Wicked problems and sensemaking

I have so many questions.

  • How can the government do everything it can to increase oil production and exports, when our extinction is assured if greenhouse gas emissions are not radically decreased immediately?
  • How could the atrocities and utter destruction have happened? In Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, United States?
  • Wouldn’t nonviolent responses against the invasion of Ukraine have been better, even if that meant Russian occupation for a time?
  • How can sanctions be a good thing when they result in the impoverishment of millions of people?
  • Why is it possible for everyone to buy and carry a gun?
  • Why do culture wars prevent teachers from teaching?
  • How did we allow healthcare workers to be overwhelmed by COVID cases?
  • How is it possible for so many prescription drugs to be too expensive?
  • Why have we allowed the militarization of police?
  • Why do millions of men, women and children live in poverty? So many without shelter? So many hungry?
  • Racism?
  • How can the military budget greatly exceed all other government programs combined?
  • How can the government control women’s choices? So many choices of all of us?

These questions stem from the difficulty of making sense of what’s going on today. Which reminds me of the concepts of wicked problems and sensemaking that James Allen writes about. I try to refrain from using so many quotes, but the entire article is well worth reading.

One thing he writes about makes more sense to me now from my experiences with Mutual Aid. What he writes here is a good description of Mutual Aid.

Something important happens when we gather in pursuit of a common goal. First we form rituals that help us relate to and negotiate each other, everything from a civic tradition that allows anyone with a voice to be respectfully heard, to sharing food and music in the local town hall every Friday night, to a labour system that fairly distributes the burden of work. Then, those rituals that stand the test of time become embedded in daily life. The ritual activities themselves and the good they produce help a community identity take root. As identity strengthens, so too does our sense of connectedness — our sense of affection, responsibility and obligation — to one another. When this happens, we then share a greater capacity for coherence and cooperation. And where we share greater capacity for coherence and cooperation there is also greater resilience: the ability to mobilise skills and resources to support the emergence of collective intelligence in response to crisis, enable rapid adaptation and ensure the continuity of the most important functions and structures of the community. This coherent togetherness and the collective intelligence that emerges out of it is the source of human strength and ingenuity. Within it lies our ability to transition from one evolutionary niche to another, even against the odds.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, originally published by Medium, June 18, 2019

…there remains the most existential risk of them all: our diminishing capacity for collective sensemaking. Sensemaking is the ability to generate an understanding of world around us so that we may decide how to respond effectively to it. When this breaks down within the individual, it creates an ineffective human at best and a dangerous one at worst. At the collective level, a loss of sensemaking erodes shared cultural and value structures and renders us incapable of generating the collective wisdom necessary to solve complex societal problems like those described above. When that happens the centre cannot hold.

The jumping-off point for this essay is a regrettable acceptance that a forthcoming energy descent combined with multiple ecological crises will force massive societal transformation this century. It’s hardly a leap to suggest that, with less abundant cheap energy and the collapse of the complex political and economic infrastructure that supports our present way of life, this transformation is likely to include the contraction and relocalisation of some (if not most) aspects our daily lives.

The problems before us are emergent phenomena with a life of their own, and the causes requiring treatment are obscure. They are what systems scientists call wicked problems: problems that harbour so many complex non-linear interdependencies that they not only seem impossible to understand and solve, but tend to resist our attempts to do so. For such wicked problems, our conventional toolkits — advocacy, activism, conscientious consumerism, and ballot casting — are grossly inadequate and their primary utility may be the self-soothing effect it has on the well-meaning souls who use them.

If we are to find a new kind of good life amid the catastrophes these myths have spawned, then we need to radically rethink the stories we tell ourselves. We need to dig deep into old stories and reveal their wisdom, as well as lovingly nurture the emergence of new stories into being.

Pontoon Archipelago or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse. By James Allen, originally published by Medium, June 18, 2019

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