Wicked and Dark – Advocating for Complexity in Sustainability Pedagogy

Carolyn Maraist Sustainability

I was staring at a group of my classmates who were across the aisle. We had self-selected into two groups representing differing views on sustainability, and although everyone was working to keep their expressions neutral, the tension in the air was palpable. Body language gave the game away – crossed arms, pens held too tightly, not a lot of smiling going on.

After months of studying sustainability and corporate social responsibility topics, the polarization which characterizes this debate across political, corporate, and social sectors was trickling down into our cohort.

Why the tension? Where did this closing off and devolving into hard line positions come from?

The Argument

I posit that such tensions derive from the very nature of the subject matter itself such that:

  • Sustainability is a wicked problem
  • Its complexity and wickedness mean there’s a real chance we could devolve into a logic schism
  • The complexity of sustainability must be incorporated into classroom pedagogy – which means teaching multiple perspectives as well as the dark side of some sustainability initiatives

Sustainability as a Wicked Problem

University of Pennsylvania management professor John Camillus says some problems we face are “wicked” – meaning they can’t be solved by the normal processes. There is strong correspondence between Camillus’ properties of wicked problems and the current sustainability situation.

The complexity of ‘wicked’ sustainability has to do with its embeddedness in the cultural rhetoric of our times:sustainability has been held hostage to polarizing political, religious and other societal factors.

According to Andy Hoffman (2012), if we don’t begin to address this polarization, we will devolve into a logic schism. He describes such a schism as involving positions which: “…are relatively exclusive, rigid, inelastic, and restricted…In such circumstances, two sides are not so much competing as they are talking past one another.” (Hoffman, 2011, p.9)

Hoffman calls for an increased role for the public intellectual in filling knowledge gaps and researching ways to bridge the schism. In addition, I think the problem must be addressed through changes beginning within the actual classrooms of the Academy itself.

The Dark Side – We Need to Teach Relative to Complexity

Sustainability education in the classroom needs to address the complexity of the problem, including dialogue around the spectrum of opinions and perspectives on this topic. If only one side of the debate is presented the result can be increased polarization. If the pedagogy does not touch upon the complexity of the potential negative outcomes of some sustainability initiatives than students could be getting short-changed in terms of learning to think critically about sustainability.

Bobby Banerjee, of the University of South Australia, provides examples of how some educational sustainability approaches can do more harm than good. He raises the issue of the need to look at the costs and benefits of sustainability initiatives, particularly relative to marginalized stakeholders:

A different approach is needed if we are to address…exposing the ‘dark side’ of sustainability and overcoming the limits of a corporate-focused ‘win-win’ approach to sustainability. (Banerjee, 2011, p.726)

According to Banerjee, a key problem has to do with the fact that we are not teaching these complex aspects of sustainability, including the dark side of sustainability initiatives. He calls for changes in the educational approach so that they are inclusive of multidisciplinary perspectives (p. 728)

I agree with Banerjee and would suggest sustainability classrooms need to:

  • Foster debate – hold roundtables that present multiple perspectives and include vibrant discussion among panelists;
  • Bring on the critics – present both sides of the argument and include guest lecturers and assigned readings representing more than one perspective;
  • Take a note from Aretha Franklin – instead of increasing the polarization through one- sided discourse – begin with the a little “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”

If both sides could stop preaching and start listening from a place of true respect maybe we could begin to close the schism. What we have been doing isn’t working – environmental issues are getting worse. So let’s change the nature of the educational conversation and begin from a place of mutual respect with a place for all voices and opinions to be expressed.

It might just work.

Carolyn Maraist is an education and business professional with more than 15 years of management consulting experience and global teaching experience.  She has an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, a masters degree from Oxford University and is pursuing her Ph.D. with the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.
Banerjee, B. (2011). Embedding sustainability across the organization: A critical perspective.
Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10(4), 719-731.
Hoffman, A. (2011). Talking past each other? Cultural framing of skeptical and convinced logics
in the climate change debate. Organization & Environment, 24(1), 3-33.
Hoffman, A. (2012, January 16). Are academic scholars “lost to the academy”? A call for more
public intellectuals in the climate change debate. Posted to Network for Business
Sustainability, http: //nbs.net 
For more details on the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, visit our web site, www.cvdl.org.
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