One of my favorite Halloween decorations is the witch who has crashed into the tree. Her arms and legs are stretched out, perpendicular from her body, her black hat and broom are visible but not her face. These witches are more funny than frightening. Now the wicked witch of the east in The Wizard of Oz can be good or evil. The pagan witches of contemporary, earth-centered religions are benign; witches who practice satanism are not. The Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” is one scary lady! But Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, is loving and benevolent.
“Wicked” is a term applied to climate change. There are “wicked” problems and there are “tame” problems. The latter can be solved through a series of distinct steps. First you understand the problem, then gather information, create possible solutions then pick the best option and apply it. You can’t solve wicked problems by looking at them objectively and then choosing from several alternative solutions. They are multi-faceted: “incomplete, contradictory and constantly changing” (p. 95. “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” by George Marshall). Wicked problems require continual evaluation and redefinition. You must solve them while at the same time immersed in them.
Looked at from a public policy standpoint, climate change is a “wicked” problem. But what about the moral sense of “wicked?” The buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere is the outcome of the industrial revolution which began in the 18th c. The burning of coal, in particular the use of coal to power the steam engine, propelled us forward in industrialization and laid the groundwork for modern industry. All this, in time, made possible the standard of living enjoyed by many people in the United States today. And yet now we are waking up to the unintended consequences of the digging up and burning of fossil fuels.
Are we in the U.S. “wicked” for using 40% of the world’s resources while representing only roughly 5% of the world’s population? Are climate change deniers “wicked” for putting up obstacles to addressing the climate crisis? Are the “wicked” those who fail to respond to the ones suffering right now from climate effects (those experiencing rising sea levels in Fiji or the Marshall Islands for instance)?
It’s as though we in the industrialized West have been hurtling along through the air on our broomsticks, flying at top speed and suddenly the reality of climate change hits us! We are both the wicked witch and the good witch, capable of great destruction and great good. Which side of our nature will win out in the time ahead?