Sustainability and Wicked Problems

Entering my freshman year of college last fall, I got a glimpse into what Sustainability really was. I knew it had to do with protecting and saving the earth, but I had no idea all the things I would be able to do to contribute to sustainability. Recycling clothes, reusing fabrics, and keeping our land grand are ways I have figured out how to maintain sustainability in my life. We often forget that the little things can all the sudden add up over time. If everyone recycled and reused old garments and fabrics, the landfills and the earth, in general, would be a lot better off. Over the past year, I took a class called textiles. We went over how all the fabrics and harmful chemicals in the waters are affecting the natural springs all over the world. Sustainability is about preserving our lands and not draining the world of our resources. Farmers are trying to erase their carbon footprint by no till farming that will lead to less pesticide and fertilizer use over time. I grew up on a family farm, so I have seen the different ways farming has been practiced over time. I know when my dad first started farming, that he had no idea how unhealthy is was for the ground to be tilled with a plow every season. Through experience and going to college, by dad learned that is a better way to farm. No-till farming is the way of farming that doesn’t involve tilling the ground. This method of farming creates organic matter. Organic matter is crucial to the ecosystem. The organic matter serves as a reservoir of nutrients that can be released into the soil by mineralization. Organic matter also provides water holding capacity, functioning somewhat like a sponge with the ability to hold 90% of its weight in water. Organic matter is also another contributor to soil aggregation and increased water filtration. My dad started no-till farming in 2008 and he has seen a dramatic difference in his soil since switching from plowing all the land to switching to different crops on different fields each farming season. The organic matter helps hold in nutrients all year long. He is hoping in the future that the use of fertilizers will almost not be necessary. Traditional farmers are finding it hard to believe that farming any way besides tilling the ground every season is unrealistic and unnecessary. The world needs to look at the bigger picture and get educated about helping the planet.  Companies also are starting to venture out and make clothes out of kombucha, which are 100% biodegradable.

There are two types of problems in this world that people try and solve. Tame and wicked problems. These two differ in extreme ways and are both important to the word around us. The economy, healthcare, and education are three examples of a wicked problem. They are considered wicked problems because they have no final solution. The problems are so astronomical that no matter how hard we try or how much research we put into them, they are virtually impossible to solve. These problems take unique approaches, have variable solutions, and are very urgent topics. People who work on these problems have open minds and be willing to think the impossible. Sustainability is also commonly argued when facing some wicked problems. Even though wicked problems seem so “wicked” we also have the tame problems, which have realistic end goals. They are sequential, they have a common enemy, and more people are working together to solve these problems since they have a foreseeable solution. Though tame problems aren’t as urgent as wicked problems, they are still worth paying attention to and being mindful of when researching ways to be sustainable.

There are six characteristics of a wicked problem that help you differentiate if it is a tame or a wicked problem. Each wicked problem has vague problem definitions. The problem can be sometimes hard to find because it could be phrased differently among stakeholders. Not everyone will always agree on the same issue. A wicked problem also consists of variable solutions, meaning that they are subjective. They have grey areas and no one will come to a census about how to solve the problem. Wicked problems have no endpoint. Once a solution is implemented, new problems arise. These new problems lead to cascading effects and unintended consequences.  Another characteristic of a wicked problem is that the solutions pose irreversible effects. The effectiveness of a solution cannot be verified prior to implementation through trial and error testing. Solutions create changes that cannot be undone. When solving a wicked problem, unique approaches will need to be made. Every situation is unique because of the culture around the problem, the level of social and economic success rate in that area, and how technology is present in the lives of the people there. Wicked problems are URGENT. Failure to act will result in permanent harm to our planet. Wicked problems are sometimes pursued before getting a full understanding of the issue itself.

The 11th Hour talks about how industrial revolution is destroying our planet. The world is using too many resources way too fast. We are destroying the planet we live on and are barely doing anything about it. The part of the movie we watched in class was eye opening. I knew the planet was in bad shape, but I didn’t know it had gotten so extreme. We need to face reality and realize what we are doing wrong and learn from our past mistakes. Easter Island is a prime example that we should learn from. Instead we are doing the things that led them to cannibalism and poverty. When the Polynesians arrived at Easter Island, they had very limited amount of resources. Sweet potatoes and chickens were their main diet. The researches discovered that before the Polynesians arrived, they had a very dense vegetation and lots of wooded areas. Deforestation had a big impact on them, just like it is having on us. We might not realize it, but we are destroying resources that will never come back. What were forests are now deserts. One day we will run out of natural resources and we will not know what to do.

In activity one, I got to sit down and think if each problem had an endpoint, was irreversible, had unique qualities to it as well as seeing if was urgent. Deciding if the problems were tame or wicked was tough for me. I wanted to say that each one was unique and not irreversible. But after sitting down for a couple of minutes, I got to think about each individual problem and make my decisions with confidence. Learning how to check and determine if the problem had those six characteristics was very fascinating to me.

Sustainability and wicked problems go hand in hand sometimes. When we think of the future, we need to be more open minded and realize what is best for the planet, ourselves, and the many ecosystems that depend on the resources we are destroying.


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