By Amanda Williams, Katrin Heucher and Gail Whiteman

Using paradox theory to address planetary emergency

Fires in Canada and the western U.S., flooding in Germany, a global pandemic.… Do you feel like the planet is in a state of emergency?

In 2009, a group of 29 scientists published the planetary boundaries framework, which identified and quantified nine ecological boundaries that interact at a global scale, to designate the safe operating space. The nine planetary boundaries are: climate change, phosphorus and nitrogen flows, freshwater use, land-system change, biodiversity, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, air pollution and chemical pollution. Crossing the boundaries jeopardizes the safe operating space for humanity, and it exacerbates the risks for humanity.

The Club of Rome declared a “planetary emergency” at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, in collaboration with a network of global contributors. Its Planetary Emergency Plan calls for urgent action to prevent a global crisis due to the effects of human activity on the stability of the Earth’s life-support systems. The plan states:

Our patterns of economic growth, development, production and consumption are pushing the Earth’s life-support systems beyond their natural boundaries. The stability of these systems—our global commons on which we so fundamentally depend—is now at risk.

This declaration emerged from the weight of clear scientific evidence on the dire state of both the global climate system and the extent of ecological destruction and widespread, irreplaceable biodiversity loss. The evidence shows that, without major and timely interventions in key ecosystems, the risks to the long-term well-being of humanity and the planet are too high, the Club of Rome states.

Managers from companies around the world want to help, but they confront paradoxical challenges. The paradox perspective acknowledges that there are goals competing for our attention, where a trade-off simply is not enough. For example, we cannot trade off the health of our planet with our own health. And managers, confined by their role in companies, feel that they cannot trade off profit for the sake of the environment.

Paradox theory offers an alternative way to think about this problem and find new solutions. It involves thinking in a “both/and” mindset, rather than viewing problems as “either/or.” While an either/or mindset would lead to trade-offs, such as between planetary health and human well-being, a both/and mindset helps us see the interconnections and develop innovative solutions to avoid trade-offs. For instance, with the example of planetary health and human well-being, one can develop solutions that are good for the planet but also provide for human well-being.

We propose a three-sequence framework that can help actors address the planetary emergency using a paradox approach:

  1. Building a view of the planetary emergency across spatial and temporal scales,
  2. collectively making sense of the planetary emergency, and
  3. leveraging a paradoxical view of the planetary emergency to ensure effective action.

Building a view of the planetary emergency across spatial and temporal scales means becoming aware of the complexity of the planetary emergency across geographies and over time. This understanding is vital, because we can discuss and act on an impending emergency only if we recognize subtle cues that drive its magnitude. While some issues are geographically close and have already manifested, others may be further away, unnoticed but about to hit. Specifically, we propose integrating science-based collaborations and reports into the strategic planning of companies around the world.

Collectively making sense of the planetary emergency, the second sequence we highlight, means recognizing the impending shocks and collectively making sense of them. In practice, one way to achieve a science-based conversation for collective sense-making is launching a forum with Earth system scientists, the Club of Rome, paradox scholars and industry leaders to achieve a shared understanding of critical sustainability issues and the planetary emergency. Collective sense-making is needed to proactively address shocks rather than just responding to local catastrophes. It is also needed to help make sense of the global challenges we face in the context of interconnected value chain companies and collaborators.

Finally, we propose leveraging a paradoxical view of the planetary emergency to ensure effective action. We can do so by using the creative effect that actively engaging with paradox can bring to find innovative solutions to the causes of the shocks, rather than just the symptoms. By understanding the interconnection of issues, rather than focusing only on their competition for our attention, we can mitigate problems that result from the neglect of environmental and social topics.

This approach could be used to address other grand challenges as well, such as those associated with refugees and hunger. We call on students, researchers and managers to embrace paradoxical thinking to enable brave and bold action to tackle pressing global sustainability issues.

Katrin Heucher is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Erb Institute. This post is adapted from “Planetary Emergency and Paradox,” a chapter in Interdisciplinary Dialogues on Organizational Paradox: Learning from Belief and Science

Photo by Thom Milkovic on Unsplash