The Solutionary Way: A Practical Way To Better The Future
Syndicated from, Jun 27, 2024

5 minute read


What Role Will You Play in Bringing About a Better World?

Some years ago, well before the pandemic and the escalating rates of youth anxiety and depression, I was invited to speak to 5th and 6th graders at a school in Connecticut. I asked them what they thought were the biggest problems in the world, and I wrote down what they said on a whiteboard until the board was full. Then, I asked them to raise their hands if they thought we could solve the problems they listed. Of the forty-five children, only five raised their hands.

This was the most sobering moment in my then almost thirty-year career as a humane educator—someone who teaches about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental sustainability, and animal protection. I thought to myself: If these children can’t even imagine us solving the problems they named, what will motivate them to try to make a difference?

I knew I had to do something to restore their hope, so I asked the students to close their eyes and imagine themselves sitting on a park bench on a beautiful day at the end of a long and well-lived life. I painted a picture of the scene: The air and waterways around them were clean. Species were recovering from the brink of extinction. There hadn’t been a war in years. No one went to bed hungry. We had learned to treat each other and other animals with respect and compassion.

Then, I asked them to imagine a child coming up to them and joining them on the park bench. I told them that the child had been studying history in school and had been learning about darker times, and the child had all sorts of questions about how things had gotten so much better. Then I asked them to imagine the child asking this final question:

"What role did you play in helping to bring about this better world?"

I let them respond to the child in their mind before asking them — with their eyes still closed — to raise their hands if now they could imagine us solving the problems they listed on the whiteboard. This time, forty hands went up in the air. Envisioning a peaceful, healthy world and knowing that they and the other children in the room would have a role in creating such a future was enough to restore their hope.

A few years later, when I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, to speak at a conference, I was invited to talk to some of the fifth graders at the school hosting the event. Remembering the time I’d spoken to the students in Connecticut, I asked these children to raise their hands if they thought we could solve the problems in the world. This time, every hand flew up in the air.

What was different? Their teacher had been teaching them—in age-appropriate ways—about what was happening on our planet, specifically to our environment, and had been engaging them—also in age-appropriate ways—in solving environmental problems. Their school had installed solar panels, created a composting system for their food waste, and utilized large water jugs to refill reusable containers instead of using single-use water bottles. They knew problems could be solved because they had been solving them. They were learning to be solutionaries. 

How we all can become solutionaries!

It’s not just kids in schools who should learn to be solutionaries. We all need to learn how to identify unjust, unsustainable, and inhumane systems and transform them so that they do the most good and least harm to people, animals, and the ecosystems that sustain life. To be clear, solutionaries are not the same as problem-solvers (which is why the word can be helpful). Engineers can solve the problem of blowing up a mountain for coal removal, but that does not make them solutionaries. Embedded in the definition of solutionary is the imperative to consider the impacts of our solutions on all life and to strive to avoid causing unintended harm. Solutionaries are also not the same as humanitarians. Humanitarians relieve suffering and work to mitigate harm, which is a deeply worthy endeavor. Solutionaries take humanitarianism a step further by addressing the causes of suffering and harm so they do not persist. 

Solutionaries begin with the mindset that a better world is possible, and through collaboration, even across seemingly intractable divides, we can solve the problems we face. They then employ a process of: 

1. Identifying the specific problem they wish to address 

2. Investigating its root and systemic causes

3. Innovating a solution that has the fewest (or no) unintended negative consequences to people, animals, and ecosystems

4. Implementing their solution and evaluating it to make improvements

This four-phase process sounds simple and straightforward, but it demands deep research; the cultivation of critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinking; a commitment to learning from a range of stakeholders and considering multiple perspectives; and humility so that solutions can become ever-more solutionary over time. 

Because it begins with the premise that problems can be solved, a solutionary mindset can be an antidote to binary thinking that would pit us against each other. Too often we are presented with “opposing” views on issues. Conflict is amplified in the media and by politicians, and the underlying problems, about which most of us can find some, if not many, points of agreement, become obscured by arguments that steer us away from identifying and addressing the root and/or systemic causes of problems. 

Side-taking comes easily and perhaps naturally to us, but by cultivating solutionary thinking we discover that bridges are not so hard to build. And as we embark on this effort to collaboratively address the challenges we face, we’ll understand — as those fifth graders in Mexico understood — that our problems are eminently solvable with the right mindset, skills, dedication, and ethical foundation.


This post is excerpted and modified from Zoe Weil’s new book, The Solutionary Way: Transform Your Life, Your Community, and the World for the Better, with a foreword by Jane Goodall.

Zoe Weil is the co-founder and president of the Institute for Humane Education,, who speaks and writes about building a more just, sustainable, and humane future for people, animals, and the environment. She is the author of eight books including her upcoming book, The Solutionary Way, with a foreword by Jane Goodall.

Zoe has been a guest on the Conspiracy of Goodness Podcast with Goodness Exchange co-founder Dr. Lynda Ulrich, where she dives deeper into her work with the Institute for Humane Education.

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