There is an expression we might hear or use when we try to solve a problem or challenge. What is the “way out?”

The Way Out

The way out of this mess

The way out of this maze

The way out of this traffic

The way out of this relationship

The way out of this argument

The way out of this life


Is looking for a ‘way out’ of a challenge or problem a salvation? I wonder if the belief that problems can always be solved using analytical or logical thinking is reasonable? Can we find a ‘way out’ if we think hard or long enough? I believe there are problems that are not resolved using logical, linear or analytical thinking. Sometimes problems or challenges require a nonlinear way of working.

Faced with a challenge like climate change, we tend to expect science, engineering, and technology to solve this complex challenge? Put analysis, logic, and the scientific method to work and a solution will materialize. Is that true? In 2010, we put scientific and technological tools to bear on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the largest environmental disasters in American history, but were unsuccessful in resolving this complex problem. The well is still leaking oil and fisheries have been negatively impacted. Authors of one article write:

However, at the assumed level of oil concentrations and toxicity, impacts on fish mortality and growth rates were large and commensurate with observations. Sensitivity analysis suggests the biomass of large reef fish decreased by 25% to 50% in areas most affected by the spill, and biomass of large demersal fish decreased even more, by 40% to 70%. (Click here)

Other studies lead to the same conclusion. In this paper, the long-term impact of the oil spill on deep sea coral colonies is still being seen seven years after the event.

All the science, engineering, technology, and analytical thinking we put to the task did not solve this complex problem. It is still with us and with the people of Louisiana. This article in the Guardian points to the challenges left behind for the people of Louisiana.

In order for this challenge to have been resolved for the long term, all parties who had a hand in the oil spill needed to form a relationship or partnership with Louisiana, as well as other states impacted by the spill. The problem-solving approach required a whole new way of thinking. Using systems thinking and the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem as the partner, a framework needed to emerge that was human-centered. The vast interconnectedness within the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem needed to be understood and engaged in a human-centered way. Long term relationship building would have to have been a cornerstone of the process. In 2013, three years after the oil spill, BP declared the cleanup was complete. However, the excerpt from the following CBS article reveals that not everyone agreed.

Three years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP announced Monday that the U.S. Coast Guard is ending its clean-up effort along the shorelines of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and transitioning the area back to the National Response Center. 

Yet not everyone is convinced the clean-up is near completion. “I don’t think BP should be relieved of saying clean-up is over anywhere until there’s a lengthy period of time where there is no oil and we haven’t seen that yet,” said Billy Nungesser, president of the Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana, to CBSNews.com. (Click here)

The morale of this story is that there is ‘no way out,’ especially if we only apply analytical and logical thinking to solving complex problems. We continue getting ourselves into these environmental disasters. (See the list of environmental disasters)

The only ‘way out’ is if we apply a creative, human-centered approach to a problem by building relationships, seeing and understanding complexity, using a systems-thinking approach, and being open to staying invested for the long term. Our scientific, engineering and technological approach to problem solving is authoritarian and impersonal for the most part. Just read through the list of environmental disasters that keep happening. We don’t learn from our failures and experiences. The time has come for a new way of working if we intend to save the planet from our worst selves.

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