All of us who are engaged in the study of sustainability were delighted to see that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, 2015) looked like a big improvement on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000). The MDGs had focussed exclusively on the very necessary development needs of the global South. But, as far as sustaining the ecological basis for that development, all that was offered was a general nod to “sustainable development” and “revers[ing] the loss of environmental resources.” Both forests and biodiversity got a brief mention in the sub-clauses. But to no avail. The environment has continued to decline since 2000, as animal populations kept falling, more forests and wetlands were cleared or drained, carbon emissions kept rising and global warming increased.
Sustainable development has had a contested meaning since it was coined by the Brundtland commission in 1987— ranging through everything from purely economic sustainability to the guaranteed protection of the ecological basis of all life, including human life. It can mean pretty well anything and is a meaningless term unless a definition is provided.
So when we saw that the SDGs explicitly aimed to protect land and ocean ecosystems, stop global warming and adopt sustainable production and consumption patterns (SDGs 12-15), it seemed like a giant stride in the right direction. At last, the international goals explicitly included key elements that have bothered scientists for decades.
On closer inspection, however, these new goals are embedded in the same development strategy that has dominated thinking since the end of World War II, and strengthened its grip on “common sense” after about 1980, with the rise of neoliberalism. Economic growth is the indispensable basis of this approach to development.
If growth could be pursued, it was thought, we would not need to interfere with the distribution of wealth. IMF leaders such as Anne Krueger (2004) were explicit about this:
Our job at the Fund is to support governments in their efforts to deliver the sustained and rapid growth needed to raise living standards and reduce poverty.... the solution is more rapid growth—not a switch of emphasis towards more redistribution. Poverty reduction is best achieved through making the cake bigger, not by trying to cut it up in a different way."
Krueger encapsulated the ideology that underpins development theory, just as this approach is the core element in current “free” market prescriptions for the rich world. It is an ideology that does not ask where the ingredients for the ever-expanding cake are to come from—or at what cost.
The SDGs include the four new ecological objectives alongside the goals for essential material improvements and a new explicit goal of “sustained economic growth” (SDG8). No contradiction is acknowledged. Nor is the fact that economic growth defined in terms of GDP has been correlated with environmental destruction, not preservation, for more than a century, and especially since 1950.
Target 8.1 requires sustained per capita GDP growth, including at least 7% a year for the least developed countries. Obviously some economic growth and material extraction is necessary in the South to provide sanitation, water, and services in general, but SDG8 demands ongoing economic growth throughout the world and defines growth in terms of GDP.
This is no surprise. Economic growth has been peddled as the panacea for all problems for well over 50 years; it is still continually pushed by politicians, business people and most of the global institutions involved in sustainability policy. But GDP growth itself has, up to now, required ongoing extraction and consequent waste-disposal—and has been associated for a century with rising carbon emissions, depletion of resources and ongoing transformation of land systems.
There are numerous claims that such GDP growth can be decoupled from its negative consequences, but hard evidence of any success is scarce. This is especially true of the underlying physical realities that govern non-substitutable resources such as land, water, raw materials and fossil energy.
UNEP (2019) has quantified levels of material extraction that are compatible with Earth’s ecological integrity. In 2015, they estimate, we were extracting 87-88 billion tonnes of stuff a year, while estimates of a level of resource use that could be sustainable cluster around 50 billion tonnes a year.
If we pursue the economic expansion implied by SDG8, we are likely to be extracting approximately 190 billion tonnes a year (more than 18 tonnes per capita) by 2060. We will also have increased greenhouse gas emissions by more than 40% and reduced forests and other habitats by more than 20%. This 2060 figure will also be higher if population growth exceeds the UN’s medium projection. Such outcomes are clearly inconsistent with the environmental SDGs.
SDG 12 aims for “sustainable production and consumption.” It’s hard to see how GDP expansion can lead in that direction or how we could meet that goal without tackling the vast waste of the consumer economy, where consumption is incited to keep the economy going. Production needs to focus on meeting actual human needs.
If we are to resolve the internal contradictions of the SDGs, we will have to confront difficult and strategic choices—especially in agriculture, infrastructure, urban development and industry. As UNEP (2019) says: "we need an urgent and systemic transformation of how we use and manage natural resources."
We will also require reform, perhaps transformation, of the economic system, so that distribution of wealth is repaired, whether by tax measures, universal income, shorter working weeks or years, vastly increased aid from rich to poor countries, and similar government-mandated techniques.
Clearly, growth in material footprint will be essential for the South, and to accommodate that need, the consumption patterns of the North will have to contract. It will no longer suffice to set the market free to do its work (if it ever was). Design and planning must somehow be permitted and fostered—and this will require a retreat from the market-oriented prescriptions of the neoliberalism that has dominated economic thinking for 50 years.
Krueger, A. 2004. Letting the future in: India’s continuing reform agenda. 4 Jun. www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2015/09/28/04/53/sp060404.
UNEP 2019. Global resources outlook 2019. https://www.resourcepanel.org/global-resources-outlook-2019.