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Collective Action & Wicked Problems

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Stan MeiburgBy Stewart Rickert (’16)

Stan Meiburg, Deputy Regional Administrator of EPA Region 4 for 18 years and prominent Wake Forest alumnus, recently announced his retirement, marking the end of a 37-year career with the EPA.  He worked on a host of issues ranging from The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 to public financing strategies for water and wastewater treatment facilities.

In a recent conversation with us, Meiburg discussed the misunderstanding many Americans have about sustainability, and their lack of awareness about what we can do to escape a growing web of seemingly intractable problems. In Meiburg’s view, the most wicked of these problems is climate change.

 

Q: Diffuse problems are sometimes lumped together under the term “wicked” problems. We think of wicked problems as persistent, complex, and relying on interconnected variables for a solution. What is a wicked problem from your perspective?

A: To me, the best example of a wicked problem is climate change. I also consider the use of chemicals in the environment to be a particularly persistent wicked problem. Many trends unite these problems, but two stand out: 1) they are big, and require collective action; and 2) results take a long time, and people don’t see immediate benefits from their actions. For example, if you drastically reduce your personal carbon footprint, the climate doesn’t immediately change. But just because you don’t see an impact doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

Q: Since people can’t always see the results of their efforts, how do you make them aware that what they are doing is valuable?

A: For us at the EPA, it was always about education. We knew we were doing a lot, and we wanted to make sure that the public knew why we were acting, and what they could do to help. Notwithstanding all of EPA’s legal authorities, we depend on voluntary, collective actions to help us out of environmental holes we’ve dug for ourselves.

Q: When you say collective action, what do you mean?

A: Collective action is the aggregate of many, many little things. Little things like choosing to walk or bike instead of drive, composting and recycling materials, and turning off the lights (or using motion sensors). By doing little things, we make an impact—and we help promote big things, like designing buildings and neighborhoods that promote such behaviors. By doing little things, we give our neighbors and friends examples of actions that they, too, can take. Above all, I encourage people not to despair; it takes time before we can see the impact of our actions. A motto to still go by is from the first Earth Day in 1970: think globally, act locally. And the country is so much cleaner now than we were then!

For some noteworthy practical tips from Stan Meiburg check out these that have been excerpted from a 2009 keynote address.