Friday, January 23, 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals: inspirational or dangerous delusion?

The world seems in growing crisis. Pope Francis recently warned that a "piecemeal" World War III may have already begun with the current spate of crimes, massacres and destruction. Such conflict would be catastrophic in a world with so many nuclear armed states. The signs are worrying, not only with growing chaos and frank barbarism in Syria and Iraq, but also war in eastern Ukraine, and famine and genocide (and more barbarism) in parts of Africa. There is tension in the East Asian Sea and open conflict in several parts of South and South East Asia. Boku Harum seeks to annex much of north east Nigeria. 

Most conflicts relate to competition over scarce environmental and human resources, by groups seeking security at the local and regional level. Our species evolved to express this behavior, but we need to develop new insights and ways of being if we are to develop and sustain and further develop an advanced global civilization. 
In this context the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will soon be finalised (I think by the end of 2015). They are widely seen as the leading means to solve the growing global crisis. Many of its phrases are wonderfully aspirational:

“Planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home … “Mother Earth” .. common expression … Rio+20 noted that some countries recognize .. rights of nature in .. context of .. sustainable development. Rio+20 affirmed .. to achieve a just balance .. economic, social and environmental needs of present and future .. necessary to promote harmony with nature.”

But the SDG authors appear at times so optimistic as to approach delusion. One explanation is that elite global policymakers sincerely believe their rhetoric. Another possibility is that they have consciously created overly optimistic SDGs in an attempt to be inspirational. Both views are unsettling. I find it almost impossible to believe that worldly, experienced people in positions of sufficient influence to set these goals could sincerely believe they are attainable, since there is so little evidence of success (on the scale proposed). History firmly suggests they will not be realised - though progress might be made. But if they do believe this, despite the evidence, then they must be deluded, even though sincere. That is unsettling; it means we are led by powerful people who have lost touch with reality.

But it might be as or even more disturbing to think that these elite policymakers do not sincerely believe their rhetoric, but are simply trying to be inspirational. That seems more likely, but to me it suggests that are out of touch with reality, not seeing how our current is world riddled with exploitation, corruption, obscene inequality and double standards (such as the use of drones to kill people the West does not like).

For example, an SDG is to end, by 2030, all hunger. A goal to end all world hunger within a decade was made at the 1974 World Food Summit. It proved way beyond reach then, and it will now. It would need staggering, unforeseeable, beneficial changes to global human behavior, technology and the climate.

There is another explanation, which I think is more plausible than either scenario described above to explain the utopian nature of these goals. This is that these SDG-setting elites know their goals have no chance of attainment, know there have no realistic pathway to get there, and yet set them anyway, in an attempt not only to placate the masses but also create an illusion that there is skilled and caring leadership.

Genuinely useful and inspiring SDGs need more clear-thinking, more truth-telling (including of recognition of double standards and obstacles) and clearly mapped pathways to their achievement. Inspiration is necessary, but I believe that exaggeration sets up future disappointment and promotes cynicism. It also suggests, perhaps paradoxically that elites don't really give a hoot about the poor and inequality, other than to maintain their own power and privilege, as Guardian journalist Larry Elliott recently suggested about the behaviour of the global elite at the Davos World Economic Forum. I'm editing this post on so called Australia Day (or sorry day), on the morning that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed Prince Philip, who is married to the Australian head of state, who lives in London, UK, as an Australian knight. I can't resist adding that this action illustrates how the rich and powerful look after one another. To me, it just more evidence that the SDGs will remain hopelessly out of reach.

However, although the SDGs are, in my view, so utopian that they are harmful (or more precisely they illustrate and reflect an elite that is out of touch) we must nonetheless still try to promote sustainable development. Part of that pathway is to recognise that there are limits to growth, to accelerate a clean energy transition, and to challenge the domination of conventional economics. That also sounds utopian, but it would steer us in a better direction than the SDGs as they stand.