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.