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

22nd March 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.