A letter signed by 100 scientists, teachers and experts from 37 countries argues that it is time for the UN to dispose of the sustainable development concept and in particular of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) “due to 30 years of proven failure from its allegiance to global capitalism”. They argue that the SDGs are a failure because they are based on central tenet of capitalism: That economic growth is needed to fight hunger and lift everyone out of poverty.
100 scientists and academics urge @UN to drop sustainable development targets #SDGs after ‘failure’#GPDRR2022 #SDG@ClimateHuman @brittwray @ecofootnotes @jembendellhttps://t.co/bmex1Q213V pic.twitter.com/pjwwF9EEuP
— scholarswarning (@scholarswarning) May 23, 2022
To replace the SDGs, they propose that the world adopts “degrowth” as a guiding policy in advanced industrialized countries (without saying what to do with developing countries) and broadened and revised Disaster Risk Management (DRM) to address the climate emergency.
How realistic is this proposal? First we will look at what are the Sustainable Development Goals and why we need them, and then analyze their “degrowth” proposal, showing that there is nothing new in the concept and that relying solely on DRM, even on a large scale, is both unrealistic and unworkable.
What are the Sustainable Development Goals?
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, numbering 17 goals to address all the major issues facing humanity, from climate change to economic inequality, were unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly — i.e., by all 193 UN member states — in 2015 and meant to guide national policies over the next 15 years, until 2030. At which point, a new set of goals, revised in the light of experience, is expected to kick in.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the time, “The 17 Sustainable Development Goals are our shared vision of humanity and a social contract between the world’s leaders and the people. They are a to-do list for people and the planet, and a blueprint for success.”
So what’s the problem?
Looking at who signed the letter, it is quickly apparent that few of the signatories are well-known outside of their academic community, and the half-dozen of notable names include NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, France’s former Minister of Environment and Regional Planning Yves Cochet, and Britt Wray, a broadcaster and activist researching the emotional and psychological impacts of the climate crisis and author of the recent climate anxiety book “Generation Dread.” The full list of signatories and the text of the letter can be found here.
“The worldwide increase in harm from human-caused environmental mayhem demands an urgent refocusing of international aid and cooperation,” the letter begins, claiming that the failure to meet the SDGs is an “indication of a systemic problem.”
“If the way modern societies operate cause the problems that the SDGs seek to address, can we be surprised that those same systems are incapable of fixing them?” the experts conclude.
Related Articles: A Short History Of The SDGs | A (Non) Modest Proposal for the G20: A Sustainable World Commission to Achieve the SDGs
The letter points to two major failures, one related to SDG 1 (reducing poverty) and the other to SDG 2 (ending hunger).
Regarding poverty reduction, far from having “non-existent progress” as the letter claims, the UN has consistently registered progress since the 1990s and clearly explained that “extreme poverty has increased globally for the first time in thirty years” when the COVID-19 pandemic started.
In fact, until 2020, the progress in global poverty reduction was steady, in some areas even radical: “The share of the world’s workers living in extreme poverty fell by half over the last decade, from 14.3% in 2010 to 7.1% in 2019,” the UN reports.
In the period between 1990 and 2015, as the UN shows, extreme poverty rates declined by around 360% (from 36% to 10%).
As to SDG 2, to get the full picture one needs to look back over 30 years — and not since 2014 as the letter signatories do, writing that “world hunger has been rising since 2014, with more than a quarter the world population affected by moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019.”
Now, the UN acknowledges this and admits that the world is currently “not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030.” “The number of people who suffer from hunger began to slowly increase again in 2015,” they write. This, however, doesn’t mean that progress has not been made.
Over the previous two decades, global hunger declined steadily overall, decreasing by almost 40% between 2001 and 2019.
As the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) explains in its report, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020,” much of the increase in food insecurity between 2014 and 2019 can be attributed to the greater number of conflicts around the world.
📢Global hunger levels are at a new high.
But ending hunger IS within our reach – if we act NOW and together. pic.twitter.com/vCYB4nR4o3
— World Food Programme (@WFP) May 29, 2022
The situation is clear: Lack of progress, and even reversal in trends that were positive, is explained not by a failure of the Sustainable Development Goals but by external events nobody could predict: The pandemic and war in Ukraine as well as other conflicts. The war in Syria and general unrest in the Middle East and in other parts of the world affected progress towards the SDGs starting in 2014-15, and causing the first big wave of refugees famously hitting European shores and leading to too many tragic deaths in the Mediterranean. Lately, the Mediterranean has been avoided, and now it is the turn of the Atlantic to witness the largest number of migrant deaths since 2007.
Yet, in their letter, the 100 experts make no mention of conflicts whatsoever and reduce our problems to a “metacrisis” of global warming and climate change destroying the planet and humanity.
When war is waged, people go hungry.
60% of the world’s undernourished people live in areas affected by conflict.
Connections between conflict and hunger mean that generosity is not only an act of altruism. Feeding the hungry is an investment in global peace and security.
— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) May 21, 2022
By not even attempting to address the role of conflicts in increasing hunger and poverty, the authors of the letter appear to ignore one key root of a major, global problem that they (only) identify; and this begs the question: How do they plan to solve world hunger and poverty if they don’t even acknowledge or address one of the fundamental forces driving them?
While the UN calls for a “profound change of the global food and agriculture system” and proposes increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production as a solution to ending hunger, the scientists propose no concrete measures to tackle world hunger, at least not in their letter.
Instead, they simply call on the UN to “drop the redundant and unhelpful ideology of Sustainable Development” and focus on “enabling communities to become more resilient locally,” which in fact is the aim of SDG 11: To make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.
“Enabling communities to become more resilient locally must become a central and cross-cutting principle for international cooperation,” the experts write, adding that adaptation needs to be complemented with “attempts to transition to new socio-economic systems.”
This, they say, can involve “re-localization of trading relationships and energy production, alongside the equitable degrowth of wealthy economies.”
And that, literally, is all the letter proposes as an alternative to sustainable development and the 17 SDGs with their 169 related targets.
What “new socio-economic systems” these scientists are talking about or what exactly they mean by “equitable degrowth of wealthy economies” is left for readers to research and decipher, which is what we at Impakter have attempted to do here.
What is meant by “equitable degrowth”?
To better understand what they are driving at, one can turn to the writings of Professor Jem Bendell, one of the leading signatories of the letter and a founder of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria in the UK. His latest paper is a so-called “transdisciplinary review of research” with the title: “Replacing Sustainable Development: Potential Frameworks for International Cooperation in an Era of Increasing Crises and Disasters.”
Done with a couple of assistants (but no other scientist is involved), the paper hasn’t been peer-reviewed, i.e., confirmed by other experts, but the ideas he presents are clearly reflected in the letter.
Bendell attempts to build the case for replacing Sustainable Development as the “dominant framework” with his own formula for an alternative economic system based on “degrowth” of the West and a mysterious “eco-contract between citizen and state” whose content is not explained anywhere in his paper.
— Timothée Parrique (@timparrique) May 24, 2022
He calls for reducing the consumption and carbon emissions of wealthier countries as a way to address climate change and reduce natural disasters around the world. Presumably, though he never mentions it, developing economies in this scenario should also stop developing. So that is what he means by “equitable degrowth”: Everybody in the West (and perhaps also the rest) is expected to voluntarily pitch in by reducing their “carbon footprint.” And instead of the SDGs, all that is needed is what he calls “International Disaster Risk Management” as an “overarching paradigm for international cooperation.”
Professor Bendell admits that “as an organising principle, it does not offer a positive mood, but people need policymakers to be dealing unflinchingly with realities, rather than choosing terms that keep their spirits up. It might also inspire some humility amongst donors and international bureaucrats, where they recognise that positive visions are locally emergent and culturally specific.”
A decidedly grim view and stunningly unrealistic. Since when will political leaders “deal unflinchingly with realities” that could cost them votes?
Moreover, there is nothing new in this idea that economic growth is incompatible with sustainable living. Climate activists have brought it up again and again under different forms over the past 50 years: The only way to stop climate change, they argue, is to return to a pre-industrial mode of living.
In a famous report published in 1972, “The Limits to Growth,” the Club of Rome was the first to come up with the concept of limited growth as a result of limited planetary resources and that has given rise to a multitude of books and movements. 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome’s landmark report, and once again the Club of Rome says “a change in direction is more urgent than ever.”
But a change in direction does not mean “degrowth.”
First, as a policy to fight climate change, degrowth is a political non-starter (who will vote for that?). Peter Kalmus (who did sign this letter), in a recent interview in the UK Guardian, admitted as much: “I know that [degrowth] is a hard sell. It almost takes a spiritual practice to be able to kind of come out of the addictions of modern life, which are very enticing,” he said.
He went on to explain that’s why he wrote a book about reducing one’s carbon footprint by 90% because he wanted to “get the message out that there’s actually a lot of pleasure in making these kinds of changes.” But as he confessed, he didn’t know whether it would resonate with people or not and unfortunately, it resonated “with a much smaller fraction of people than [he] expected.”
Indeed, most people are not willing to give up their creature comforts, heating their homes in winter or taking their car or a plane to go on vacation, much less turn the clock back on hospital and social care.
Second, the notion put forward by the signatories of the letter — that “sustainability” is incompatible with “development” — is simplistic and overlooks the possibility of sustainable economic activities that provide “green jobs” and a decent living and do not deplete the Earth’s resources. The examples are numerous, from recycling to reforestation and saving mangroves (blue carbon), protecting natural carbon sinks, to restoration/regeneration of the environment, carbon capture and a raft of ingenious “drawdown” solutions.
Nor does it mean that we need to ditch everything we’ve doing so far and engage exclusively in disaster risk management (DRM) as Professor Bendell and the signatories of the letter suggest. Incidentally, we’re already doing that in the case of conflicts and natural disasters: DRM is essentially a narrow set of emergency actions that cannot solve the broader ethical and societal issues the SDGs are designed to address.
The SDGs provide an indispensable roadmap: Without it, nobody would know where to go. Are we seriously going to ditch this, the only global roadmap on which the world has managed to agree? And replace it with “degrowth,” sending us all back to a pre-industrial stage where local communities are tasked with fighting climate change? Yet this is a transnational issue — climate disasters know no borders — and the only way to deal with it is with increased international cooperation, not less.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: A person holding a flag with the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals. Featured Photo Credit: UN Ukraine.