Solace in “Wicked Problems”

Environmental problems are messy and they don’t have simple solutions. This is the essential idea Steve Rayner (2014) tries to get across in his essay “Wicked Problems”. Take climate change for instance; an endless list of factors contribute to it (factory manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, deforestation, the list goes on…), and none of them have just one clear solution. Furthermore, people have a broad range of opinions on what should be done. In my personal experience, sorting through the complicated messy nature of environmental problems and the seems to be a common problem for Environmental Studies students, including myself. However, I think Rayner (2014) offers in an indirect way, a reassuring message: we don’t need to find one all-encompassing solution.

Rayner first describes how Environmentalism originally focused on just two broad problems (pollution and conservation), and how we no longer live in an age where we can think this narrowly. When environmentalism was emerging, solutions were kept simple, such as legislation restrictions and protecting natural areas. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in the 60’s first coined the term ‘wicked problems,’ and categorized them by defining characteristics. To start off, wicked problems are symptomatic of larger issues and move circularly. There aren’t clear and definite solutions to the problems, and there is little room for trial-and-error. Furthermore, there are also a broad range of prescriptions and attitudes regarding wicked problems.

This essay explains a key issue with environmental action: people prefer simple solutions because they are easier. However, you can’t solve complicated problems with simple solutions. As explained by Rayner (2014), Nancy Roberts layed out three strategies to simplify solutions. The first way is hierarchical, which breaks down the problem step-by-step. The next strategy is competitive, which, as Rayner says, uses “individual expertise of craft skills or ‘the right stuff’ to control resources to bring to bear on the problem.” The third method, the egalitarian method, brings the problems to others of concern. Rayner’s critique is that focusing on one of these solutions excludes other approaches. As he says, “this divergence of perceptions and values is part of what makes the problems wicked in the first place.” Clumsy solutions need hybrid solutions.

The message of wicked problems is an important one for ENVS students. At first it seems pessimistic; environmental problems are almost impossible to solve and you will never fully solve them, especially by yourself using only one solution. But this message is a secret comfort to those wanting to play their part but scared to do the wrong thing. It’s easy to feel the pressure of all the world’s problems and feel the need to find a quick, fully encompassing solution that solves all the smaller issues around a given problem. Rayner (2014) is saying that it’s alright. This goal is impossible, so there’s no need to feel such an immense pressure. Your individual beliefs and actions can be part of a much larger longer-term solution.

Wicked problems embrace diversity. These problems are not tackled by one group of people or one line of thinking, but by many. Personally, I often find myself intimidated to involve myself in environmental problems, paralyzed by the cons of every course of action. But when I accept that I don’t have to be the only one working on an issue and never will be, I can accept that the method I’m using is imperfect.


Work Cited:

Rayner, Steve. “Wicked Problems.” Environmental Scientist 23 (2014): 3-4.

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