Lee A. Reith Distinguished Professor of Environmental Engineering in the School of Civil Engineering, College of Engineering
Distinguished Professor, Department of Agronomy, College of Agriculture
Humanity's future wellbeing may very well depend on solving "wicked problems" plaguing the world’s ecosystems — problems introduced by people — that might only be solved through “pragmatic sustainability.”
Suresh Rao sat on a beach in Western Australia one day four years ago during his sabbatical leave in Perth, contemplating where to take his distinguished career next.
He'd risen to the top of his specialty area: hydrology and biogeochemistry. Things were becoming too comfortable, too boring. It was time to go in a new direction.
"Changing my research emphasis every five to seven years is the norm for me," says Rao. “I like the change. It allows me to interact with a whole new network of people, to get out of my comfort zone. It’s a challenge to start at the ground floor and climb all the way up. No elevators, one step at a time!"
The previous decade he’d been concentrating on research into developing methods for cleaning contaminated soils, sediments, and groundwater, studying how urban, industrial and agricultural practices can be better managed to reduce their negative impacts.
His new direction would focus on an environmental paradox: How had humanity continued to thrive despite the consistent degradation of the environment? Was technology providing an edge to the people of the developed world, maintaining their wellbeing in the face of escalating air and water pollution, deforestation and loss of habitat and other ecosystem, services?
And how is this dynamic affecting the rest of the world?
"More than half of the world population is negatively impacted," he says. "Either people can't afford the technology because they live in poverty or they are living in environments that are being degraded to provide the resources for the technology."
But, when will mounting ecological degradation in the future begin to cause a decline in global human wellbeing?
"Many people in academia and policy making believe that the way we have done things in the past isn’t going to cut it in the future," Rao says. "Fundamentally, the recognition is that we have to look at ‘wicked problems.’ Our attempt to solve them only educates us little more about the problem. There are no silver bullets, because the problems are so complicated and multifaceted."
An example is the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.
“Who put it there? We did, on this side of the world. Now that the other side wants to do the same thing, China, India and the others, we are saying you can't do that, and they are saying, you got it, we want it."
The only way to fix the problem is by using a pragmatic-sustainability approach.
“We are not tree-hugging puritans,” says Rao, who teaches interdisciplinary graduate courses, including the Ecological Science and Engineering Colloquium. "We can't stop them from doing what they’re doing, really, and we can't give up what we have, really. We all have to talk about it and find pragmatic solutions.”
He encourages his students to seek compromises.
"We need to educate our engineers and scientists to think differently, to consider many kinds of ramifications in design and implementation. They have to walk outside of engineering and science spheres and talk to other people in other fields. We have to help broaden their intellectual horizons."
How else will the global community ever hope solve the world’s most wicked problems?
Photos by: Andrew Hancock