Sustainability has always been about “reduce, reuse, and recycle” for me. Up until recently I had not realized the full scope of sustainability. I now understand that sustainability is a conscious choice and goal for everyone. As a prospective engineer my responsibilities are to improve the lives of others, while preserving the quality of Earth as I have enjoyed it. My original understanding of sustainability is an example of a wicked problem—a fully encompassing issue that is not solved by a single individual. Environmental preservation is a wicked problem because it will perpetually be an issue and it can not be accurately defined in a simple problem statement. In contrast to a tame problem that has a definite problem statement or question, and a certain answer or answers. The notion of preserving the environment warrants many approaches and many more plausible solutions. The idea that the issue will not ben solved in any timely manner can seem frivolous; however, it also insights a passion to be involved in something bigger than yourself and contribute to something that may not benefit you directly. Rittle and Webber discuss wicked problems generally in their 1973 journal “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”. One of their final points was about the politics involved in the progression of wicked problems. Although the notion that politics are lurking behind seemingly noble ventures is discouraging, their effectiveness as a political tool only enhances the relevance of wicked problems to all of us. The 11th Hour Documentary underscores this point by specifying that experts from many fields must come together to even begin to understand a wicked problem.
Society tends to view sustainability and other wicked problems as belonging to a certain group of people. Social media has helped propagate this and other social paradigms related to sustainability and wicked problems stemming from disempowerment of the individual. The current paradigm is that the individual can have little impact on the world around them outside of their sphere of influence. This has been a deflection method employed to shift blame to societal institutions such as the government and businesses. When in truth, the responsibility of solving wicked problems falls on everyone. These issues are not isolated in environmental science or genetic engineering, they exist in all areas of society over many generations. Intergenerational responsibility if a powerful phrase because it makes us zoom out and think about our own morality and the impact of our lives on the lives of our children. This makes the phrase personal and impersonal. It should be our goal to preserve life as we enjoy it for future societies to enjoy the same opportunities we have and make their own decisions on how to proceed.
Personally, my carbon footprint is fairly low. At 22 tons of CO2 per year, my roommate and I are relatively efficient; however, we do not have a lot of autonomy when it comes to our housing decisions because we live in a communal dormitory. However, one of the things I can see myself changing is my usage of disposable batteries. One of the primary pillars of my original understanding of sustainability—reuse—continues to be relevant as my lack of rechargeable batteries is a major contributor to my carbon footprint within the realm of my control. The story of a college student is an excellent anecdote for sustainability in many cases. We tend to stay on or near campus, have shorter commutes, and utilize community transportation and spaces often.