The Wicked Problem and me

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photo by AGUSCR

There’s a useful term for big, tangly messes that involve complicated human factors: a Wicked Problem.

A rather succinct definition is provided by Austin Center For Design’s Wicked Problems website:

A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

There are so many interconnected factors that go into the maintaining of our ecosystem. There’s still sometimes misinformation and confusion about the causes of many environmental problems. These problems are connected to other problems. Changing the course of these problems often means making changes in behavior. It’s hard and complicated, and it’s enough to make you want to ignore the whole cluster of craziness.

One aspect of a wicked problem is that it can’t be fixed. Instead of trying to formulate the perfect solution, as you would with a math problem, you look at the problem in relative terms: Did I make it better, or worse? Did I ease my burden on the planet, or did I increase it?

So here we have our Wicked Problem: Saving The Earth, to put it tritely. Except the earth can’t be saved, exactly. It can’t even be restored to some “untouched state,” since humans have been shaping the planet as long as we’ve been on it. Agriculture, forestry, cities: we’ve made our changes. Plus, the earth is still going to be here, whether greenhouse gases cause it to bake into a round piece of toast or we replant all the forests and live among the trees.

That’s okay, though. Because if there were one definitive, solve-for-x problem, it would likely to be impossible to solve. Too many factors! But getting better, that’s a much more achievable goal. There are steps to be taken. Own a coal-burning power plant? Try burning fuel pellets made of recycled paper materials instead! Fertilize and water your lawn? Be careful and make sure you know what you are doing and how much fertilizer you use! Are you a human being who lives on this planet? There are infinite little tweaks to your lifestyle you can make!

So instead of being daunted in the face of this wicked problem, let’s get to work in all the little and large ways we can. We’ll never be perfect, but we’ll certainly get better.

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