Confronting emotions in the face of wicked problems; an essay

I’m delighted to be able to share this guest blog post from Senan Gardiner, PhD candidate at the University of Vechta, Germany. Senan shares his experiences as a researcher and a teacher regarding the emotional confrontations inherent in dealing with wicked problems and our collective environmental crisis.

In writing about emotions I find it quite difficult to be objective. Ever since beginning my own academic career it’s been hard to separate my work from my personal feelings. I started with a degree in zoology in 1998 where I learned about the cause of the ongoing sixth mass extinction – humanity. It was then a small joy left me and a seed of depression caught root in my heart. Endless academics in my university with their booming voices and frightening statistics proclaimed that we were not good enough, that our efforts weren’t near the challenge. Their major response to this wicked problem of biodiversity loss was simple – more taxonomists. They didn’t have enough taxonomists to identify new species before they went extinct – and that what we all should do, was train in taxonomy, in itself a dying art. Looking back I feel pangs of regret for my younger self, knowing that while my university equipped me with critical thinking skills, it was the epitome of the ivory tower in Ireland. The zoology department (since renamed) had one major national field trip in the entire degree programme. There was a part of me that felt that the academics were more worried about the extinction of the art of taxonomy that they were of the actual species themselves. There was no systemic thinking linking the actions of our nation with the football fields carved from the Amazon. Back then palm oil was an ingredient in Palmolive shampoo. In general, wicked problems – those complex thorny issues with no one cause, effect, stakeholder or solution, were not tackled, or only portions were discussed – I learned about climate change as global warming likely to cause sea level rise – that’s all. No environmental refugees, no potential risks such as the switching off of the Gulf Stream. Action wasn’t taken – people who marched or boycotted were seen as troublemakers and frowned upon. I’m sad to say I remember having this attitude as well, as if my few earnest colleagues were less rigorous in their thinking.

After a period of teaching, I took a masters to apply all the theory I gained from my degree. My Masters was in Conservation Ecology and Ecosystem Management with excursions in Ireland, the Netherlands and Finland and was a fantastic opposite to my theory-heavy degree. I made my first Braun Blanquet survey in a Dutch fen (a simple and effective technique applicable anywhere) with Dutch conservation experts lauding us Irish for having some of the few remaining intact temperate raised bog systems left. Yet as an Irishman, this was my first introduction to the topic. It was there I grew an interest in the teaching of education for sustainable development. I realised then that few people understood the term biodiversity, and hardly anyone had a clue that we were in any sort of trouble or how it applied to their day-to-day lives. Our prime minister at the time portrayed his disgust at having to hold up motorway expansion with culverts for the endemic Kerry slug (Hickey 2007). I wrote my Master’s thesis in the cold refuge of Helsinki on the knowledge-action gap in ESD. The depression came back in Finland, but it was muted by urgency.

In my work career that followed I spent time with numerous environmental NGOs but I tried as much as possible not to simply spread the fear. I learned early on that too much fear shuts people off. It was at the start of my NGO career that I came across the work of Joanna Macy (1998), who advocates despair work. She believes that we should engage with our feelings of pain for the world, because to otherwise dampen or ignore them leads to depression, cynicism, inaction and burnout. As a trained scientist I initially balked at engaging with the emotions – I was training in a “train the trainer” community sustainability course to work with making communities more resilient. I was doing this to recruit more people to tackle climate change, not talk about my feelings.  Transition towns had just started to take off and there was a feeling of tentative hope in the air – for the first time there were goals – another way was possible. However as I sat and practiced the despair work, I realised that I was for the first time learning the skills for handling my emotions. As an educator, the first lesson I had to learn was to acknowledge my own despair and understand my emotional response to wicked problems. My education in this area had been lacking for so long. I remember meditating on my own despair, working to uncover my urgent fight or flight response to the climate crisis and biodiversity loss. I discovered the seed of my depression was wrapped in the very topic I was becoming a specialist in. I also discovered how natural a response it was to feel pain and fear for the world. I learned that I had already been using coping skills all along to respond to these emotions and I also learned brand new skills, such as meditation and how to facilitate others in their emotional journey.

In the area of emotional learning, I wasn’t an honour student immediately; I had a few false starts. In work I almost burned out in one NGO that callously overworked me. Taking the decision to leave was one of my most important decisions to take care of myself. Weighing the cognitive dissonance of the carbon imprint of flying, yet wanting to understand the world I was fighting for, I set off on a round-the-world trip. I worked and volunteered from Asia to the Americas. One highlight was using Joseph Cornell’s “nature’s palette” exercise with Shuar children in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In the environmental education classic, you must look for  examples of all the colours of the rainbow in natural living objects. Blue is always difficult, and I still remember the delight as one of the children screamed “Mariposa!” as a big blue butterfly alighted on a nearby flower. Another highlight was when I scuba-dived on the then-threatened Great Barrier Reef. I keenly felt the anticipated loss of that magnificent world, even as I swam with striking blue surgeonfish darting in and out of staghorn corals. This was an experience like no other – fully engaged, one that I could never simply tell the grandkids about, one that they would never experience. I knew then that corals were the canaries in the gold mine. On the tail end of my trip I dove again in Columbia off of Cartagena; every coral was bleached.

It was hard to build up to the Macy exercises in my education – it’s something that requires a lot of trust in the facilitator. However, when I went back to university in Germany, this time to study what exactly makes a sustainably competent person (Rieckmann 2012), I made sure to include despair work in all my courses. Sometimes a “widening circles” exercise to help students understand different perspectives, often a longer deeper meditation “harvesting the gifts of our ancestors”. I now run courses in an action research cycle of teaching, having the students reflect on their learning, running focus groups and improving the course. My goal is specifically to operationalise their anticipatory competence – how well they engage with the future as a motivator and as an abstract concept.

For every single student, even the most stereotypically Teutonic, they have effused about the despair work. It’s often the first time they’ve been given an official space in formal education to address their emotional response to our collective crisis. In my own work I’ve documented students’ emotions and their own feelings of “futures loss” (Gardiner 2017) – not only for anticipated things like the death of the Great Barrier Reef but also the loss of their future identity. As we give students the critical thinking skills to deconstruct their perhaps naïve ideas of their personal futures, it is imperative that we also help them develop coping skills to endure the transition to a new set of values and goals. Rob Hopkins of the Transition  refers to this as their “Peak Oil Moment” (Hopkins 2005). This is when participants in his courses, learning about peak oil, realise that their entire way of life will have to change. This movement uses peak oil, economic instability and climate change as a reason to set our goal on a better future, starting bottom-up, from the community. I generally end my course not talking of geo-engineering or the UNFCCC, but talking of transition towns – a movement that’s now worldwide and accessible to everyone. Their motto is to address the Head, Hands and Heart – a journey I took my time to get through, but one I believe belongs everywhere, including the hallowed halls of academia. 

Gardiner, S. (2017). Futures loss, despair and empowerment work in the University of Vechta: An action research project. In A. Wals & P. Blaze-Corcoran (Eds.), Envisioning futures for environmental and sustainability education.

Hickey, D. 2007. ‘Ahern should stop complaining about snails, says top biologist’. Irish Examiner, 29 October


Hopkins, R. (2008). The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. Totnes: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Macy J. & Brown, M. (1998). Coming Back to life. Practices to reconnect our life, our world. Canada, New Society Publishers.

Rieckmann, M. (2012). Future-oriented higher education: which key competencies should be fostered through university teaching and learning? Futures, 44, 127-135.