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Let's Talk Failures: Why This is Essential for Sustainability

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

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In order to move forward, we must recognize our errors of the past.

Failing Grades by Aveera Juss

Anthropogenic climate change is one of humankind’s biggest failures. What we often forget, however, is that it consists of smaller, but just as crucial, operational misfirings that are often overlooked. The truth is that even when we do talk about these misfirings, not everyone is actually listening.

From the systemic oppression of vulnerable groups to oil spills and rings of fire in our oceans. The lack of control, proper assessment, and oversight by key actors, like large corporations and governments, needs to be addressed to learn from these mistakes and prepare for future ones. This is key if we want to achieve adaptive resilience in a collapsing world.

Setting up the Discourse

First of all, let’s take a closer look at what the term adaptive resilience means. This is the capacity for a socio-ecological system to deal with external stresses and still maintain its function. It also refers to the ability of the system to adapt, reorganize, and evolve to improve its sustainability. Stressors include failed policies, ecosystem collapse, bad public or private investments, man-made disasters, and more.

So, why is talking about failures critical to achieving adaptive resilience? Talking about failures can...

  1. Make things easier: Starting this discussion can spotlight our system’s vulnerabilities, allowing us to address them more easily.

  2. Make us evaluate our failures: Evaluating failures can make us reflect on efficiency-related criteria that could be strengthened within our system, such as the inclusiveness and effectiveness of a solution.

  3. Help us overcome our differences: Every discourse involves disagreements that stem from differing perspectives. These debates could provide the foundation for collaboration and innovative ideas.

  4. Close gaps in knowledge: The governance of climate change relies on having the right knowledge at the right time. Talking about failures can make the governance of climate change more transparent and inclusive, and knowledge about failures might even become a driver for change.

A Dive into the Past

There is a myriad of examples that illustrate past failures of sustainability strategies. These failures range from the speed of a response to a climate emergency to the equal representation of minority groups in climate strategies. Let’s dive into some of these cases to better understand the significance of talking about failures.

There is systemic oppression that has persevered against lower caste groups, especially Dalit women, who are facing the heightening impacts of droughts. The ingrained issues of social exclusion, political under-representation, vulnerability, and economic dependence have inhibited Dalits and Dalit women from receiving the justice they deserve.

There are also examples of failures in Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The Yamuna River in India, for instance, has been facing severe anthropogenic pressures like construction, pollution, change in native vegetation, and the over-exploitation of species and agriculture. These have diminished the river’s capacity of providing clean water, but even so, the channelization of the river and the construction of infrastructure on its floodplains are ongoing.

This is a major failure in a climate change mitigation strategy. Emphasizing this shortcoming is crucial to bring about effective reformations in the country’s EIA by highlighting the desired efficiency criteria that can make this strategy work.

Recognizing this systemic failure is key to transitioning from an oppressive system to a fair and inclusive one. Only by acknowledging such negligence can India’s socio-ecological system be reorganized to ensure sustainability, as this can only be achieved if every social group is considered.

Looking into the Future

Another reason why we should be talking about failures is the risk associated with failing at overcoming climate change. According to the Global Risk Report of 2016, the failure to mitigate and adapt to climate change is considered the most impactful and likely risk for the coming decade. This risk is mainly due to lingering uncertainty tied to a constantly changing world and limited human knowledge of it.

So, how can our awareness of possible failures strengthen our adaptive resilience and possibly reduce this risk?

The answer is simple. If thorough assessments are carried out for sustainability interventions, we can be more informed of potential failures in their effectiveness. Only then can we adequately prepare alternative solutions. Moreover, acknowledging this risk enables us to construct different scenarios for the future, which reduce uncertainty and increase resilience.

Most importantly, accepting failure as part of sustainable development can combat risk aversion - the preference for outcomes with low risks. This is crucial, as a risk-averse society is blocked from the opportunities of “going for it”, limiting innovation and possible mitigation strategies. Although this type of thinking is often seen in business decisions, it can be successfully applied to decision-making for sustainability management.

Overall, the discourse about failures in the governance of climate change is an essential element of adaptive resilience. We need to acknowledge failures as learning opportunities that can prepare us for an uncertain future, where the risk of setbacks is exceedingly high. Let’s talk about failure and learn from vulnerabilities.


Majumder, S. (2020). Environmental Impact Assessment, Exercises for Urban Services Design and Administration. Jadavpur University.

Scata, J. (2016). Failure to Mitigate and Adapt to Climate Change is Biggest Global Risk. NRDC.

Worker, J. (2008). India’s Environmental Impact Assessment Process & Failure to Protect the Yamuna River from the Thirst of Development. The Access Initiative.

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