The Admit of Defeat in Sustainable Development

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Since the end of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the general sentiment on the outcome has not been very positive, to say the least. It has been described as anything from “disappointing” to “a failure of epic proportions.” If there is any optimism to be offered, it is in the voluntary actions taken by civil society and businesses. But an outlook of a collective, global agenda towards sustainable development largely looks grim. Is global sustainable development even possible?

No. At least, it is not possible in the way that we define sustainable development in these conversations and in our minds. This definition, as the English environmental writer and activist George Monbiot wrote, has mutated to “sustained growth,” which is the “essence of unsustainability” on this finite planet.

In sustainability-driven discussions and actions, we are always looking for the win-win. We look for solutions that have to make sense, and where we don’t have to concede anything – the lifestyle that we are used to as individuals, financial returns or competitiveness in businesses, and economic growth as a nation. There certainly are win-win solutions in sustainability; they are great for addressing immediate problems and preaching beyond the choir. In addition, to be frank, they also make us feel good. When we find a win-win solution, we think, “I am benefiting society, and at the same time, not having to give up anything. See? I told you sustainability makes sense.”

We constantly underestimate the resistance that is built into the system that we live in, whether it is tightly holding onto what we value the most, or the economic structure that we have built around us.

Take the US energy industry as an example. It is an industry heavily dominated by a few players, requiring huge amounts of capital to break into. Natural gas, however, has been the winner among a portfolio of alternative energy sources. Based on how the system operates and values, it makes sense. It is affordable, requires no radical or costly changes in infrastructure, and provides energy security and job creation. On the sustainability front, it emits half of the carbon as coal does, and it offers a “bridge to renewables.” But, before celebrating in our seemingly win-win solution, we have to ask, did we actually transform the system? Natural gas, especially shale gas, opens up a slew of other environmental problems, and this “bridge to renewables” seems to be turning back on itself to a dependence once again on fossil fuels, making it even harder for renewable energy sources to break into the system.

There are plenty of first step solutions. But they need to be scaled up to transform the mainstream. Through better understanding the resistance built into the system, we can acknowledge that a systemic transformation for a sustainable future is clunky and takes trial and error. It rarely makes sense initially, impeded by an onslaught of problems in high costs, the temptation of more immediate and better solutions, infeasible time scales, and poor efficiency. In other words, it comprises solutions that are not a win-win.

But before the defeatist attitude starts kicking in, meet Chris Downey, a San Francisco-based architect who lost his sight four years ago. For him, “[blindness] isn’t a loss of sight, it’s the capacity to organize your environment in a completely different way” (TEDxBigApple). As for his approach to architecture, he is able to imagine and create spaces with a tactile and acoustic palette that is not dependent on just colors or visual aesthetics. Mr. Downey, who of course did not give up his sight voluntarily, was able to create for himself a more enriching experience with the loss of something most people think they cannot live without.

For those of us in wealthy nations, it’s time to ask ourselves, what do we have to give up? What, because of our non-negotiable attachment to, shrouds us from seeing a more sustainable future – a “future we want“? It’s hard to imagine our lives without constant, affordable electricity, technology advancing faster than we’ve imagined, and once faraway lands now just a flight away. We have the world at our fingertips. Is that truly a necessity? Like Mr. Downey’s pioneering shift in the field of architecture, the admit of defeat and simple unavailability of things could open up new doors in ways that we weren’t able to imagine before.

As hard as we try, sustainable development is not about a win-win. Something’s got to give. We are a very resilient society, incredibly good at solving problems. Even though it’s hard to imagine now, we can live without the luxuries in this system we have created – we can afford to concede. But, unfortunately, our finite planet cannot.


The Image:Peregrine Falcon (left) was once abundant in the New York state before major urbanisation. Midtown Manhattan, where Times Square (right) is located, consumes more energy than whole country of Kenya; Source: Nature Conservancy.

9 thoughts on “The Admit of Defeat in Sustainable Development

  1. Thanks for these insightful reflections, Sunmin. I’ve been thinking back to Rio+20 recently, too and have come to conclude the following: Rio+20 consisted of a large crowd of people who talked a lot, a smaller group of people who actually had some results to show (albeit these results are often less impressive than you’d like them to be), and finally a very small committed group of doers who have been and continue to be pushing forward relentlessly. This smaller group seems too small in comparison to the size and number of challenges ahead and the amount of words spoken seems too many in comparison to the results achieved thus far. Of course, it is remarkable that 190+ nations met and were able to agree on some general document, but the social and human dynamics which is what it comes down to in the end, are not made for future-oriented, long-term decision-making. Pretty much all influential politicians are A) past their half-life and B) especially prone to slow-change / status-quo thinking C) serving on a short- or medium-term basis due to democratic election cycles whereas environmental issues have a much longer time horizon. Hence, it’s very rare that you find a politician who is willing to agree to long-term policies which necessitate severe short-term sacrifices and oftentimes radical shifts from the status-quo (as you point out in your article!).

    Going from the big picture to the bottom line: The most powerful tool is to lead by example. The thing which amazed and energized me at Rio was interacting with those people who wholeheartedly embraced an idea and were working to make it happen on the ground.

    So, is there hope from Rio? Yes, albeit it’s a tender plant right now — we don’t know yet how many new seeds / ideas were planted thanks to Rio+20, but I fully agree with you that irrespective of the amount, there’s still lots, lots of growing to be done!

    • I thought this would pique your interest, based on the last piece you wrote :)

      In response to your thoughtful comment (thank you!): I wonder what it is about the small groups of do-ers that motivates and enables them to actually carry out sustainability-driven decisions and solutions. The 3 qualities of today’s politicians is definitely true, and something you see in the business world too. And these illustrate some of the resistance built into the system that I talked about. But is there something to learn from these small groups of do-ers that can teach us to how to change the system? Surely they face some of the same challenges that “more influential” do-ers face. People concede all the time when they make everyday sustainability choices. “Yes, it does take longer to bike to work” “yes, it is more expensive to buy fair trade”. Only if this attitude, the willingness to give things up, carried on through corporate decisions, and political decisions. When these kinds of decision making get scaled up, the system gets more resistant despite the fact the scale of benefits scale up too.

      I absolutely agree with you on leading by example. That was the sentiment I got from many of the business leaders as well at the Corporate Sustainability Forum!

  2. Good article. There is a strong cultural element that makes it almost unthinkable for us to give up things these days – we are so used to always upgrading, always getting more. But in fact when you do give up something – like watching TV for example – you often find that you adapt very quickly to life without it. The trouble is that you usually don’t give something up until you have to, or unless there is a cultural spur. Western societies used to have the period of Lent (40 days before Easter) as a time when most people would give up something non-essential, as a collective effort, but that practice has faded with religious observance and has not been replaced by a secular equivalent. With it has faded the idea that the essentials of life are quite minimal and that things like daily meat are in fact a luxury, nevermind smart phones or frequent international travel. Consumerism has actively promoted the opposite.
    The difficulty is how to reintroduce this idea, of experimenting with giving something up for a while, ideally as a collective effort. And finding a way to communicate that there is often a silver lining, as you highlighted in the example of the blind architect.
    There is also a danger that it becomes all about personal effort. What about institutions, corporations – don’t they have something to give up as well?

  3. Thank you for this very inspiring article. It seems like foundations are laid but resistances are difficult to overcome. When I see the economic government priorities in Europe I think I can say there is still room for improvment. Hopefully more and more people will be aware of the urgent need for action. Let’s just hope it won’t be too late when they make up their mind…

    • Hello; systems resistances are incredibly difficult to overcome, especially those that we can owe much of our modern day success to. On the bright side, I thinks systems update and shift more easily. Extending the shale gas example that I used, shale gas wasn’t a system change (same system, just different players and technologies). Rather, I think it was a system update, and this gives us opportunities to bring environmental issues to the mainstream. Specifically, the initial public stigma towards fracking made people start to think in more life cycles instead of the immediate financial payoff. And, global warming seems to be finally in mainstream media in the US (Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stones article, a TIME special ed).

  4. I agree that not all sustainable solutions are going to be win-win in the short term, and that this is an obstacle to involving and motivating participation. It’s far easier (though not easy!) to get people on board on changes that benefit them too, and so by focusing on these we can come to see the larger picture.
    The more knowledge and awareness people reach through personally beneficial steps the more likely they are to consider steps that may not be so in the short term, but that fit in with what they have been able to identify as their ethics and values and are beneficial in the long term (i.e. Spanish public sector workers who voted in 2011 for 5% wage reductions rather than further job cuts in the future vs UK local government councillors who voted for a raise in allowances while simultaneously approving local service cuts and future job cuts at district council levels.)

    • Thanks Philippa – both you and Joy bring up issues in motivation and decision-making on the personal level. I fully agree that much of this can be facilitated by higher order organisations (Lent/religion, as Joy brings up, and policy and maybe even campaigning frameworks as you infer). I’ve found that this can be a chicken or egg story – should it start at the individuals, and have institutions follow? Or vise versa? Simultaneously?

  5. Interesting post. I agree with your notion that sustainable transformative change takes periods of trial and error, often leading to situations that could be considered a win-lose or at worst a lose-lose. But getting individuals to accept a situation that is worse than a win-win forces them to acknowledge that previous conditions/situations were bad or wrong for the long-term even though they were a win in the short-term. I think government could play an important role in helping to more quickly bring about transformation but as Sunnie addressed transformation often isn’t their immediate goal. Politicians and parties want to stay in power and will often direct their policies towards creating a short-term win situation for the electorate even while those decisions may not be sustainable long-term.

    Jobs and economic viability can probably be created more quickly and cheaply (less capex) through the use of unsustainable practices/industries as opposed to developing businesses while meeting sustainability goals. And with the current state of the global economy, politicians and people alike will be looking for quick fixes to address their immediate needs and produce short-term win situations.

    I think the most effective way to transform the idea sustainability and have it viewed as a win-win is have people experience the events of unsustainable actions. So while things like global warming, US corn and soy prices, wild weather patterns and melting ice sheets are a terrible reality, my hope is that they will force people to reevaluate their actions and value system and demand transformative change in political office throughout their regions.

  6. Pingback: Sustainability vs Resilience: Don’t Give Up Yet | Studentreporter

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