The topic of discussion for these past two weeks has centered around environmentalism, specifically the global environmental crises we are now experiencing today. To my understanding, environmentalism is a perfect example of a truly wicked problem, because many problems that arise with the collapsing global ecosystem exhibit most of if not all the identifying elements of a wicked problem. To clarify, there are six elements of a wicked problem, many of which coincide with each other. The elements of a wicked problem are as follows:
- There are variable definitions of the problem at hand.
- There are variable solutions to the problem.
- There is no specific end point to solving a problem.
- Solutions likely create irreversible effects.
- Solutions to the problem need unique approaches.
- Action must be taken as quickly as possible.
So, let’s narrow the large umbrella of environmental concerns to a more specific example, Global Warming. To begin, even though more and more people are understanding that the world warming up by even a few degrees could have disastrous consequences, there is still a vocal minority of people who either do not believe that global warming exists, or that it is as detrimental as it is to the environment. There are people who are of the opinion that since global warming is a natural occurrence, that it has happened long before the rise of human society, that it is just a part of nature and therefore we shouldn’t be as concerned as we are with it. In addition, nobody really knows for certain how to go about ending this crisis, there is not any one solution that will immediately solve this problem. We could just make driving illegal, but that would be catastrophic to the global economy and many people would be out of a job and no longer would be able to go to work or attend school. We could work together to improve public transportation around the world, but public transit is costly to establish and maintain, and poorer countries or countries with already poor infrastructure would not be able to easily adapt to this model. As is evident with the current global pandemic, while many people have been able to successfully work from home, for much of the world’s population working remotely simply isn’t an option. More concerning than all this though is the terrifying reality that if nothing is done, or if not enough is done to stop or reverse global warming, then the world will continue to heat up and life as we know it may drastically change for good.
Bringing focus back to the assignment, I definitely think I learned a lot this week in regard to the dilemmas of sustainability and collapse. While in class I tried my best to actively contribute to the topics being discussed and made a point to say something in the zoom chat when it was inappropriate for me to speak out loud. The first step to finding most solutions is to start a conversation, or to contribute to one that is already in progress. To give a good example of this, much of our class time this week was spent discussing the collapse of Easter Island.
In a nutshell, Easter Island was small and could only afford to sustain a handful of species before any human set foot on it. When Polynesian sailors established settlements on the island, the already struggling ecosystem could not sustain its growing population. Clans were established around the island, their society continuing to grow and expand seemingly without end, and as a show of status, enormous stone heads were created and rolled across the island on tree trunks so each clan could show off to each other. Each time a head was created, trees were chopped down to transport them. This continued until the last tree was cut down, and by then the few nutrients in the soil had been completely drained. Unable to grow crops on the now barren island, clans waged wars competing for the few remaining resources, and ultimately resorted to cannibalism. The few remaining islanders were captured and sold into slavery, leaving historians at the time scratching their heads as to what exactly happened to make such a huge and seemingly thriving society collapse so violently.
I think that my biggest takeaway from the collapse of Easter Island is that had the islanders left to find another island or place to inhabit, they might have survived. The island simply could not sustain them, and despite their lack of ecological knowledge they should have known better than to inhabit a place that could not sustain them without being drained of its resources. I noticed a common trend among the class’s responses, there was disagreement about whether or not the islanders were doomed from the start or if they could have turned things around if they had given it an honest effort. I don’t think that the Easter Islanders could have stopped what they started, no matter how hard they tried, but I also realize that the collapse of its environment is an isolated incident, and a lesson in what might happen around the world if we don’t all work together to find a solution quickly. No other animal on Earth has been able to create a society as vast and complex as the one we have made, and that has its consequences.
If nothing else, everything I’ve learned this week has taught me that change has to start with us. We must be the ones to take initiative and make the necessary changes in our lives. These changes might be small things, like avoiding long road trips, carpooling, using reusable or paper-based straws, and recycling wherever possible, but these small things all add up. One person can influence another, and another, and another, until it becomes a social norm. We can’t change societal problems overnight, and we can’t control another person’s thoughts or actions, but we can influence them through our own choices and actions.