An anthropologist predicted the current failings of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – spoiler, it’s all capitalism

Members of volunteer staff and former secretary general Ban Ki-moon hold up Sustainable Development Goal placards at a summit in 2016.
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In part one of this two-part article, we took a look at the UN’s latest Sustainable Development Goals report, and the failings it exposed. Now, we’ll examine why capitalism is exactly the M.O. of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) writ large. In fact, the vital clue is in the oxymoronic name.

From the get-go, prominent anthropologist Jason Hickel argued the SDGs were doomed to fail. Naturally, now his predictions are proving accurate. At their inception, Hickel had highlighted the blatant contradiction at the heart of the SDG plan. Writing for Jacobin in 2015, he set out what he considered the “mortal flaw” at the centre of the SDG scheme:

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.

Essentially, SDGs are a set of solutions premised on continued economic growth and development, and that – of course – is the problem. Penning a separate article for the London School of Economics blog in 2015, Hickel wrote that:

business as usual isn’t going to deliver the new economy we so desperately need. In this sense, the goals are not only a missed opportunity, they are actively dangerous: they lock in the global development agenda for the next 15 years around a failing economic model that requires urgent and deep structural changes, and they kick the hard challenge of real transformation down the road for the next generation to deal with – by which time it may be too late.

In other words, the SDGs are an exercise in maintaining the very system that has fuelled these growing world crises. Naturally, this invariably means letting the real offenders off the hook.

‘Superficial’ solutions

Moreover, Hickel highlighted the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) fixation on “superficial” solutions. He provided the example of the SDGs’ proposal for addressing overproduction and overconsumption. In this, he explained that the goals suggest reducing food waste, improving the efficiency of resource use, and encouraging companies to adopt sustainable practices.

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As a result, Hickel stressed that:

These proposals explicitly avoid the obvious solution — namely, reduced consumption by the world’s wealthy — and steer clear of actually regulating corporate extraction

Of course, therein lies the problem: the SDGs are greenwashing 101. Little has changed from their creation in 2015. True to form, the GSDR doubled down on just those types of answers to deepening world concerns. It offered skin-deep suggestions for a so-called ‘sustainable’ path forward.

For instance, one of the latest report’s core proposals to address the biodiversity crisis provided another prime example of these superficial solutions. It advocated for “nature-based solutions” (NBS) to “protect and restore nature”. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) describes these as:

actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature.

They can include efforts to preserve or restore forests, or agricultural practices that protect soil health. However, as the Global Forest Coalition – among others – has pointed out, corporations have hijacked NBS for their own capitalist ends. In particular, it highlighted that:

Most of these “solutions” squarely overlook the rights, needs and livelihoods of the Indigenous Peoples, local communities and women that are actually on the forefront of forest conservation.

What’s more, the coalition also stated that:

In the last decade or so, we have witnessed an aggressive push for “solutions” like NBS that seem more focused on increasing the financial gains of extractive, agro-industrial and polluting corporations than actually dealing with the structural causes of the environmental and health crises we presently face.

Protecting the profits of big corporations and wealthy nations, then, seems precisely the point of the UN’s SDGs.

Corporate capitalism is the point

It’s almost as if tinkering around at the edges of global crises with yet more capitalism might not be that sustainable after all, and probably won’t actually solve any of the world’s major problems.

Yet, it’s hardly surprising that the UN’s manifesto for a more equitable and peaceful world hinges on maintaining the economic model that sustains big business. As the Canary recently reported on the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), it has lost sight of its goals in the service of corporate capitalism.

Meanwhile, it was only this summer that a key former UN diplomat came to a long overdue epiphany. Specifically, it was the pretty evident recognition that fossil fuel firms really aren’t going to change their tune. Christiana Figueres was executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) between 2010 and 2016. During her tenure, she helped steer the implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Until July this year, Figueres had called for the world to work with the very climate criminals destroying the planet. In 2015, she stood up for the billionaire goliaths, contending that the international community should stop “demonising” fossil fuel companies.

Only now, as oil company profits soar and emissions rise to match, has Figueres had this revelation. Now, it seems, she has finally woken up and smelled the crude oil. The orchestrators of climate disaster would rather see the end of life on Earth than the end to their fossil fuel fortunes.

Nevertheless, the Sustainable Development Goals report showed that – at least in the near-term future – the UN has no intention of changing its tune either.  For now, capitalism – and the world crises it manufactures right along with it – reigns supreme.

Feature image via IAEA Imagebank/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910 by 1000, licensed under CC BY 2.0

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