Wicked and Dark – Advocating for Complexity in Sustainability Pedagogy

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 


  1. "R.E.S.P.E.C.T." is the answer, now how to foster that can simply be a challenge. Discussions need to occur about what comprises healthy discourse. Unfortunately, discourse, as you purport, churns into a forum to present "my idea" as truth ignoring the possibility of other factoring elements. To solve real problems means we need to open ourselves to all the potentials!

    Nice work Carolyn!

  2. Thanks Carolyn. My observations have been the same, and as I tried to determine why a group of mid-career leaders could so easily "go quiet," it occurred to me that there are two key dynamics at play.
    First, alternative points of view really aren't so welcome. Notice that I'm being clear to identify the same problem statement, but if the assumptions are not agreed upon, the orthodoxy has been challenged, and the truth is revealed, that a diversity of viewpoints is not so welcomed as advertised. That's a big loss, but it is compounded by the second problem.
    Because....the second problem is our (appropriate, I believe) deference to the distinguished speakers, their time, and their plans for our time together. When THEIR body language makes it clear that they're uncomfortable with a challenge (on assumptions, not problem statements), we reflexively (and I hope I continue to) revert to the role of listener and student, because the ensuing 30 minute diversion isn't what the rest of the room is asking for (or so we rationalize).
    The result is that serious sustainability issues, such as the nature of "being," life balance, and "what it means to be human," etc. receive treatment from a single viewpoint. Interested parties might consider a profound and thought provoking book that addresses these and related questions, not from the orthodox view of humanism, but from a different one. Try C. Michael Thompson's "The Congruent Life," and ask many of the same questions: "What if my work life reflected my most important values?" "Why am I here? Not here...but HERE?" "What is the meaning of life, and what will I do with that answer?" Thompson and many of the writers coming from very different position we've been exposed to all conclude, similarly, that if these answers yield congruency between belief, life decisions, and daily actions, organizations perform higher, leadership is more effective, and people at all levels of organizations (and in families, by the way) feel greater fulfillment. And there is value in respecting that we can reach this same reality from a variety of starting assumptions.

    But only if the keepers of the orthodoxy will unlock and open the doors a bit.