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Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential; 2 vols., 3d ed.

It was sheer madness to attempt to catalog the world's problems, but Anthony J.N. Judge and his colleagues at the Brussels-based Union of International Associations were determined to do it. Many experts counseled them to give up their impossible project, but Judge and his team persevered and have now produced a unique resource, the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.

The Encyclopedia is a wonder that could only come from superhuman dedication, unremitting toil, a bit of genius, and, yes, a madness upon which the gods have smiled. It consists of two oversized volumes containing 2,133 pages of closely printed type and runs perhaps 8 million words -- enough for 80 or 100 normal-sized books. The total number of world problems described is 13,167, with 114,395 cross-references and indexes comprising 91,385 entries. There are also five bibliographies totaling 10,130 entries.

This is the third edition of the Encyclopedia, but it is, far and away, the most impressive. The first edition, an experimental volume published in 1976, described 2,560 world problems. A second edition, also in a single volume, appeared in 1986 and listed 10,233 problems. These earlier editions, though impressive, now seem like mere warm-ups for the third, which not only has expanded the number of problems listed but also has greatly enlarged the descriptions, cross-references, and bibliographical listings. As a result, the total number of pages and words has approximately doubled, and two volumes were required. One shudders to imagine the scale of the fourth edition!

What exactly is a world problem? Clearly, it is a problem that affects more than just one nation, corporation, or individual. Beyond that, however, the Encyclopedia accepts many things that some people view as problems though others do not. For instance, the Encyclopedia lists both capitalism and communism as world problems, along with witchcraft, the Zionist conspiracy, and abduction by extraterrestrials.

These are oddities, however. A more typical sampling of world problems might include: incompetent management, shortage of animal protein, victimless crime, secret laws, underground economy, harassment of the media, illegal abortion, acne, and inadequate sex education. The problems stretch on and on. Each problem may aggravate other problems, so interlinkages are indicated with the descriptions.

The Encyclopedia offers many ways to think about world problems, but it does not force these frameworks on the reader, who is free to browse in this treasure trove of troubles and ponder what to make of it all. Clearly, there is room for a new science -- problemology -- to classify problems in useful ways and clarify the patterns of causation and possible solutions.

To start with, it is clear that problems are mental constructions and exist in people's minds rather than objective reality. A problem may be described as a system of ideas and feelings that we hold about the origins of pain and distress. Problems may also move into or out of good currency: People in the Western countries probably worry less about sin (problem no. 641) and the devil (problem no. 7,018) than they did in the distant past, when nobody had heard of terrorism or nuclear accidents.

But there seems to be an enduring need for really bad problems that make everyone recoil. Currently, such problems include Nazism, torture, and apartheid. "The prime characteristic of such problems," notes the Encyclopedia, "is that they should be prevalent in a distant society, in the past, or in secret locations (whose existence can be readily denied in one's own society)." Focusing on this type of problem makes it easier for people to escape blame for less horrible problems that they might actually be able to do something about.

Solving world problems poses dilemmas: A solution to any given problem is likely to aggravate other problems, such as "excessive growth of social expenditures" (problem no. 6,215). One also runs the risk of criticism from "irresponsible journalists" (problem no. 3,071).

The plethora of problems leads to the Key Problem Approach, whereby an expert identifies one key problem that, one solved, will solve all the other problems; however, the Encyclopedia suggests that this technique does not work well. The Reorganization Approach is also likely to disappoint. The Encyclopedia quotes Petronius Arbiter, Roman governor of ancient Bithynia (now a part of Turkey) in the first century A.D. as saying: "We tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing and a wonderful method it can be for creating an illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization."

Besides describing problems, the Encyclopedia lists human values and approaches to conceptualizing and thinking about the problems. Here the material is less straightforward and more original, because, as hard as it is to describe the world's problems, the ways to think about and solve them involve the reader in many different frames of reference and schools of thought. This portion of the Encyclopedia is more demanding on the reader, yet it may prove even more stimulating to serious thinking.

The proposed solutions and ideas stretch on, page after page. Besides descriptions of alternative approaches, Judge and his colleagues offer lists of metaphors and symbols that may help in the search for solutions. Do the answers to our problems lie in socialist humanism, deep ecology, kundalini yoga, encounter groups, neuromuscular therapy, or the 99 names of Allah? The reader's mind is left to boggle.

How is the Encyclopedia to be used? Obviously, it is not for the person looking for something light to read at the beach. Besides the enormous wordage, the body type is a size or two smaller than that normally used for footnotes. Furthermore, the Encyclopedia may not satisfy everyone seeking information on a given topic because the description of any given problem is necessarily brief.

But the Encyclopedia is very browsable (at least for people who can read small type), and almost every page provides mind-expanding information that can enlarge one's understanding. The Encyclopedia provides a useful starting point for thinking about any social problem, because it suggests how that problem relates to others. Some currently popular problems about which much has been written (e.g., racism) get considerable space, but the descriptions of neglected problems (e.g., homogenization of cultures) is often skimpy.

The Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential should prove an outstanding new tool for social thinkers and idea seekers of all kinds, because it is so different from the usual reference works. In fact, it is really less a tool than a new world for readers to explore.

About the Reviewer

Edward Cornish is president of the World Future Society and editor of THE FUTURIST.
COPYRIGHT 1991 World Future Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Cornish, Edward
Publication:The Futurist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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