Breakthrough Dialogue 2012

June 28, 2012 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

In 1969, two little-known urban planners, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, gave a speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science where they described new problems like crime, environmental degradation, and urban redevelopment as fundamentally harder to deal with than earlier social problems.

The streets have been paved, and roads now connect all places; houses shelter virtually everyone; the dread diseases are virtually gone; clean water is piped into nearly every building; sanitary sewers carry wastes from them; schools and hospitals serve virtually every district; and so on. But now that these relatively easy problems have been dealt with, we have been turning our attention to others that are much more stubborn.

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They went on to call these much more stubborn problems "wicked." To Rittel and Webber what made a problem wicked was that it was in large measure defined differently depending on one's pre-existing worldviews and values. Rittel and Webber gave the example of crime. To Americans with a strong commitment to law and order, the crime problem is caused by lax enforcement. To those who believe that the government should do more to help the poor, crime is caused by unemployment and insufficient investments in social programs. To those who favor drug decriminalization, crime is the result of drug prohibition.

The complexity of wicked problems is caused not by the fact that they have multiple causes but rather that society and its experts are increasingly unable to agree as to what they are. Social and environmental problems, Rittel and Webber predicted, would increasingly become battlegrounds over which more fundamental arguments about the nature of a good society would be debated. "As the population becomes increasingly pluralistic," Rittel and Webber predicted, "inter-group differences are likely to be reflected as inter-group rivalries of a zero-sum sort...the expert is also the player in a political game, seeking to promote his private vision of goodness over others."

The four decades that have followed have proven the two urban planners prescient. Polarization has intensified, our expert class has dramatically expanded in size, and wicked problems have proliferated. Partisan experts produce mountains of studies supporting radically different understandings of problems like crime that are endlessly contested. Old problems like poverty become more complex in a society where most everyone has enough to eat but access to opportunity remains grossly unequal. And scientific knowledge reveals new problems like global warming which become projection screens for ideological battles that predate the science.

Wickedness, in this way, sits at the intersection of problems that are complex and overdetermined, experts who are no more immune than anyone else to constructing problems to serve their moral, ideological, and intellectual commitments, and a polity that has been increasingly empowered to be suspicious of all truth claims that don't comport with their pre-existing beliefs and preferences. The Breakthrough Dialogue 2012 is dedicated to exploring the ways in which we might begin to reconstruct a functioning, pluralistic politics in an age in which basic facts are up for debate.

-- Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus