The Problem with Saving the World

The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals aim to save the world without transforming it.

Land cleared for palm oil plantations in Tasmania. Mattias Klum

The United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are about to replace the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), are getting a lot of hate these days.

The Economist recently called the 169 proposed targets “sprawling and misconceived,” “unfeasibly expensive” at $2–3 trillion per year, and so unlikely to be realized that they amount to “worse than useless” — “a betrayal of the world’s poorest people.” An article in the Humanosphere reports that the SDGs were ridiculed as “No targets left behind” during a high-profile meeting of Gates Foundation partners. One development expert I know likens the SDGs to “a high school wish-list for how to save the world.”

These critics accuse the SDGs of being vague and aspirational, and of trying to cover too much ground; they prefer the old MDGs, which were more focused on absolute poverty.

Defenders of the SDGs, on the other hand, point out that the goals have emerged from a genuinely inclusive process that made room for voices from developing countries, unlike the MDGs, which were handed down by technocrats from above. The goals are complex because they recognize that poverty is a complex, structural problem.

SDG drafters argue that eliminating poverty will require more than charity — it will require reducing inequality, combating climate change, strengthening labor rights, eliminating Western agricultural subsidies, and so on. They’re right. And it is likely the progressive, activist tenor of such goals that irks agencies like the Economist and the Gates Foundation.

This doesn’t mean that the SDGs aren’t flawed. They are, but not for the reasons that mainstream critics would have us believe.

The real problem is that the SDGs are profoundly contradictory, to the point of being self-defeating. On the one hand, the Zero Draft, released last month, contains some truly excellent demands. The preamble affirms that “planet Earth and its ecosystems are our home” and underscores the necessity of achieving “harmony with nature.” It establishes a commitment to hold global warming below a 2° Celsius increase, and calls for “sustainable patterns of production and consumption.” The goals include the restoration of water-related ecosystems, a halt to the loss of biodiversity, and an end to overfishing, deforestation, and desertification.

All of this reflects an emerging awareness of the fact that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry – that the mandatory pursuit of endless industrial growth is chewing through our living planet, producing poverty at a rapid rate, and threatening the basis of our existence.

Yet despite this growing realization, the core of the SDG program for development and poverty reduction relies precisely on the old model of industrial growth — ever-increasing levels of extraction, production, and consumption. And not just a little bit of growth: they want at least 7 percent annual GDP growth in least developed countries and higher levels of economic productivity across the board. In fact, an entire goal, Goal 8, is devoted to growth, specifically export-oriented growth, in keeping with existing neoliberal models.

This is the mortal flaw at the heart of the SDGs. How can they be calling for both less and more at the same time? True, Goal 8 is peppered with progressive-sounding qualifications: the growth should be inclusive, should promote full employment and decent work, and we should endeavor to decouple growth from environmental degradation. But these qualifications are vague, and the real message that shines through is that GDP growth is all that ultimately matters.

Right now global production and consumption levels are overshooting our planet’s capacity by about 50 percent each year. This is a monumental crisis, and one that proceeds from the deep logic of capitalism. Yet the SDGs’ proposed solution to this problem is superficial: reduce food waste, make resource use more efficient, and “encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices.” These proposals explicitly avoid the obvious solution — namely, reduced consumption by the world’s wealthy — and steer clear of actually regulating corporate extraction.

To be fair, the drafters of the SDGs probably sidestep the nub of the matter because they realize that capitalism depends on ever-increasing production and consumption to keep going. But that’s precisely what we need to change, if we are to have any chance of a fair, sustainable economy.

The SDGs’ contradictory relationship to growth extends to its approach to global poverty. The Zero Draft promotes growth as the main solution to poverty, but this relationship is highly tenuous. Of all the income generated by global GDP growth between 1999 and 2008, the poorest 60 percent of humanity received only 5 percent of it. Given the existing ratio between GDP growth and the income growth of the poorest, it will take 207 years to eliminate poverty with this strategy, and to get there, we will have to grow the global economy by 175 times its present size.

This is terrifying to contemplate. Even if such immense growth were possible, it would drive climate change to catastrophic levels and, in the process, rapidly reverse any gains against poverty. Surely it makes more sense to transfer accumulated wealth from elites in the developed world to the global poor than to crank out more in the hope that some of it might trickle down.

The SDGs do, however, call for income growth for the bottom 40 percent of the population at a rate higher than the overall average. This is good inasmuch as it will speed the process of poverty reduction and reduce inequality, but it doesn’t address the bigger issue of the aggregate production and consumption levels that this approach requires.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that poor countries manage to grow incredibly fast, and quickly catch up to the average high-income country. According to data provided by the Global Footprint Network, we would need at least 3.4 Earths to sustain this level of production and consumption — and that’s assuming that the already-high-income countries slow their present rates of growth to zero, which they show no sign of doing.

Basically, the SDGs want to reduce inequality by ratcheting the poor up, but while leaving the wealth and power of the global 1 percent intact. They want the best of both worlds. They fail to accept that mass impoverishment is the product of extreme wealth accumulation and overconsumption by a few, which entails processes of enclosure, extraction, and exploitation along the way. You can’t solve the problem of poverty without challenging the pathologies of accumulation.

The SDGs refuse to confront this difficult political fact, and it shows throughout the Zero Draft, which studiously avoids addressing the deeper causes of poverty. For example, the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the greatest single cause of poverty since colonialism, are never mentioned in the SDGs. A vague request to “respect each country’s policy space” is made, but as the Greek crisis has reminded us, the world’s biggest creditors are not likely to care much for national sovereignty when their finances are at stake.

Then there’s the unfair trade regime of the World Trade Organization, and the bilateral trade deals — like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and Trade in Services Agreement — that have caused such a furor over the past few years. Instead of tackling this crucial issue, the SDGs do the opposite: Goal 17.10 calls for more trade liberalization and more power for the World Trade Organization.

And instead of demanding an end to the financial speculation that has caused food prices to spike since 2007, pushing 150 million into hunger, the SDGs ask weakly that we “ensure the proper functioning of food commodity markets.” It’s not clear what this is supposed to mean, but it can easily be interpreted as yet more liberalization, which is precisely what caused the food crisis in the first place.

The SDGs are also eerily silent on the need for greater regulation of financial markets and the imperative to shrink our too-big-to-fail banks. Goal 17.13 speaks vaguely of the need to “enhance global macroeconomic stability” through “policy coordination,” with no specific targets. Tax evasion and tax avoidance, which drain developing countries of $1.7 trillion each year, are politely sidestepped. Then there’s debt service, which drains another $700 billion per year; instead of demanding cancellation, the SDGs call for “debt financing, debt relief, and debt restructuring, as appropriate,” which specifically means that debts will not be cancelled.

But at least the SDGs recognize that some of these issues matter, unlike the MDGs, which ignored them altogether. The problem is that the SDGs are toothless, and undermined by their devotion to growth along present models.

How did this happen? How did the SDGs, supposedly the blueprint for saving the world, become so compromised? Part of it has to do with the strong role granted to corporations in the SDG process, which effectively precludes any direct challenge to business interests.

The Zero Draft calls for a global partnership between the UN and the corporate sector as a way of securing necessary investment to bridge the estimated $2.5 trillion annual funding shortfall. This call echoes the Global Redesign Initiative proposed at Davos in 2012, which set out an agenda for transforming the UN into a big public-private partnership, with corporations enjoying formal input in global governance right alongside states. The SDGs are the first step along this path; they open the way for corporations to gain a seat at the table and impact policy at the UN.

With corporations and private investors playing such a central role in the implementation of the SDGs, one might think that the Zero Draft would bind them to specific commitments, and lay out plenty of accountability mechanisms. But this is not the case. In a similar vein to the 2000 UN Global Compact, corporate participants get the benefit of “blue-washing” without having to worry about being sanctioned for failing to comply with a given set of principles. But at least the Global Compact has principles; the SDGs have none; corporations are simply “encouraged” to be nice (12.6).

Nowhere is the compromised nature of the SDGs more evident than in their headline goal: to eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, as measured at $1.25/day. It’s high time we got around to eradicating poverty, but a growing number of scholars are pointing out that $1.25 is actually not adequate for human subsistence.

In India, for example, children living just above the $1.25 line still have a 60 percent chance of being malnourished. A number of recent studies suggest that if people are to achieve normal life expectancy and meet their basic needs as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (which the SDGs claim to uphold), they need closer to $5 per day.

The drafters of the SDGs know this fact. So why stick with the discredited $1.25 measure? Because it’s the only one that will allow them to get anywhere near their goal of eradicating poverty by 2030. If we measure poverty by the more accurate $5/day line, the total poverty headcount rises to 4.3 billion people, more than 60 percent of humanity.

Eradicating poverty of this magnitude would require more than just weeding around the edges of the problem — it would require changing the rules of the global economy to make it fairer for the world’s majority. The SDGs explicitly refuse this task, and are careful to eschew such deep, structural transformations.

The UN is presently rolling out the “world’s largest advertising campaign” to whip up public support for the SDGs, with a star-studded cast including Beyoncé and One Direction. But so far it’s not working very well, for the spirit of the SDGs is woefully out of step with our emerging collective consciousness about the deep evolution required.

As the world’s governments prepare to finalize the SDGs in September, we must be clear that they do not represent our ambitions. The SDGs are not just inadequate, they are dangerous; they will lock in the global development agenda for the next fifteen years around a failing economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes.

What we need is to tackle the irrationality of endless growth head-on, pointing out that capitalist growth — as measured by GDP — is not the solution to poverty and ecological crisis, but the primary cause. And we need a saner measure of human progress — one that gears us not toward more extraction and consumption by the world’s elite, but more fairness, more equality, more wellbeing, more sharing, to the benefit of the vast majority of humanity.

The SDGs fail us on this. They offer to tinker with the global economic system in a well-meaning bid to make it all seem a bit less violent. But this is not a time for tinkering.