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The SDGs fail to offer the new economy we so desperately need

Posted: 22 Mar 2016

In order to solve poverty and ecological crisis we need to tackle the irrationality of endless growth head on, argues Jason Hickel.

Planet earth by BJ HaleThe Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are widely criticized for being too complex. The Goals’ supporters, on the other hand, argue that they are complex because poverty is a complicated, structural problem. In order to eliminate poverty you need much more than charity: you need to reduce inequality, combat climate change, strengthen labour rights, eliminate Western agricultural subsidies, and so on. And they’re right.

But the SDGs will ultimately fail to make good on this promise, because they suffer a profound contradiction at their very center.

The Zero Draft points to the necessity of achieving ‘harmony with nature’ and ‘sustainable patterns of production and consumption.’ The goals demand a halt to the loss of biodiversity, and an end to overfishing, deforestation, and desertification. All of this reflects an awareness that something about our economic system has gone terribly awry – that the mandatory pursuit of endless material growth is chewing through our living planet, and producing poverty at a rapid rate.

On the other hand, the SDG’s strategy for development relies precisely on the old model of endless GDP growth. They call for more than 7 per cent annual growth in least developed countries and higher economic productivity across the board. A whole goal, Goal 8, is devoted entirely to growth.

In other words, the SDGs call for both less and more at the same time. How can they expect to succeed with such a profound contradiction at their root? It’s true that Goal 8 is peppered with qualifications: the growth should be ‘inclusive’, should promote decent work, and we should ‘endeavor’ to decouple growth from environmental degradation. But these are vague to the point of being meaningless; the real message that shines through is that GDP growth is all that ultimately matters.

Monumental crises

Right now global production and consumption levels are overshooting our planet’s capacity by about 50 per cent each year. In the face of this monumental crisis the SDGs offer cowardly suggestions: they propose to reduce food waste, make resource use more ‘efficient,’ and – this one really gets me – ‘encourage’ multinational companies to adopt sustainable practices. In other words, they explicitly avoid calling for reduced consumption.

The Zero Draft sees growth as the solution to poverty. This is strange, given that GDP growth does not benefit the poor – or the majority of humanity, for that matter. Of all the income generated by global GDP growth, the poorest 60 per cent of humanity receive only 5 per cent of it. At this rate, to eliminate poverty we will have to grow the global economy by 175 times its present size, which would of course set off catastrophic climate change. That is how deep the contradictions run, yet the SDGs indicate no awareness of this glaring flaw.

They do, however, call for income growth for the bottom 40 per cent at a rate higher than the overall average. This would theoretically speed the process of poverty reduction. But let’s imagine that poor countries do manage to grow to the point of matching today’s high-income countries; the aggregate production and consumption that this would entail would require at least 3.4 Earths, and that is assuming that the already high income countries do not grow above their present level. Clearly there is nothing ‘sustainable’ about this.

The best of both worlds

The SDGs want to reduce inequality by ratcheting the poor up, but while leaving the wealth and power of the global 1 per cent intact. They want the best of both worlds. They refuse to accept that mass impoverishment (and ecological crisis) is the product of extreme wealth accumulation and overconsumption. We can’t solve the first without challenging the second. If we want to be serious about creating a fair, sustainable economy, the rich are going to have to feel the pinch – and we need to have the courage to say so.

What we need is to tackle the irrationality of endless GDP growth head on, pointing out that it is not the solution our present crisis, but the primary cause. 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 wellbeing, more sharing, to the benefit of the vast majority of humanity.

This is not a trivial matter. It cuts to the very core of our predicament. As the world’s governments prepare to finalize the SDGs in September, we should be clear that without this vital change these goals do not represent the future we want.

Photo by BJ Hale, under a CC License.

Further reading

Final draft: Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
United Nations 2015
This is the finalised negotiated text of the draft Outcome Document which will form the basis for agreement at the UN Summit to Adopt the Post-2015 Development Agenda. It was published on 31 July 2015. The draft covers the four...
Prosperity without Growth? Steps to a sustainable economy
T. Jackson / Sustainable Development Commission 2009
This report attempts to shed light on whether nations can prosper without actually achieving sustainable growth. It also questions whether the benefits of continued economic growth still outweigh the costs, and scrutinises the assumpt...
Combating Poverty and Inequality: structural change, social policy and politics
Y Bangura / United Nations Research Institute for Social Development 2010
This report explores the causes, dynamics and persistence of poverty, and argues that current  approaches to poverty often ignore its root causes. It  analyses poverty reduction as part of long-term processes of social,...
Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010
B. Ewing; D. Moore; S. Goldfinger / Global Footprint Network 2010
The report summarises results and implications of the 2010 National Footprint Accounts, which provide accounting of ecological resource demand and supply for all nations with populations over 1 million. It argues that humanity ...
Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity
J. Rockstrom; W. Steffen; K. Noone / Ecology and Society 2009
This paper identifies nine planetary boundaries and proposes quantifications for seven of them. Planetary boundaries define the boundaries to avoid major human-induced environmental change on a global scale. It argues that anth...
Is global collapse imminent?
G. Turner; L. Rickards (ed) / Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne 2014
This paper is an updated comparison of 1972 book Limits to Growth, with historical data. Limits to Growth produced a ‘standard run’ (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario which results in collapse of the global econom...
Reducing economic inequality as a Sustainable Development Goal: Measuring up the options for beyond 2015
F. Shaheen / New Economics Foundation 2014
This report argues that tackling economic inequality is a key factor in fighting poverty and climate change but that the issue being sidelined in global talks on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Among the report’...
Growth isn’t possible: Why we need a new economic direction
A. Simms; V. Johnson; P. Chowla; M. Murphy (ed) / New Economics Foundation 2010
This report looks at the possibility of indefinite global economic growth in the context of climate change and energy. It follows on from the 2006 report Growth isn’t Working, testing that thesis in more detail. The repor...
Socially sustainable degrowth as a social–ecological transformation: repoliticizing sustainability
V. Asara; I. Otero; F. Demaria; E. Corbera / Springer 2015
This article presents the intellectual origins of degrowth, to explain how such a paradigm understands the question of sustainability. Special attention is paid to the social and ecological limits to growth and to the social&nd...

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