Superficial Solution

Also known as symptomatic solutions, a superficial solution attempts to solve an intermediate cause rather than a root cause. It's called superficial because it works on the superficial layer of the problem, as shown in the Problem Solving Map. Superficial solutions don't work because they do not resolve root causes.

Problem Solving Map

The Superficial Solutions Trap

Superficial solutions to difficult problems are common because the superficial layer is easy to see compared to the fundamental layer, which is very difficult to see correctly. This is known as the Superficial Solutions Trap.

The trap occurs when problem solvers unknowingly assume intermediate causes are root causes, and then develop solutions based on that (false) assumption. This leads to solutions directed toward intermediate rather than root causes. Superficial solutions can never resolve root causes, because root cause forces exert a greater force on intermediate causes than superficial solution ever can, no matter how well funded, managed, or promoted. This may come as a considerable surprise to those who suddenly realize they have been caught, like a helpless struggling mouse, in the Superficial Solutions Trap.

Due to reliance on Classic Activism, the environmental movement has been falling into the trap and promoting superficial solutions ever since they started working on the sustainability problem. Classic Activism has no concept of root causes. Its practitioners are thus unable to tell intermediate causes from root causes. This causes them to be unable to tell superficial solutions from fundamental solutions. Since superficial solutions are several orders of magnitude easier to find, they are the norm.

Superficial solutions are also called symptomatic solutions because try to solve the problem by treating the symptoms. They fail because that's like treating a patient's fever by plunging him into a bath of cold water. That won't work and may kill the patient. Much better and more sane is to perform a diganosis, also known as finding the root causes.

Implications for the future

The sad result of an endless stream of superficial solutions, as the third edition of The Limits to Growth phrased it in 2004, is:

[The second edition of The Limits to Growth] was published in 1992, the year of the global summit on environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. The advent of the summit seemed to prove that global society had decided to deal seriously with the important environmental problems. But we now know that humanity failed to achieve the goals of Rio. The Rio plus 10 conference in Johannesburg in 2002 produced even less; it was almost paralyzed by a variety of ideological and economic disputes, [due to] the efforts of those pursuing their narrow national, corporate, or individual self-interests.

…humanity has largely squandered the past 30 years…

I come back to this quote often because it says so much.

First it says we have failed to solve the problem. That's because environmentalists have been promoting superficial instead of fundamental solutions.

It also says the reason is "it was almost paralyzed by...." That's a strong clue about why solution failure occurred. But are environmentalists following that clue up? Are they relentlessly analyzing the underlying change resistance that's causing such paralyzed decision making?

No. The environmentalists attending Rio 2012 are preparing to do exactly the same thing they did at Rio 1992 and Johannesburg 2002. They will be proposing more superficial solutions. (These meetings are also called World Summits.)

For example, Rio 2012 says this on its Context page:

Discussion and debate regarding reform of International Environmental Governance in the context of Global Governance for Sustainable Development has been ongoing. Over the past decade and since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, little progress has been made in relation to the required institutional architecture that would propel global environmental and sustainable development issues into the 21st century. Whilst the World Summit on Sustainable Development heralded a new era of action-orientated 'partnerships' for sustainable development, it is recognized that despite the considerable success of some of these partnership programmes, they have not delivered the systemic change needed in global governance to deliver sustainable development.

It is therefore hoped that the focus on 'the institutional architecture for sustainable development' for Rio+20 presents an unprecedented opportunity to spur progress towards a more effective global system for delivering sustainable development objectives.

There is no trace of real analysis here or in supporting pages and documents. This is the intuitive problem solving of Classic Activism.

At least the summit planners have admitted past solutions have failed. They're doing that to inspire attendees to do better this time, as they tried last time in 2002. Note however they have not identified the failure type. It's successful change resistance. That's why past solutions "have not delivered the systemic change needed."

The new proposed solution is to "focus on the institutional architecture for sustainable development." That's a superficial solution because institutional architecture is not a root cause. It's a solution management mechanism. The solution itself, sustainable development, has not been changed at all. Thus the Rio 2010 planners are telling us that the reason past solutions failed is poor solution management. This is clearly false, once you've analyzed the problem. The reason past solutions failed is successful change resistance.

It's thus safe to predict that Rio 2010 will produce nothing but more superficial solutions.

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The Alternative

The alternative to superficial solutions is fundamental solutions. See this glossary entry for a list of popular solutions. They are all superficial solutions.