Opinions Column: Locked in Wicked Problems

By Dr. Annavajhula J.C. Bose
Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

Even if you are most fortunate to have graduated from an unconventional school that has imparted you leadership skills including critical thinking and problem-solving skills, it is high time you knew that we are already locked in wicked problems that cannot be avoided or resolved or designed out of existence!

Climate change, oil dependency and poverty are three dangerously interconnected wicked problems that are going to adversely affect us for prolonged periods.

Wicked problems are complex problems which have no simple, complete or trial-and-error solutions. They defy any ‘true-or-false’ solutions because they are commonly symptoms of other complex problems. They are too devious for us to tame, so to say. They are not problems for just experts to solve through technological innovations because barriers to effective solutions are largely the socio-cultural contexts of humans with wide range of values and priorities which are difficult to change. As of now, national policies and political rhetoric regarding them largely lack the required ambition and urgency. All we can do is to learn how to live with increased and unexpected levels of risk associated with them.

It is now 95 per cent certain that human activities have contributed to an observable increase in global temperatures that are in turn changing the planet’s climate. The world depends very heavily on oil and other fossil fuels for its systems of transport, manufacture and agriculture and products emanating from the petrochemical industry are found in almost everything we use on a daily basis. Burning of fossil fuels turns stored carbon into the greenhouse gas called carbon dioxide which is making the biggest contribution to the human induced climate change. Actually, humans are also responsible for increasing concentrations of other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide in the upper atmosphere. These greenhouse gases have the ability to absorb and re-radiate solar energy. The resultant increasing heat has already locked us into greater climate volatility as reflected in unprecedented extreme weather events, more frequent and intense flooding events, more frequent and intense heat waves, increasing acidification of the oceans causing increased coral bleaching, and record low summer levels of sea ice in the Arctic and noticeable thinning of the massive Greenland ice shelf.

Such climate volatility leads to sea level rises of ten metres or more causing extensive inundation of coastal cities and towns; inundation and salinization of major food producing areas in the deltas of rivers; increasing droughts threatening supplies of food and freshwater; likely loss of all the planet’s coral reefs with devastating consequences for marine biodiversity; increasing extinctions for species that lose required habitat; and major problems for humans posed by more frequent and intense heat waves, floods and by reduced supplies of freshwater.

There are welcome claims to reduction in the incidence of global poverty in terms of the number of people living below the poverty line of $US1.25 per day. But if nominal poverty line is lifted to just $US2 per day, we find an alarming 43 per cent of the world’s people still below the line and 70 per cent of people living in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are in that category. There are also welcome claims to reduction in the number of people living with chronic hunger. Yet there are still 795 million people living in hunger and an alarming 25 per cent of children in developing countries are stunted by malnutrition and it still accounts for about 45 per cent for the deaths of children under five.

Rapid economic growth in recent times like in China and India reduces people below US$1.25 per day but the increased consumption due to such growth has worsened the environmental problems. Moreover, the workings of the globalized market-driven economy in terms of economic and social dislocations have made poverty even worse in parts of Africa, Asia and America Latina. The overall gap between the world rich and the world poor has actually increased and this is partly responsible for many of the wars and conflicts that rage across Africa and Central Asia.

The wicked problems of climate change and oil dependency worsen the wicked problem of poverty as the poor are likely to be most vulnerable to things such as extreme weather events (e.g. by way of homelessness) and rising food prices due to rising cost of oil. Poor people— often living in rather flimsy housing in crowded settlements—tend to be most highly exposed to floods, droughts and extreme weather events while the elderly and frail suffer the most from heatwaves and floods. Poor nations lack the resources to reduce oil dependency and adopt low-carbon technologies.

Most importantly, income is a very inadequate poverty indicator. The World Bank poverty line does not make much sense. Poverty in terms of lack of access to safe drinking water, adequate supplies of food and a reasonable level of physical security is even more pressing. In fact, the work of Non Governmental Organisations reveals that household livelihoods depend a lot on non-cash components such as growing and swapping food, other informal trade in non-monetised goods and services, development and maintenance of good social networks, access to shops and public transport and the like. The children of the poor become poorer due to lack of access to education, sources of employment, community facilities and spaces for recreation.

In light of the above, we can only hope for international aid based on unlimited compassion, disaster management based on endless vigilance and adaptive capacity of the people for wading through the wicked problems. We are already learning by doing in this regard with regard to the wicked problem of pathogenic and zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 linked to industrial agriculture which in turn heightens the wicked problems of climate change, fossil fuel dependency and poverty.

Mulligan, Martin. 2018. An Introduction to Sustainability. Earthscan from Routledge.


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