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Whenever I see a problem, I like to ask myself one simple question: was this a problem for the caveman?  All of our problems big and small fall into one of the following caveman categories:

  1. It was a problem for the caveman. 
  2. We don't know if it was a problem for the caveman.
  3. It wasn't a problem for the caveman.

Problems for the caveman would include things like food, shelter, water, and protection from attack by animals or people.  In the case of basic social problems such as gender and racial issues, political problems, some classes of disease/illness, it's hard to be certain if it was a problem for the caveman.  The final class is, in most cases, easy and obvious: the caveman did not have problems with: paying a mortgage, unemployment, drunk drivers, traffic jams, nuclear proliferation, government overregulation, the price of petroleum products and so on.  The last category can be further broken down into three possibilities:

  1. The "somebody doesn't like it" problems.
  2. Problems created when we tried to solve a different problem.
  3. Actual problems

"Problems" of the first type are not actually a problem at all, but one or more people decided they didn't like something and declare it to be a problem.  These kinds of "fake" problems are rampant in the developed world and in areas with extreme religious views.  In wealthier, less religious areas it usually seems to be the result of bored, spoiled people, who either don't understand or don't care that their ideals harm others, where in the religious areas, it is fairly obviously about forcing people to adopt the majority (or loud/strong minority) religious lifestyle, and again they don't care that their ideals harm others. 

A rather innocuous version of this was a town that had a law against drying one's clothes outside on a clothes line (since rescinded as being environmentally unfriendly).  Two of the consequences of a law like this are that the people would be required to pay to dry their clothes (indoor clothes lines might be an option in some cases, but can cause other problems), and that the clothes would wear out faster due to mechanical drying, both of which are hardest on the poorer segments of the population.

Laws against prostitution also fit into this category.  Every piece of creditable research on the subject shows that these laws do far more harm to the women and men they are supposed to "help" than does legal prostitution, but because prostitution itself is unacceptable to various people for religious and other, mostly baseless, reasons, it is banned in many parts of the world.  The worst thing about laws like these is that not only do they attempt to address a nonexistent problem, but they actually create other new, and in some cases serious, problems, such as the rise of organized crime where no problem previously existed!

Classifying problems in this manner may seem a little silly, but it provides an excellent way of cutting through the crap.  If it wasn't a problem for the caveman, then (and there is no way around this), we created the problem, either individually or as a society.  Most modern problems are of our own creation, and we cannot hope to fix them if we cannot admit this.  Part of the reason I say we can't hope to fix them is that the best, and in many cases only, solution to most problems is to stop causing them, which is usually a much simpler solution than the fixes we typically come up with, often causing many new problems.

Of course, we really don't want to solve most problems in the direct manner, because this would mean we have to give something up.  Want to solve the growing obesity problem?  We should all eat better and get regular exercise.  This is what most people were doing before the obesity epidemic and is how evolution built our bodies to be used, but we would prefer to lounge around, and eat lots of tasty fat- and sugar-filled foods like ice cream and cookies (I certainly would prefer it :-)

Of course we would be happier if we could do this while remaining strong, thin, and healthy, but given the choice, we too often will take the unhealthy path instead of the obvious correct solution.  Since our preferred approach doesn't work and we don't want to give it up, we go looking for pills and magic diets to reverse, in weeks, what took us five to ten years or more to do to our bodies.  Unfortunately, these either don't work, or, in more extreme cases, cause heart, kidney, and/or liver problems, which gives us a new set of problems to try and fix.  We will try anything but the correct solution, because that is the one we don't want.  Pick another problem: suicide bombers and wars in the middle East.  Not a problem for the caveman.  There are many complex issues involved; however, it should be fairly obvious to anyone that the problems would be greatly reduced if we were not shipping boatloads of money to various countries in the middle East because of our petroleum addiction.  This is, after all, what funds much of the violence.  Of course we don't want to give up our petroleum addiction, so that is not an acceptable solution, and we instead get directly involved in the violence, leading to a wide range of new problems, including what to do about our soldiers who have had arms and legs blown off.  It is important to note here, that this addiction also plays a significant role in the obesity epidemic - people used to walk everywhere.

In the end, the problems that should really matter to us individually are the caveman problems: food, shelter, water, protection, and I will add one additional one, medical care.  The last one wasn't really an option for the caveman, but we now have the knowledge and technology, so I view it as a basic necessity today.  Once you have solved those problems at a basic level for each day, all your other problems are, to a large extent, of your own creation.  Too busy to: exercise / take care of the children or pets / spend time with friends / walk to work / etc., is the result of choosing to do something else which takes up all of your time.  We like to pretend that much of what we do is a basic life requirement, but it's more about social standing or other issues rather than any real necessity.  I once saw a documentary which, just in passing, showed a family of seven or eight people in India living on a roughly 100 sq. ft (10 sq meter) area of sidewalk/alley that they had staked out beside a building, using pieces of fabric to partition it off from the surrounding area.  This, for them, was sufficient space and shelter, though I have no doubt they would have preferred more.  If you feel you are stretched to the limit and your house or apartment is larger than this, you might want to give some thought to the definition of "need" versus "want".  I'm not trying to tell anyone that they shouldn't have more than this, rather that from the caveman perspective, many of your problems are of your own creation, because you insist on having more shelter and other items than you actually "need".

In the future, before you take action on a personal problem, or cast your vote for the right person or solution for the problems of society, you might want to put it to the "Caveman" test.