Sustainable Development: An Inconvenient Truth

Sustainable Development: Beautiful, Green, and Sparkling

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Disclaimer: This article reflects the author’s opinion only. By no means, does it represent visions or goals of any institutions or organizations.

Note: Rather than focusing on Economics, this is an article that prompts you to re-think sustainable development by weighing both positives and negatives of the currently available options that you or your country has. Still, it is based just as much on economic way of thinking by employing systemic approach, meaning considering all things as inter-connected components of a system.


Article updated: 14th May 2015

I have added a few paragraphs to supplement the article which was missing a few integral parts when I first wrote it. I have highlighted the new additions, so you can easily find them. Thanks!


“And they lived happily ever after” is music to the ears, and this is why development matters. We want to create a utopia for everyone. That is why people will support anything done for the good cause of development, a sustainable one almost always preferred.

….. And that’s it. This is where the train of thought usually terminates. We tend to see sustainable development as green, beautiful, and sparkling. However, this has led to a lot of needless problems in rather illusory but agreeable forms which in reality do more harm than benefit. By now, you may or may not see my point, but rather than giving a straightforward explanation, I believe that people can learn more if they think more and actually see each answer to their questions as a part of a larger intricate system instead of a single point that has no bearing on anything else.

There is one principle that economics teaches you right from the beginning, and that you would realize is true at the end. It is simple: “There is no free lunch”. Basically, this means anything comes at a cost even if it is free at the face value. Viewing all entities within an economy at aggregate level, you can see that just because a burger was given out for free, even if it is charged at $0 price, its inherent cost can never ever be negated. The meat, the bun, the pickle, the ketchup, the mustard, the cooking process, the people hired, the cost of transporting and distributing ingredients, all of these are inherent costs that can never be erased. In other words, a gift is free, but the giver has to pay for it. Of course, at first, it is as if you get it for free, but even to you, there is an implicit cost incurred because any gift you receive entails an obligation that you later on need to reciprocate the goodwill of the giver (an unspoken rule that decides your long-term relationship with people).

Likewise, though sustainable development is a not beautified term per se, but it sounds as beautiful as what free burger sounds to you and to me. It sounds as if the burger itself has been magically created without having to kill livestock, without having to spend time, money and energy in its making.

By no means am I implying that “sustainable development” is a naive way of thinking, nor am I saying that such approach is not doable, niether am I critizing sustainable development itself. It has actually formed a basis of sound idea, of which products have had profound life-changing impacts on hundreds of millions. Of course, when map is drawn and route is planned ahead with a degree of precaution taken, sustainable development is as desired as the fountain of youth. However, just like weapons, theories never bring harm; likewise, the concept of sustainability is not a detriment, not until we, ourselves, misinterpret it by following our disposition to break down and see the complex systemic causes and effects among countless variables as a straightforward correlation between A and B.

As a result, some people interpret sustainable development as a development process that incurs zero or much less environmental and social costs than the conventional economic driven approaches. People tend to associate sustainable development with only maximum environmental and social well-beings while ignoring much of the economic side which matters just as much as the other two constitutents. Now, this is not completely off the mark, but it has created subsequent events that can be counter-productive for the long-run economic growth while saving little of what intended to be saved in the first place.

How can it happen? The story goes like this…

First, before anything else, we need to understand the term itself. What does Sustainable Development really mean? As a matter of fact, it has been defined in many ways, but as far as I’m concerned, one that is quoted the most is: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

It doesn’t rhyme, but my god, doesn’t that sound amazing? What is said here is that we need to develop the future, and not just for the present while jeopardizing the well-being of the next generations. That is it, and I fully support this idea. I think it is really really great.

“Now what?” is a very popular question that arises after a great idea has popped up. Now what? What do we need to do achieve sustainable development? People have asked themselves this question again and again and again. It is a recurring simple question that is hard to answer.

Sustainable development requires you to balance between economic, social, and environmental objectives in working towards the ends. People have come up with things like gender equality, protection of children and vulnerable groups, conserving resources, preserving ecosystem, etc. while continuing to push agricultural, industrial and technological growth. And these are exactly what we need; these are definitely the noble goals that we should aim for.

“But how?” is probably the most asked question after everything else figured out, and this is probably when the notion of sustainable development as a beautiful development begins to crumble. For example, in agriculture, with limited budget to subsidize or build effective irrigation system and with the goal to keep price low, how do you raise agricultural productivity without changing the tradition by converting small family farms (i.e. do away with the preserved tradition) into an intensive collective or industrial agriculture? How do you keep price low to ensure affordability without mass produce? How do we obtain fertile land without cutting down forest and at the same time preserve the peaceful livelihood of farmers who occupy most of the fertile land? How do we properly compensate those who lose for the greater good of their society? When attempting to answer such questions, bear in mind the limited national budget that we have, even with external aids, and the many objectives/issues that are equally important and the prioritization to be done.

In energy sector, as another example, there are those who oppose constructions of certain renewable power sources. Their reason being the environmental and social damages that will result from the construction projects. While some presents concrete evidence that the cost is definitely greater than the potential benefit of certain projects, many are grounded in very little understanding of the rationale, technicality, and the process of implementing development projects. My point is that there are questions which demand immediate answers. How do you supply sufficient energy (electricity, gas, etc) to the increasing demand of growing population without polluting the environment and sacrificing a part of the society somewhere? How do you obtain clean energy when clean energy itself can only be obtained at social and environmental costs, and even then, can only meet a small portion of the total demand? Environmental assessment, you say? Yes, this is absolutely necessary. Then what? What if the result is negative? Are you going to stop building the clean power source that can significantly reduce energy price and push development further while reducing environmental pollution in the long run? Are you sure that the alternative options of depending on energy imports from other countries do not lead to equally or greater environmental cost while subject your economy to foreign dependence and negative influences? Since energy is the core component of development, can your economy sustain without lower energy price? You might want to do it later, but when is later? When will it be? How much potential benefits might have been lost? How much indirect and direct cost incurred until the so-called “right time”?

You might say that we should wait for technology that allows for high efficiency with waste minimization, or alternative sources of energy that can be sustained in the long run with much less externalities (pollution, etc). But, remember that technology is developed mostly through experiment, through trials and errors that will demand substantial information from actual experience. This includes identifying problems, pinpointing areas for improvement, seeking alternative components… all of which can only be obtained through real implementation in the first place. This means that to fully understand the flaws of an idea, you need to first study, put it into practice, monitor and evaluate it, and study it again. If you do not allow thesse projects to happen, how can you be so sure? How can you further upgrade things that don’t exist?

My literature teacher once asked a very interesting question. He asked “How could our forefathers know what mushroom is good to eat and what is poisonous or deadly?” This is a very good question because we, humans, consume mushrooms. For vegetarians, mushroom is a very good source of protein (just a side note), so the knowledge related to edible mushrooms, while seemingly trivial, are important for human survival, at least in the past when food was scarce for a majority of the population. Well, it shouldn’t be possible that people just one day became aware of the fact that the purple mushrooms with red dots are poisonous. There must have been someone who tried eating it and died. Maybe, not just one person, but a bunch of people. Maybe, a person went into the forest alone, ate the mushroom, and died. Maybe, no one saw that person. Maybe, it took quite a few dead people for someone to finally see it happening and realized that the mushroom must have been the cause, and thus, poisonous and deadly if consumed. I meant this kind of thing sounds cruel and inhumane, but because of the unintentional sacrifice of the few, millions got to live and knowledge stored for future generations. Likewise, there are development projects that will require trials and errors, several or more times of failure before problems identified and improvements made. Sometimes, there are things that you should do and things that you must do.

Furthermore, you must never forget that for some projects, especially those related to energy generation, certain conditions must be met. Building hydropower dam requires high level of precipitation to be sustainable and high water volume in its reservoir for strong potential and kinetic energy for maximum electricity generation. Wind power requires lots of land, and it needs to be in area with strong wind flow. Solar power also covers lots of land, and is expensive to build and maintain while being less efficient and generating less electicity if compared to some other conventional or renewable alternatives. You see, to harness all these renewable/clean resources, their plants need to be placed strategically in geographical locations that are most favorable and can satisfy all the prerequisites. They come with both merits and de-merits. That is why green development is not easy; however, even with the inefficiency and other disadvantages that accompany these new types of power plants, there are times when they need to be built because, as mentioned, humans learn and develop through trials and errors.

You see, development always present dilemmas. That’s the word I’m looking for, “dilemmas”… because you will always face trade-offs, because you will always encounter unfavourable options along the process of development. For this reason, there are many questions and ideas that you must answer/consider before deciding to support a movement or make a decision.

It seems like we have done what should be done by now, but knowing what and how still don’t get you anywhere. There is one more factor, not last, but crucial.

Before getting to that part, let’s get off track little bit. I love telling and listening to stories, and there is this story about a group of mice and a cat that I enjoy, and that I have told my friends countless time. It goes like this:

Fearing the cat’s claws, the mice were trying to figure out a way to track and predict the cat’s movement beforehand so that they can go out and gather food without having to confront with this fearsome monstrosity. Of course, in the annual mice’s meeting, the leader came up with a great idea! Why not tying a bell to the cat’s neck, so that whenever it moves, the bell will ring, and thus, emit sound that will tell the location of the cat. If succeed, the bell will act as a warning sign crucial to the survival of the mice. Cool! What a beautiful mind! Then, “But how?” asked another mouse. Silence permeated the meeting room.

So, the morale of the story is that even after having figured out all the WHATs and HOWs, more questions keep coming. Is it practical? Is it feasible? Will it suffer from unforeseen side-effects that can turn the outcome inside out? Will the decision produce harmful by-products? Is resisting changes equivalent to protection of valueable resources, tradition and culture in the long run?

You must never dismiss the fact that an idea, no matter how great, is still an idea. Only when you put a great idea into practice and attain desired outcomes can you call it a day.

Some ideas are derived from good intentions, noble and applaudable, but unfeasible. Some ideas are saint-like, benevolent and pure, and feasible at the same time; in practice, however, they result in systematic errors, so great that the detrimental effects completely outstrip the initial goodwill and result.

I will give you an example. Such ideas can be something humanitarian like free healthcare, which in the end, is still driven by taxes from citizens, which are usually inadequate to sustain the system anyway. Free healthcare for everyone is advertised as being done out of goodwill to help the mass, to allow people to live well and not suffer from the loss of life just because they don’t have the money to afford medical treatment. However, this noble idea entails a huge cost. Eventually, the system can jam. How? Because of “Systemic Causation”. And what is systematic causation?

People support free healthcare because of the good intention embedded within the idea, what is known as “Intentional Causation”. Free healthcare is driven by good intention to restore faith in humanity; in other words, it is driven by the “means”. Remember though, that the means does not justify the ends. This is when Systemic Causation comes into play.

Systemic causation is more important to understand, yet elusive and less obvious. Because everything is inter-connected within some sort of system, inevitably, a single cause rarely leads to a single end or result. It ripples like when a drop of water falls into a lake. Free healthcare, though done out of compassion, will lead to moral hazard. It is when people are less worried and less careful about their health because healthcare is free anyway! Medical expense is no longer an important factor in planning for the future. Health insurance company suffers the loss. People might become careless and get sick more often and visit their doctors more than necessary. The hospital can become too crowded causing patients to wait much longer in line, and this can amount to months. Months of waiting, months of time wasted, tons of money and life wasted along the process. Furthermore, the government might end up in a tight budget position because of the overuse of the healthcare service. Tax might be raised to sustain healthcare expense. When it can no longer be supported, they might then want to abolish the free healthcare scheme, but then, this can aggravate the majority of population who have been enjoying this kind offer. When tax rate reaches a certain point, government might borrow more, and borrowing more is not without economic consequences.

So, as you can see, this is an example of a scenario in which a good intention does not lead to good outcomes. Even if an idea is derived out of the love for, say, humanity and environment, it does not necessarily translate into positive outcomes. Things are not that simple.

Sustainable Development is no different. When you resist (or support) certain changes that are deemed negative (or positive) without rigorous research and in-depth understanding the rationale, the feasibility and potential short-term and long-term outcomes, you are likely to make less rewarding decisions.

Rather than cruising towards sustainability on an ever-green avenue, development process will tags along with it many dilemmas. At surface, you might go for the seemingly obvious and humane options, and you might condemn those who choose other options that seem corrupt and cold-blooded. However, systemic causation dictates that a good means does not always lead to a good end. So, it is very important that you judge while standing on neutrality and only base your decision on well-grounded analysis and unbiased reasoning.

Again, there are certain approaches that are great at first sight, but that does not guarantee desired consequences. I believe that, sometimes, painful decisions of which development route to take have to be made, and since time is money, any lag can potentially incur huge loss. There are certain routes that are safer, but come with a huge opportunity cost that is invisible to many. That is why the time will come when your country has to face and choose a seemingly less desirable option to pursue a greater cause in the long-run. So, before reacting towards certain decisions or policies, I urge you to ask yourself these questions:

– Why do it? or What is the goal?

– What to do to achieve the goal?

– How to do it?

– What are the implicit/opportunity costs?

– Is it feasible?

– Are you sure beyond all doubts that it will lead to the desired effective and impactful outcome?

– Will the outcome be relevant to growth and development?

– Can it sustain itself in the long-run?

The whole process is long and tiresome, but remember that, this is what every practitioner has to go through. They have to answer all these questions (and probably many more) not just through pure logic and thinking, not just opinions, but through rigorous conduct of research that can cost millions and last years. However, it allows development workers to carefully analyse all the possible side-effects and unintended outcomes that may arise, which enable them to have enough information to weigh between positives and negatives of a certain project/decision. And, that is why their versions of development path are sometimes not so green and beautiful and can slightly or significantly differ from yours.

This article is a bit critical of many actions and movements occurring or having occurred in our modern world, but in all honesty, I am not opposing sustainable development and promoting the traditional path of chopping down trees and let ineqaulity reigns. Instead, what I am trying to convey to you (and I do hope you feel the same way) is that, just like how it is defined, sustainable development is about seeking an equilibrium point where social, environmental, and economic objectives can co-exist and support one another. This is not how sustainable development is perceived currently; people tend to put strong emphasis on environmental and social health while discounting the economic counterpart. In development, this thinking is not healthy. Why? Because achieving economic objectives contributes significantly to the achievement of the other two. That is why in social projects, we see themes like “women economic empowerment” and “closing income inequality gap”; and for the exact same reason, in environmental projects like climate change adaptation & mitigation projects, we see themes like “income diversification through integrated farming” and “carbon emissions trading”. All of these have embedded substantial economic elements that are clearly visible from the stage of planning to implementation to assessment of outcome and to re-adjustment for improvement.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so all correlations between the three objectives must be taken into account. Negligence is not an option. With all these in mind, I strongly believe that this article will serve as a basis for decision making and can help explain, though vaguely, why things are the way they are. I hope you enjoy reading the article.