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A Wicked Problem (Rev. Tom Vandestadt)

A Wicked Problem (Rev. Tom Vandestadt)

A Wicked Problem


If I tell you climate change is a wicked problem, you might think I just got off the plane from Boston, Mass, where the word wicked is as common as the Red Sox logo.  I did live in Boston, and I did think the Sox were wicked, but that’s not why I’m saying climate change is a wicked problem.  “Wicked problem” is a technical term some researchers are using to describe climate change. 

A “wicked problem” is a highly complex and multi-dimensional one that effects a large number of people, all of whom contribute to the problem.  People can’t agree on a definition of the problem because they look at it from different perspectives, and the problem is too complex to understand or describe from just one perspective.  Because they’re unable to agree on the problem, people can’t agree on a solution.  The various solutions that people do apply don’t solve the problem, but instead produce effects that change it, sometimes creating new problems.  The problem persists and evolves over time, making it necessary for people to reevaluate their definitions and solutions in response to changing realities.    

Bill McKibben’s recent article in The New Republic, “A World at War,” provides a good illustration of how we can see climate change as a wicked problem.  From one perspective, burning fossil fuels that release CO2 into the atmosphere is the definitive cause of climate change.  The scientific consensus says this is true, and the solution is to quickly cut our use of fossil fuels. 

McKibben lays out a bold plan for how we can quickly replace fossil fuels with renewables.  But in doing so, he reveals how climate change is much more than a scientific and technological problem, it’s also a political, economic, social and cultural problem.  The scientific and technological issues are deeply entangled with, and complicated by, political, economic, social and cultural issues.  Accomplishing the massive mobilization McKibben proposes will require changes in our political, economic, social and cultural institutions, systems and lives. 

While we debate what to do and how to do it, the multiple consequences of climate change strike with increasing speed and force around the planet, making the problem even more complex and creating conditions we’ll be dealing with for a long time.  Super-storms, floods, wildfires, droughts, food shortages, outbreaks of disease, displaced people, massive forced migrations, political instability, economic collapse, violence, species extinction—climate change is producing its effects all around the world and will continue to do so with greater intensity.  Because of the instability it’s producing, more people are defining climate change as a national security and military problem, one that will increasingly require those kind of solutions.  McKibben’s war analogy is uncomfortably appropriate.

All of this leads me to ask the question, is climate change the real problem, or is climate change a symptom of a bigger, deeper or more complex problem?  I think it’s a symptom.  But with that said, I wholeheartedly agree with Bill McKibben, the scientific community and the millions of people around the world who’re saying we need to cut fossil fuel use.  And do so now!  Cutting fossil fuels is a solution.  It’s absolutely essential.  If we don’t, we guarantee a dramatic increase of suffering on this planet in the years to come.   

But what about the real problem.  Again, McKibben’s war analogy is helpful.  In his analogy, the rise of the axis powers and their attempt to dominate the world through military force created a problem for the US and its allies.  The solution was to rapidly mobilize resources on a massive scale in order to militarily defeat these powers. 

On the face of it, that’s true.  But one could argue that the bigger, deeper or more complex problem—the real problem—was humanity’s proclivity for violent conflict and that WWII was a massive expression of this human trait on a global scale.  Human beings have a tendency to fear, hate or envy other humans, and to organize their resources to attack, dominate, exploit and kill them.  Why?  There are probably lots of complex reasons.  War is a symptom of what’s happening in the human heart and psyche.  It’s in the human heart and psyche that we find the real problem.  The allied victory ended WWII, but it didn’t solve the problem of human violence.    

McKibben argues that we need a rapid and massive mobilization of resources now to replace fossil fuels with renewables to solve climate change.  On the face of it, that’s absolutely true.  Just as the allies really did need to defeat the axis powers, we really do need to eliminate fossil fuels.  But that won’t solve the real problem, of which climate change is a symptom. 

What’s the real problem?  From my perspective, and most simply put, humanity hasn’t learned how to love the earth.  Just as we haven’t learned how to love one another.  Not a trite or romantic love, but a deep and profound experience of human solidarity with one another, a deep and sincere desire to care for one another.  Individually and collectively, we need to learn how to live in a far more open-hearted way with one another and the earth.  This will not put an end to the complex problems humans will face, but it will enable us to work together more harmoniously and fruitfully in response to them.

Yes!  Do all in your power to eliminate fossil fuels!  It’s a solution, an absolutely essential one.  Cut your carbon footprint.  Advocate, vote, protest.  But ask yourself, is the problem bigger, deeper or more complex?  If so, what must I do in response? 


Rev. Tom VandeStadt   is pastor at   Congregational Church of Austin  , TX, and a passionate social justice advocate. He writes every month for AllCreation.org. Check out a selection of Tom's sermons   here  . 

Rev. Tom VandeStadt is pastor at Congregational Church of Austin, TX, and a passionate social justice advocate. He writes every month for AllCreation.org. Check out a selection of Tom's sermons here


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