How often do you consider what happens to your trash after you throw it away? For most people, the answer is probably never. That is how we, as Americans, have been trained to behave regarding our waste. We use the item until it no longer serves a purpose, then we throw it in the nearest trash can and never give it a second thought. That’s what I thought about as I carried the empty Snickers wrapper I received in class in my coat pocket. Sure, I could throw it away, but then where would it go? Into a landfill to sit there for thousands of years? Or, say the wrapper somehow fell out of the trash can and was picked up by the wind. It could be carried all the way to the ocean, where a fish might eat it. While one single wrapper may not seem like a big problem, billions of people throw things away every day. On that large of a scale, the abundance of waste humans produce begins to become a wicked problem.
As I think about the characteristics of wicked problems (vague definition, undefined solutions, no endpoint, irreversible, unique, and urgent), it becomes more apparent just how many there are facing the world today. One that I hadn’t even thought of until this class is the exponential growth of the human population. As pointed out in The 11th Hour, for most of human history less than 1 billion people lived on the planet, today there are approximately 7.5 billion. Not only are there even more people using the Earth’s resources than there used to be, but we also use more resources per person as well. This wicked problem reminds me of the people of Easter Island. When they arrived, there were only a few of them, but as the years went by, their population grew until the island could no longer support them, and the people turned to barbaric behavior and cannibalism. The growth of the population doesn’t only present an environmental problem, but an ethical one. How can you reduce the consumption of nonrenewable resources without affecting people who rely on those resources to survive?
Where these wicked problems begin is in our own self-narratives and our cultural paradigm. If the over-arching paradigm tells us that there is nothing we can do to help repair or at least slow the progression of wicked problems, then our self-narratives will reflect a similar view. This mindset can leave people feeling paralyzed as though the world is going to hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. An even more dangerous paradigm, though, is when we as a society behave as though the things we are doing to the planet have no consequences, or that the consequences aren’t even real. The inhabitants of Easter Island ignored what was happening to the island around them and instead turned their focus to cultural and religious experiences and competing with other groups. Similarly, leaders in our country and around the world are focusing on their religion, the economy and consumerism. They are focusing on competition with other political groups, and they are ignoring what is happening to our planet. And as we get caught up in precisely the ideas and paradigms they want us to, all of us are missing what is happening right before our eyes. The only hope we have of solving these wicked problems is if our society experiences a paradigm shift. For that to happen, each of us must examine our own self-narratives and choose to be a force for change in the world.
I see the world we are living is becoming more and more like the one portrayed in the Disney movie Wall-E. If it was possible, I have no doubts that people today would choose to do what the people in Wall-E did and simply flee the planet. Like the people on Easter Island had no way to leave, we too must stay. But even if we could leave, we have a responsibility to try to fix the problems we have created, or at the very least do some damage control. It is our responsibility to make sure the earth is taken care of, for ourselves and for those who come after us. By poisoning our environment, we are poisoning ourselves and our future descendants.
I think it is important that we as individuals do what we can. Even if it seems small and inconsequential. The carbon footprint assessment on the EPA website gives several examples of things you can change in your life to significantly reduce your CO2 emissions. Even doing things like reusing what we can, or “thrifting” as Andrew Dent called it, can make a larger impact than we notice. Not only that, but when you make changes to your lifestyle, your friends notice. Encouraging friends and family to also do what they can make a larger difference than just one person. Soon, your friends will tell their friends who will, in turn, spread it even further. This is how we begin a paradigm shift.
I still have that Snickers wrapper inside my coat pocket. I do not know where it will go or the impact it will have when I finally decide to throw it away. Until then, it will go where ever I go.