Skip to main content
More Insights

Blue Dots, Wickedness, and Earth Day

April 19, 2024

As Earth Day 2024 approaches, I find myself pondering blue dots and wickedness.

A full eclipse of the sun – watching one orb cover another – was a strong reminder that we inhabit a universe full of spheres. Our home sphere is the one identified by Carl Sagan as the Pale Blue Dot in a 1990 photograph taken by Voyager 1. I watched the recent eclipse from Ithaca, New York, a university town identified by political pundits as a blue dot in a red landscape.

As for wickedness, Earth Day focuses our attention on the ways that humans have despoiled the planet. In the book of Genesis, God declares Earth and all that inhabit it to be good. All creatures – not just humans – are commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” In the Biblical narrative, however, the relationship between humans and the rest of creation is broken by humanity’s wickedness. In Marilynne Robinson’s 2024 book, “Reading Genesis,” the novelist argues that what jumps out of the Biblical text, but is often underappreciated, is the agency granted to humans. Agency that should and can be deployed for good on increasingly wicked problems.

“Wicked Problems,” the eponymous title of engineer Guru Madhavan’s 2024 book, are problems in which scientifically solvable components collide with components driven by human behavior and clashing value sets. These include all the important problems that preoccupy us on Earth Day, including climate change. Wicked problems cannot be framed as optimization problems; they don’t have a solution.

As Madhavan argues, wicked problems require instead a systems level framing and engagement far beyond engineering or any other area of expertise. Our institutions are therefore ill suited to address wicked problems, because most are organized around only part of any system and have a tendency to claim that a solution to “their” part of the system solves the wicked problem.

This is true of corporations, government agencies, NGOs, and universities. As an example, universities are organized around academic disciplines, in which researchers excel at framing their topics in ways amenable to solution within the confines of their discipline. On the other hand, universities are unusual in their breadth of expertise relevant to most wicked problems, from the humanities to the physical sciences.

Many universities are therefore shifting gears toward more collaborative and even co-created research agendas with community organization, NGO, corporate, and government partners. We’ve realized that solving wicked problems is harder than diagnosing them, and that even the most high-powered research won’t help if the framing of research excludes the problem’s wickedness. Hence, with a dose of humility that hasn’t always characterized university faculty, academic researchers increasingly look for other organizations to help us with problem formulation, research execution, and the iterative loop of moving research innovation into on-the-ground action on wicked problems. Land grant universities like mine are predisposed to make such a shift because generating practical knowledge is in their DNA – indeed it is mandated by the Morrill Land Grant College Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

As an example, consider the rural-urban dimension that characterizes the wicked sustainability challenges of our time. In the U.S. and abroad, the increasing concentration of people in cities is an inexorable pattern of economic development, with great consequences and opportunities for managing climate change. Although 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities, almost all the resources needed are provided by the 20% of people that live in the wider rural landscape.

New York City’s water system delivers water from the Catskill Mountains, where the city pays sparsely distributed rural landowners to maintain the forest cover on their land that guarantees that over 1 billion gallons of clean water flows from a series of reservoirs, aqueducts, tunnels, and pipes to New York City each day. The grid supplying electricity to the city is powered by hydroelectric, nuclear, and fossil fuel plants plus solar and wind farms with increasingly large footprints scattered across the countryside. The food supply system – from farm to grocery store and restaurant – delivers produce, grain, meat, and dairy from farms in rural New York and many other rural parts of the world.

Flows in the other direction consist primarily of waste, with about 30% of New York City’s solid waste exported to landfills in rural New York and the balance shipped as far away as Asia and Africa. Treated wastewater constitutes a 1.3 billion gallons per day tributary to the Atlantic Ocean, while the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) contribute non-trivially to the planet’s increasing surplus of GHGs.

Taking the satellite’s-eye view, New York City and other cities are the consumers on the landscape, while the fewer people and small communities scattered across the rural landscape are the producers. That asymmetry is probably related to the increasingly strong rural-urban divide in voting patterns – blue cities amid red rural areas – and suggests that solutions for climate change that simultaneously benefit rural and urban residents will result in social cohesion and increased global health. That’s the kind of systems level thinking motivated by recognizing that these are wicked problems.

If policy governing water management, energy supply, agriculture, and waste management is designed so human needs can be met with a user-designed mix of products and practices, then markets can contribute to the common good with great efficiency. For Madhavan and those of us working on these problems, considering each of these sectors as connected systems increases the likelihood of overall satisfactory and more equitable outcomes to wicked problems.

The two meanings of wicked invoked earlier are relatable. The concept of wicked problems arose in social policy, which in part seeks to constrain the worst inclinations of humans – their wickedness in Biblical terms – and encourage human agency toward the common good. To address wicked problems, E.F. Shumacher argued in his 1977 “A Guide for the Perplexed” that love and empathy are required in addition to technical expertise. Likewise, Madhavan argues that systems level thinking is really engineering for civics, and civics requires systems level thinking. Nothing illustrates that more than the urgent need on this Earth Day to navigate the wicked problems on our Pale Blue Dot that require the simultaneous consideration of human welfare in blue urban dots and in red rural landscapes.

Learn more about David M. Lodge

Sign up for our newsletter: