Grand challenges

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Although technology has progressed rapidly, progress improving overall well-being has been slow. The grand challenges described here represent not only the greatest, most pervasive and persistent problems facing humanity but also the most promising opportunities. These grand challenges represent the greatest obstacles to attaining universal well-being. Let's go to work on them.

Only forty-six percent of people in Africa have safe drinking water.
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The objectives of this course are to:

  • Identify the greatest problems now facing humanity,
  • Describe the extent and human costs of those problems,
  • Begin to identify causes and conditions contributing to these problems,
  • Begin to understand why these problems remain persistent,
  • Suggest approaches to solving these problems, especially by adopting a Global Perspective.
  • Describe the great opportunities we have for increasing well-being and creating the future.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom Curriculum.

The list of wise affirmations on the topic of grand challenges may help you develop habits based on the ideas in this course.

Mountains of Problems:

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A problem is a gap between a perceived state and the desired state. Huge gaps between what is and what could be are apparent throughout large populations in the areas described below. Graphics representing related UN Sustainable Development Goals are shown on the right.

Individual Well-Being

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Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being

Physical Health

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  • Inadequate access to safe drinking waterWaterborne diseases and the absence of sanitary domestic water are one of the leading causes of death worldwide. For children under age five, waterborne diseases are the leading cause of death. At any given time, half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from waterborne diseases.[1] According to the World Bank, 88 percent of all waterborne diseases are caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene.[2] (see Wikiversity:Water)
  • Inadequate sanitation — The World Health Organization states that: "Sanitation generally refers to the provision of facilities and services for the safe disposal of human urine and feces. Inadequate sanitation is a major cause of disease world-wide and improving sanitation is known to have a significant beneficial impact on health both in households and across communities."
  • Malnutrition — Malnutrition is the condition that results from an unbalanced diet in which certain nutrients are lacking, in excess, or in the wrong proportions. The World Health Organization cites malnutrition as the gravest single threat to the world's public health.
    According to Jean Ziegler (the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2000–2008), mortality due to malnutrition accounted for 58% of the total mortality in 2006: "In the world, approximately 62 million people, all causes of death combined, die each year. One in twelve people worldwide is malnourished. In 2006, more than 36 million died of hunger or diseases due to deficiencies in micronutrients".
According to the World Health Organization, malnutrition is by far the biggest contributor to child mortality, present in half of all cases. Underweight births and inter-uterine growth restrictions cause 2.2 million child deaths a year. Poor or non-existent breastfeeding causes another 1.4 million. Other deficiencies, such as lack of vitamin A or zinc, for example, account for 1 million. Malnutrition in the first two years is irreversible. Malnourished children grow up with worse health and lower educational achievements. Their own children also tend to be smaller. Malnutrition was previously seen as something that exacerbates the problems of diseases such as measles, pneumonia and diarrhea. But malnutrition actually causes diseases as well, and can be fatal in its own right.
  • Obesity— Obesity is a medical condition in which excess body fat has accumulated to the extent that it may have an adverse effect on health, leading to reduced life expectancy and/or increased health problems. Obesity is a leading preventable cause of death worldwide, with increasing prevalence in adults and children, and authorities view it as one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century. Obesity is stigmatized in much of the modern world (particularly in the Western world), though it was widely perceived as a symbol of wealth and fertility at other times in history, and still is in some parts of the world
  • Disease is an abnormal condition that affects the body of an organism. In 2004, the World Health Organization calculated that 932 million years of potential life were lost to premature death.
    • This list of causes of death by rate identifies the most deadly diseases, worldwide.
    • Emerging infectious diseases (EID) are infectious diseases whose incidence has increased in the past 20 years and threatens to increase in the near future. Emerging infections account for at least 12% of all human pathogen.
    • Zoonotic diseases are infectious disease caused by a pathogen (an infectious agent, such as a bacterium, virus, parasite or prion) that has jumped from a non-human animal (usually a vertebrate) to a human.
  • Substance abuse
  • Suboptimal Physical Fitness. Physical fitness is considered a measure of the body’s ability to function efficiently and effectively in work and leisure activities, to be healthy, to resist hypokinetic diseases, and to meet emergency situations.
  • Aging and senescence
  • Access to adequate health care services.

Mental Health

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Mental health describes a level of psychological well-being, or an absence of a mental disorder. Mental disorders are psychological patterns or anomalies, potentially reflected in behavior, that is generally associated with distress or disability, and which is not considered part of normal development in a person's culture. Mental disorders are generally defined by a combination of how a person feels, acts, thinks or perceives.

A young woman facing severe distresses.
  • Depression — Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person's thoughts, behavior, feelings and physical well-being. It may include feelings of sadness, anxiety, emptiness, hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, irritability, or restlessness. Depressed people may lose interest in activities that once were pleasurable, experience difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions, and may contemplate or attempt suicide. Insomnia, excessive sleeping, fatigue, loss of energy, or aches, pains or digestive problems that are resistant to treatment may be present. A recent survey of depression in the United States found that 9.0% met the criteria for current depression, including 3.4% who met the criteria for major depression.
  • Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period over which an individual perceives he or she has no control. It involves an endocrine system response in which occurs a release of corticosteroids. If this continues for a long time, it can cause damage to an individual's physical and mental health.
  • Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Pressures or misfortunes such as financial difficulties or troubles with interpersonal relationships often play a significant role. Over one million people die by suicide every year. It is a leading cause of death among teenagers and adults under 35.
  • Addictions including addictions to drugs, alcohol and other substances, and destructive behaviors.
  • Access to adequate mental health services.

Economic and Social Opportunity

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Sustainable Development Goal 1: No Poverty
Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduce Inequalities
Sustainable Development Goal 4: Quality Education
Sustainable Development Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
Sustainable Development Goal 15: Life on Land
  • Poverty — Poverty is the lack of basic human needs, such as clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter, because of the inability to afford them. This is also referred to as absolute poverty or destitution. Relative poverty is the condition of having fewer resources or less income than others within a society or country, or compared to worldwide averages. About 1.7 billion people live in absolute poverty.
    • Economic inequality (or "wealth and income differences") comprises all disparities in the distribution of economic assets and income. The book The Spirit Level claims that negative social phenomena such as shorter life expectancy, higher disease rates, homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression and prison population correlate with higher socioeconomic inequality.
  • Homelessness describes the condition of people without a regular dwelling. People who are homeless are most often unable to acquire and maintain regular, safe, secure, and adequate housing, or lack "fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence."
  • Inadequate education can limit the well-being of a person if it makes them unsuitable for employment, limits their participation in a literate culture, or if misinformed beliefs cause them to make unwise choices or isolate them from beneficial experiences.
    • Illiteracy is the inability to read and write one's own name and for further knowledge and interest, write coherently, and think critically about the written word.
    • Innumeracy is the inability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts.
  • Unemployment (or joblessness) occurs when people are without work and actively seeking work. Unemployed individuals are unable to earn money to meet financial obligations. Failure to pay mortgage payments or to pay rent may lead to homelessness through foreclosure or eviction. Unemployment increases susceptibility to malnutrition, illness, mental stress, and loss of self-esteem, leading to depression.
    • Underemployment refers to an employment situation that is insufficient in some important way for the worker, relative to a standard. Examples include holding a part-time job despite desiring full-time work, and over-qualification, where the employee has education, experience, or skills beyond the requirements of the job.
  • Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. It can also be defined as an act or instance of oppressing, the state of being oppressed, and the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, and anxiety.
  • Discrimination is the prejudicial and/or distinguishing treatment of an individual based on their actual or perceived membership in a certain group or category, "in a way that is worse than the way people are usually treated."

Safety and Security

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Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduce Inequalities

Safety results from being protected against physical, social, spiritual, financial, political, emotional, occupational, psychological, educational or other types or consequences of failure, damage, error, accidents, harm or any other event which could be considered non-desirable. There are a wide variety of threats to safety.

  • Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against a person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.
    • Homicide is an act of a human killing another human.
    • Terrorism is the systematic use of terror, often violent, especially as a means of coercion. Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror); are perpetrated for a religious, political or, ideological goal; and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians).
    • Child Abuse — Child abuse is the physical, sexual, emotional mistreatment, or neglect of children. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define child maltreatment as any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child. A child abuse fatality is when a child’s death is the result of abuse or neglect, or when abuse and/or neglect are contributing factors to a child’s death. In the United States, 1,730 children died in 2008 due to factors related to abuse; this is a rate of 2.33 per 100,000 U.S. children. Child abuse fatalities are widely recognized as being under-counted; it is estimated that between 60-85% of child fatalities due to maltreatment are not recorded as such on death certificates.
    • Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior which involves the abuse by one partner against another in an intimate relationship such as marriage, cohabitation, dating or within the family. Domestic violence can take many forms, including physical aggression or assault (hitting, kicking, biting, shoving, restraining, slapping, throwing objects, battery), or threats thereof; sexual abuse; emotional abuse; controlling or domineering; intimidation; stalking; passive/covert abuse (e.g., neglect); and economic deprivation.
    • Sexual abuse, also referred to as molestation, is the forcing of undesired sexual behavior by one person upon another.
  • Crime is the breaking of rules or laws for which some governing authority (via mechanisms such as legal systems) can ultimately prescribe a conviction.
    • Gang Violence -- Gangs are involved in all areas of street-crime activities including extortion, drug trafficking, both in and outside the prison system and theft. Gangs also victimize individuals by robbery and kidnapping. Preventive interventions are required[3] to reduce youth involvement in gangs and gang crime in low-and middle-income countries. Cocaine is the primary drug of distribution by gangs in America, which have used the cities Chicago, Cape Town, and Rio de Janeiro to transport drugs internationally.[4] Brazilian urbanization has driven the drug trade to the favelas of Rio. Often, gangs hire "lookouts" to warn members of upcoming law enforcement. The dense environments of favelas in Rio and public housing projects in Chicago have helped gang members hide from police easily.[5]
    • Gun violence is the use of a firearm to threaten or inflict violence or harm. Suicide, homicide, robbery, and assault are often carried out using guns.
    • Organized Crime refers to transnational, national, or local groupings of highly centralized enterprises run by criminals for the purpose of engaging in illegal activity, most commonly for monetary profit. Some criminal organizations, such as terrorist organizations, are politically motivated.
    • Human trafficking is the illegal trade of human beings for the purposes of reproductive slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor, or a modern-day form of slavery. In 2008, the United Nations estimated nearly 2.5 million people from 127 different countries are being trafficked into 137 countries around the world..[6]
    • Hate crimes occur when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her perceived membership in a certain social group. Examples of such groups include but are not limited to: racial group, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.
  • Bullying is the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. The behavior can be habitual and involve an imbalance of social or physical power. It can include verbal harassment or threat, physical assault or coercion and may be directed repeatedly towards particular victims, perhaps on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, or ability. If bullying is done by a group, it is called mobbing. The victim of bullying is sometimes referred to as a "target".
  • Urban decay is the process whereby a previously functioning city, or part of a city, falls into disrepair and decrepitude. It may feature deindustrialization, depopulation or changing population, economic restructuring, abandoned buildings, high local unemployment, fragmented families, political disenfranchisement, crime, and a desolate, inhospitable city landscape.
  • Nuclear Risk includes military nuclear accidents, nuclear and radiation accidents and incidents, nuclear close calls , and the risk of nuclear warfare.


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  • Failed marriages, which often end in divorce, is the final termination of a marital union, cancelling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties (unlike annulment, which declares the marriage null and void). Some of the effects associated with divorce include academic, behavioral, and psychological problems.
  • Unintended pregnancies are pregnancies that were unwanted at the time of conception, these are sometimes divided into unwanted pregnancies and those that are mistimed. Worldwide, 38% of pregnancies were unintended in 1999 (some 80 million unintended pregnancies in 1999). Unintended pregnancies are the primary cause of induced abortion, resulting in about 42 million induced abortions. Unintended pregnancy is linked to numerous maternal and child health problems.
  • Incarceration is the detention of a person in prison, typically as punishment for a crime.
  • Vandalism is the ruthless destruction or spoiling of anything beautiful or venerable. The term also includes criminal damage such as graffiti and defacement directed towards any property without permission of the owner.
  • Impacts of natural disasters including floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other geologic and meteorological processes.
  • Low Job Satisfaction

Environmental Stewardship

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Sustainable Development Goal 14: Life Below Water
  • Environmental degradation and unsustainable practices (see also Land Degradation Neutrality)
    • Limits to Growth
    • Ecocide is the extensive destruction of the natural environment and disruption or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory to such an extent that the survival of the inhabitants of that territory is endangered.
    • Pollution disposal and accumulation.
  • Global warming — is the rise in the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere and oceans since the late 19th century and its projected continuation. The effects of an increase in global temperature include a rise in sea levels and a change in the amount and pattern of precipitation, as well a probable expansion of subtropical deserts.
  • Destruction of natural habitats — is the process in which natural habitat is rendered functionally unable to support the species present. In this process, the organisms that previously used the site are displaced or destroyed, reducing biodiversity.
The leatherback sea turtle is globally threatened due to poaching for eggs, meat and oil.
  • Depletion of natural resources — refers to harvesting a renewable resource to the point of diminishing returns. Sustained overexploitation can lead to the destruction of the resource. The term applies to natural resources such as: wild medicinal plants, grazing pastures, game animals, fish stocks, forests, and water aquifers.
  • Natural disasters are major adverse events resulting from natural processes of the Earth; examples include floods, severe weather, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and other geologic processes.
  • Extinction of species and declining biodiversity.
  • Poaching has traditionally been defined as the illegal hunting, killing or capturing of wild animals, usually associated with land use rights. Since the 1980s, the term poaching has also been used for the illegal harvest of wild plant species.
  • Deforestation is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest use.
  • Access to Clean Water

Government Policy

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  • Protection of human rights.
  • War — is an organized and often prolonged armed conflict that is carried out by states or non-state actors. It is characterized by extreme violence, social disruption, and economic destruction. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities, and therefore is defined as a form of political violence or intervention.
  • Population growth — is the change in a population over time, and can be quantified as the change in the number of individuals of any species in a population using "per unit time" for measurement. The world population grew from 1 billion to 7 billion from 1800 to 2011. During the year 2011, according to estimates, 135 million people were born and 57 million died, for an increase in population of 78 million.
  • Armaments
  • Lack of Global democracy
  • Sustainability
  • Ineffective Global justice
  • Genocide
  • Malnutrition


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  • Choose one of the problems listed above (or from some other source) to study in detail. Describe the costs of the problem in human, social, cultural, and economic terms. If possible, suggest systemic factors that contribute to prolonging the problem or delaying solutions. Describe your insights.
  • Do you see any causal or temporal relationship among these challenges that suggests a starting point for a solution?
  • Complete the Wikiversity course on Solving Problems.
    • Suggest some approach to solving a grand challenge, or all least suggest how to get started.
  • Climate Change contributes to land degradation, migration, sea level rise, has implication on disease vectors, fresh water supply and over-exploitation of ground water by companies due to global warming and access to fresh water by local communities, .... Refer to the grand challenges mentioned above and explain the indirect contribution of climate change.
  • Sustainable Development Goals can be linked to the grand challenges mentioned above. Explain the linkage and try to refer to the indicators and/or activities that can be applied in your city or region.

The Range of Opportunities:

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Well-being is more than the absence of problems. Here are some opportunities to live more fulfilling lives, enjoy more of our potential, and focus on what matters.

From Problems to Opportunities

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Intellectual and Artistic Opportunities

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When we reach a level of affluence and abundance where deficiencies are no longer a problem, we can turn our attention from solving problems to enjoying opportunities.

  • Establishing priorities of research and development to benefit humanity.
  • Exploration and Discovery
  • Participation in the arts
  • Savor nature's awe.
  • Mindfulness
  • Pursuit of happiness


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  • Describe the distinction between pleasure and gratification. Give an example from your own experience. If you were unencumbered by problems, how would you choose to spend your time? Why?
  • Complete the Wikiversity course on What Matters.

Case Studies

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There are several examples where well-meaning people worked hard to solve a problem, yet later it became obvious that the entire endeavor was foolish. Often the problems arose because the planners adopted a narrow point of view, rather than adopt a global perspective. Several examples are described and analyzed here:

From the 1600s through the mid to late 1800s, the majority of childbed fever cases were caused by the doctors themselves.

Tobacco use is the leading preventable cause of death worldwide currently causing an estimated 5.4 million deaths per year. Could adopting a global perspective have taken us down a different tobacco road?

The Péligre Dam is a hydroelectric dam located off the Centre Department on the Artibonite River of Haiti. It has caused several problems, described by Tracy Kidder in his book Mountains beyond Mountains. See this relevant excerpt. The dam is also a topic of the film: "Once There was a Country: Revisiting Haiti".

René Jean-Jumeau summarizes, in an article A dam for the people, and a people damned: “Everyone continues to finance the same things: more production generation, more networks, more grid. But nobody’s financing the development of a new framework to be able to essentially modernize the Haitian energy sector.. . . To put the sector into a more sustainable situation, a more sustainable state.”

Toxic waste dumped at Love Canal, Times Beach, Missouri,Wolburn Massachusetts, and other locations lead to high levels of disease in those areas.

Project Greek Island was a United States Government continuity program located at The Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia. The facility was decommissioned in 1992 after the program was exposed in a U.S. newspaper article. The overall plan was folly because there was no practical way for members of congress to arrive at the shelter in time to avoid radiation exposure.

The Crusades were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns, called by the pope and waged by kings and nobles who volunteered to take up the cross with the main goal of restoring Christian control of the Holy Land.

The Balbina Dam on the Uatumã River in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil was established to provide a renewable electricity supply to the city of Manaus but was considered by locals a controversial project from the start, due to the loss of forest and displacement of tribal homes grounds. It was also criticized for its expensive construction and maintenance costs.

The Requerimiento

Tulip mania

A series of devastating events killed almost the entire population of Easter Island in the 1860s.

Prohibition in the United States was a national ban on the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol, in place from 1920 to 1933. Organized crime received a major boost from Prohibition. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished.

"War on Drugs" is a term commonly applied to a campaign of prohibition and foreign military aid and military intervention undertaken by the United States government, with the assistance of participating countries, and the stated aim to define and reduce the illegal drug trade. In June 2011, the Global Commission on Drug Policy released a critical report on the War on Drugs, declaring "The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the US government's war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed."


The Dust Bowl

The lobotomy was one of a series of radical and invasive physical therapies developed in Europe in the first half of the 20th century

Radical mastectomy is a surgical procedure in which the breast, underlying chest muscle (including pectoralis major and pectoralis minor), and lymph nodes of the axilla are removed as a treatment for breast cancer. This is a very morbid disfiguring surgery and is no longer performed except in extreme cases.

Widespread use of asbestos as a construction material.

China's Great Leap Forward ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of excess deaths. Estimates of the death toll range from 16.5 to 46 million.

The Khmer Rouge government arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected of belonging to several categories of supposed "enemies". This resulted in millions of deaths from executions, starvation, and disease.

Status thymicolymphaticus (also status lymphaticus, status thymicus) is an old term for a syndrome of supposed enlargement of the thymus and lymph nodes in infants and young children, formerly believed to be associated with SIDS; it was also erroneously believed that pressure of the thymus on the trachea might cause death during anaesthesia. Unfortunately infants were routinely irradiated to shrink their thymus and this has lead to many thousands of cancer cases. [7]

Thalidomide is a sedative drug introduced in the late 1950s that was used to treat morning sickness and aid sleep. It was sold from 1957 until 1961, when it was withdrawn after being found to be a cause of birth defects. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, more than 10,000 children in 46 countries were born with deformities, such as phocomelia, as a consequence of thalidomide use.

The United States Presidential $1 Coin Program has stockpiled 1.4 billion uncirculated $1 coins since the program began on January 1, 2007.


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Choose one of the case studies listed above (or some similar example) to study in detail. What problem did the project intend to solve? What were the original goals of the project? What went wrong? What was the earliest opportunity to avoid the most serious loss or damage from the project? Why were these opportunities for success missed? How could a global perspective have helped? What can we learn?

Innovative Solution Models

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Several organizations are developing innovative approaches to solving grand challenges. Here are some important examples:

Research Opportunity

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Interested students may choose to contribute to an on-going research project to identify the Causes of Suboptimal Life Experiences. In short, the research seeks to identify the many causes of the grand challenges, and to understand how those causes are interrelated. The purpose of this research is to identify the obstacles that need to be overcome, and problems we need to solve to attain flourishing lives for all of the world’s people, now and forever.

Researchers are asked to reflect wisely on the questions:

  • What kind of world do we want?
  • What obstacles need to be overcome, what problems do we need to solve to attain flourishing lives for all of the world’s people, now and forever?
  • What are the relationships among those problems?

This leads to a cause-effect diagram identifying causes of suboptimal life experiences—failure for everyone in the world to flourish and experience the greatest possible well-being, including all that is of value now along with ever increasing well-being and value forever.

The current diagram is presented in the outline Causes of Suboptimal Life Experiences.

Students are invited to study the existing diagram, offer their comments in the associated talk page, and if you are confident you can improve the diagram, please contribute your improvements by editing the diagram.


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See Also

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  1. WaterPartners International: Learn about the Water Crisis
  2. "All About: Water and Health". CNN. December 18, 2007.
  3. Higginson, A., Benier, K., Shenderovich, Y., Bedford, L., Mazerolle, L., & Murray, J. (2015). Preventive interventions to reduce youth involvement in gangs and gang crime in low-and middle-income countries: A Systematic Review. Campbell Systematic Reviews, 11(18).
  4. Hagedorn 2008, p. 14
  5. Hagedorn 2008, pp. 14–15
  6. "UN-backed container exhibit spotlights plight of sex trafficking victims". 2008-02-06. Retrieved 2011-06-25.
  7. Diagnosis, Radiolab Episode Season 5, Episode 4