but research shows it is a global problem due a lot of factors like modern farming techniques, soil erosion, and a diet that primarily consists of processed foods. The food we eat today, does not contain the same amount of micronutrients as it did thirty years ago.

In my own experience, since shifting to a mostly organic, non-processed food diet, I don’t get hungry between meals, and I don’t eat as much. I have heard the argument that shifting the global food system back to organic methods would result in food shortages, but while I do not have evidence to back this up, if we consider that an organic diet would mean people don’t need to eat as much food to provide what they need, and if we considerably reduced the amount of food that gets wasted every year, we probably do have more than enough food to feed the world. The quality of food we eat is critical, and a diet lower in sugar and processed foods, and higher in nutrient rich real foods, would solve a lot of global health issues, resulting in many other positive impacts.

Combine a better food system with increased access to education, particularly in the developing world, and we would begin to see reduction in poverty, reduction in population growth, increase in the standard of living of all people, and with access to modern efficient energy systems, a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

So how do we start to set priorities and then attempt to design solutions to complex problems? As Mr Lomborg suggests “are the most prominent problems necessarily the ones we should address immediately?” This is a question that needs to be asked more often, and taking a systems thinking approach can help to identify the problems that should be tackled first.

I would welcome some honest open discussion and feedback on these ideas. I would also welcome guest blog submissions.


About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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