Although the concept of sustainable development was first clearly expressed in the report Our Common Future, published three decades ago, (with earlier precedents) the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) paid little attention to sustainability. Of the ten MDGs, the seventh, which relates to environmental protection, was a spectacular failure. Hastily conceived, and almost overlooked by Mark Malloch Brown, then administrator of the United Nation Development Programme, this Goal sought to “ensure environmental sustainability.” One of its targets was to “integrate principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes” and “reverse the loss of environmental resources.” While its other targets (improve water access and the lives of slum dwellers) are more on track, the failure of the main theme is extremely serious, threatening not only to worsen the lives of future slum dwellers, but to destroy civilization within a century.
In a welcome re-awakening of high level concerns that development must be sustainable, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) took effect in 2015. Claimed by its supporters to herald a new phase of international development, the 17 SDGs exhort all countries, rich and poor, to work towards genuinely sustainable, inclusive development. Critics contend, however, that the SDGs demonstrate profound cognitive dissonance, and provide a façade behind which global injustice will continue, and where “eco-social” determinants of universal human wellbeing will deteriorate.
The SDGs, in fact, are riddled with cognitive dissonance. Their reliance on conventionally defined economic "growth" is a fatal flaw. They remind me of the false promises that globalisation would bring health and prosperity for all. For example, SDG 8 endorses rapid economic growth, including at least 7% per annum in the least developed countries. But economic growth is not, as far as I can tell, defined to include externalities, negative and positive. Can this be achieved without undermining the natural environment, and thus undermining human development?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to me are a fantasy, conjoured by elites living safe within the global fortress, in order to reassure themselves of their own morality and compassion, and to reassure the poor that all will be well. (Not that the poor are likely to have ever heard of the SDGs).
The problem with living inside a fortress (rather than the kind of world the SDGs imagine, and which, to be fair, many of its promoters work for) is that, eventually, the walls crumble. Well before that point, mentality changes within the fortress, as people think more and more of defence rather than assistance; other people become threats rather than potential friends. This is certainly the case in Australia and the US, as support for migration falters.
A fairer world is actually safer, happier, less fearful, and healthier. But how do we make it fairer? The SDGs need a path to be partly realised, as well as a less utopian framing, which would make them more credible. Such a path is barely sketched. It cannot be achieved in an intensifying fortress world. It requires more academic honesty about limits to growth, and its implications, including for freedom.
Could the arc of the universe bend toward justice?
Somehow, in this dark night, we have to find some light. Martin Luther King is said to have said "the arc of the universe bends toward justice” (mentioned in this video). (This phrase is attributed to abolitionist Theodore Parker, writing in 1853.) One glimmer of hope I have is the knowledge and increasing realisation that globalisation and neoliberalism have failed.
While a reformed, moderated form of economics and power distribution currently seems unlikely to emerge, I doubt this would have arisen in a US administration led by Hilary Clinton. Were I a US citizen, I would have voted for Bernie Sanders - but neither the power elite nor the people in the rustbucket states were ready for that (though this article claims Sanders would have defeated Trump in these states. It also shows a tweet by Trump where he seems to indicate he regarded Sanders as a more formidable opponent).
Both the UK and Germany show evidence of understanding that poor eco-social determinants underpin the growing refugee crisis. Germany is acting through the UN institutions. Britain, however, seems to be acting more via its own intervention. Both approaches have a place (and China's too) - but it is also essential that the US play a better role. This will not happen with the US government under President Trump. The big US aid groups such as the Gates and Clinton Foundations are also neoliberal; perhaps the backlash against globalisation will cause them to reconsider. Let us hope!
About the author: Adjunct Professor Colin Butler is co-founder of two development-promoting NGOs, each of which promote old fashioned strategies for development such as health care and education. In 2014 he became the first Australian IPCC contributor to be arrested for climate disobedience.