Sunday, July 2, 2017

Good intentions on the deck of the Human Titanic

I just read an excellent open access article by Rachel Waters, published in the first issue of The Ecological Citizen, called "Rethinking the United Nations' concept of sustainability".

I write for the UN Environment Programme's forthcoming report "Global Environmental Outlook 6: Healthy Planet Healthy People". I absolutely concur with the main points of this paper, which are:

1. The word "sustainability" is a global catchphrase, touted by myriad businesses and institutions, in an era of accelerating climate change and deadly multi-dimensional crises.

2. When the United Nations (UN) debuted its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, the document referenced the word ‘sustainable’ more than 20 times within its stated goals to tackle everything from poverty and hunger to biodiversity decline and climate change.

3. Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, points out that to eradicate poverty using free market capitalism, the global economy would need to expand to 5 times its present size (Hickel, 2015). This estimate does not take into account the need to leave a fair share of Earth for other species.

4. Therein lies the greatest contradiction within the SDGs: In a world whose economies thrive largely on industries which drill, deforest and pollute, how can the SDGs simultaneously hold nations to the goal of poverty eradication while requesting they do so ‘sustainably’, when there’s nothing sustainable about the engines of growth?

5. Mankind cannot save the Earth and itself while churning out relentless economic "growth" (as I pointed out on this essay inspired by Kenneth Boulding, called "Increasing Unease on Spaceship Earth". This contradiction is often masked by the language of sustainability, rendering it little more than a flimsy bridge between the disconnected concepts of mankind and nature, and the developed world and the developing.

6. This disconnect lies at the core of neoliberal thinking, which also contaminates the UN. This worldview has for centuries created an artificial divide between the ‘natural world’ and humanity.

7. Extractive capitalism has long lacked constraining ideas of interconnectedness. It has impregnated a view that nature’s bounty is virtually boundless, a free resource to be tapped at will to meet human wants, wishes and demands. As these demands have grown and the resources have fell – as "new poverties of water, air, land, climate and biodiversity" emerge – the word ‘sustainability’ has been slapped on as a Band-Aid.

8. This binary has never been effectively challenged. Even as scientists, activists and Indigenous peoples protest against it governments, businesses and the UN fail to operate from a sufficient stance of interconnectedness.

7. The 2014 Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014) (to which I contributed) illustrates reads as an urgent case for changing how we interact with the planet within the global capitalist system. Closer inspection reveals cognitive dissonance that mask the dire consequences of our current trajectory. The IPCC notes that global warming above 2°C  (3.6°F) will have detrimental impacts for “disadvantaged people and communities”.

Note, very confusingly, however, that the IPCC temperature baseline is uncertain (see discussion here) and not always consistent with that generally reported, such as the Paris climate agreement. The agriculture chapter, for example, uses a baseline warming of that in the late 20th century.

8. Waters argues out that the IPCC's use of language such as that climate change will harm “disadvantaged people and communities” isolates the impact of climate refugees and ecological destabilization from the rest of the world (the first and second "clastes"), distancing one from the other and potentially affecting policy and practice within so-called ‘advantaged’ societies. I would add that many comparatively affluent people will point out the suffering of the poor as a way of demonstrating their own level of compassion - but that not many such people are interested in reducing their own quality of life. The approach of most UN documents to poverty follows the poverty of the Pareto Principle; that is if I have 100 units and give you one unit, then while you gain, I lose. Therefore it's better to grow the economy, so that you gain one and I also gain something - which is likely to deepen inequality.

9. Waters also points out the reliance, almost magical thinking that relies on carbon capture and environmental ‘restoration’ in the face of accelerating extraction. She says that this reinforces the concept of man outside of nature and ignores the fact that the cost of natural goods is rising owing to scarcity and environmental externalities.

10. Like Herman Daly (see "A further critique of growth economics" (free version at, she points out that we are stuck with these price hikes, whether we like it or not.

11. She says, in our interconnected world, there is no containment of ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’, nor is there any harmony between relentless economic growth and planetary limits.

12. Humans are only a small part of nature; we cannot realistically extricate ourselves from each other or from nature, or adapt it to meet our demands, and "we should be ethically compelled to reduce our negative impacts as a species on the rest of the planet, as it has a right to thrive independent of the benefit that we derive from it."

13. The UN has the power of normative ideas, conveyed through the language of its documents. The UN must tackle its cognitive dissonance ("dualistic thinking") before it can ponder and help bring about sustainable development.

In summary, the SDGs may reflect good intentions on the deck of the Human Titanic, but they are nowhere near sufficiently courageous. Those with power, reinforced and rewarded by neoliberalism (such as President Trump and Prime Minister Turnbull), are content for environmental brinkmanship to intensify.

There is a discussion of a range of Earth-centred issues with the Ecocentric Alliance’s email group: see