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Women from Paraguay's Ita Guasu indigenous community discuss their community development plan. Civil debate and value-based decision making will be key to implementing the SDGs (Photo: USAID, Creative Commons via Flickr)
Reconciling diverse visions of sustainable development will be key to SDG progress.
The world has entered a possibly unprecedented period of environmental, political, social and economic change. Governments are considering what they need to do, individually and collectively, to respond to rapid change as it happens and prepare for an uncertain future.
We are facing major systemic disruptions, from climate change to the 2008 global financial crash, public health emergencies resulting from air and water pollution and the current refugee crisis.
These disruptions are difficult or impossible to predict and manage because they have multiple, interacting, but often invisible causes – although nearly all stem ultimately from failures of existing economic development models.
The SDGs provide a useful framework for responding to changes that can be anticipated and managed with existing knowledge. But they offer little guidance for dealing with changes that require trade-offs between desired outcomes or volatile systemic changes that demand both technical and policy responses.
This is the realm of politics writ large – defined as the processes and principles through which people, governments, communities and organisations make policies and rules to live by. Such politics play out in many arenas, including civil society in all its guises, and business big and small, as well as the different branches of government, and orthodox party politics.
A sustainable development tipping point?
International events, from the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm to the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development 40 years later, have focused on the links between the environment, human development and economic growth. But they have not yet mobilised the leadership or shaped the institutions needed for fundamental change.
The SDGs are the latest milestone on this path to sustainable development. Far more than previous frameworks, they recognise the inter-relationships between human development and the environmental, economic, social and political context in which it occurs.
Their principles of universality, equity, inclusion, integration and the imperative to 'leave no one behind' signal the kinds of systemic, policy and institutional changes required. If it builds on real, grassroots momentum for action on global issues, from climate change to increasing inequality, this new global agenda could be the tipping point for that change.
The risk is that the SDGs' complex structure and daunting number of targets, could too easily mean they join the rubble of previous efforts that have shown promise and then fizzled out.
Shifting from a technical to a political focus
What will make the difference is firmly embedding the SDGs in real-world processes of development.
These processes are messy because they involve hard-to-predict, complex and often volatile interactions between different drivers and interests. They need to be informed by an understanding, from both political and technical perspectives, of the costs of inaction and the opportunities for progress.
Yet the growing mountain of guidance on SDG implementation does not recognise this need. The guidance is not only apolitical but also largely detached from the real world of private enterprise, communities and social institutions.
History has shown that if the SDGs are treated as a discrete technocratic agenda driven by intergovermental institutions – with its own strategy, targets, indicators and monitoring protocols – the effort will collapse under its own (considerable) weight. Better to treat the SDGs as a useful frame of reference for countries to set short-term priorities in the context of longer-term aims, trends, threats and opportunities.
The spaces where politics are critical
There are contested visions of what sustainable development is, varying between countries, social groups and economic actors. And there are many pathways to achieving each SDG and the related targets.
There is no one 'right' vision or approach. Achieving the SDGs, in spirit or in letter, is only possible through societal debate, interdisciplinary research and value-based decision making.
Inclusion, integration and universality are SDG watchwords. But above all they are political words, and even the most technocratic planner will ultimately interpret the goals in the political context.
Governance of the SDG agenda also has political dimensions – who is included, how the actors are connected and empowered, what resources they have, and how and by whom transparency and accountability are ensured. It will be virtually impossible to achieve the deeply political aspiration of 'leaving no one behind' without renegotiating how the benefits and costs of development are allocated, and confronting politically sanctioned social barriers and cultural norms that result in discrimination.
Finally, we need to approach the science informing SDG implementation in a new way. Most research and knowledge behind development decision-making remains uni-disciplinary and focused on single problems, such as air pollution, deforestation or housing quality.
To 'implement the SDGs' demands interdisciplinary science and economics, shared knowledge bases, and integrated institutions. How diverse knowledge is generated and shared, and who controls the research agenda, are political as much as technical questions.
Deepening our understanding of the political dimension
IIED has recently begun research to better understand how political factors and processes affect progress towards sustainable development, with national SDG implementation as the focus.
Over the next few months, we will interview a range of people with a deep understanding of the political contexts in which these processes are occurring. We will explore through case studies how these processes are playing out on the ground with stakeholders in a few countries.
The research aims to identify the political pathways through which progress towards sustainable development is possible, and to understand how the SDGs can facilitate such progress.
The Community and Ascetic Dimensions of Christian Ecological Commitment
Jaime Tatay Nieto, SJ
Originally published in
EcoJesuit, 31 January 2017 under a Creative Commons License
Many continue to examine the motivating factors behind the promulgation of Laudato si’ (LS), the first “ecological” encyclical in the history of Church social teaching. The subject of LS goes far beyond the Catholic community and concerns every person who believes in a God who can act out of love, intervenes in history and delivers the gift of creation. And yet the question remains: should religious people get involved in a discussion about the environment, apparently so technical, and far-removed from faith?
Scientists, economists, politicians and military personnel are becoming increasingly interested in issues related to the challenge of sustainability. Pollution, disruption of climate patterns, destruction of the ozone layer, soil degradation, access to and quality of water, loss of biodiversity, depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources, and the recovery of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles – to name but a few of the planetary problems identified by the scientific community – are issues that have mobilised concerned societal actors.
Returning to the question with which we began: what sense does it have for religions in general and the Catholic Church in particular to enter this discussion? What motivates their interest? What legitimizes their intervention? What is their contribution?
The community dimension
The ecclesial or community dimension of the Christian experience is one of the main contributions that the Church can make to the discussion on sustainability. Along with proposals that seek to empower the consumer, educate the citizen and transform the political establishment through individual voting behaviour, the Church insists that we cannot ignore the community dimension when articulating operational responses to contemporary challenges. Pope Francis prioritizes the community as a unit of analysis and social action. There are several reasons why he chose this community approach rather than more individualistic proposals that characterize most environmental approaches.
Firstly, LS points out that “self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today.” (LS 219) The modern individual is overwhelmed by the complexity and number of decisions that must be made, and however well-informed and well-intentioned, there is a need to support oneself and sustain this commitment through community networks. Furthermore, there is a spiritual dimension: a community is a stimulus and a source of motivation because it is “called into being by one Father, all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion.” (LS 89)
Secondly, this cosmic communion consisting of “the sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied” (LS 221) is not the exclusive preserve of mystics. It is in fact an invitation and task for all as members of a community that goes beyond the local realm, present time and human species. To experience a “universal fraternity” (LS 228) cultivates a spiritual attitude: “an integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us and surrounds us, whose presence “must not be contrived but found, uncovered.” (LS 225)
Thirdly, the centrality of the community dimension for sustainability also resonates with a central tradition in the history of Catholic social thought: the common good. This is an economic and socio-political vision of a communitarian character as opposed to the individualist tradition of political liberalism. Considering the misrule and accelerated degradation of the “global commons” (LS 174), the notion of the common good is receiving increased interest both inside and outside the Church.
For instance, when Pope Francis affirms that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all” (LS 23), he is pointing out that we cannot limit ourselves to a merely physical or economic analysis of the reality we call climate. Instead there is a need to understand it as a common good in respect of which “the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfilment.” (LS 156) Spirituality acquires great relevance in relation to the perception and promotion of the common good: “Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good.” (LS 225)
The ascetic dimension
Alongside the community dimension, asceticism also stands out as a typically religious contribution to the subject of sustainability. Ascetic practices such as fasting, abstinence and almsgiving, undertaken with the aim of purifying one’s relationship with God and with others, offer a significant element that other actors in our cultural context are not able to propose. These practices cultivate virtues of sobriety, detachment, and simplicity of life which articulate an integrated spiritual experience, and are relevant to an over-exploited planet, possessing finite resources and a high socio-economic inequality.
Citing Benedict XVI, Pope Francis affirms that “we have a sort of ‘super-development’ of a wasteful and consumerist kind which forms an unacceptable contrast with the on-going situations of dehumanizing deprivation.” (LS 109) Not only does the consumerist drive in the richest societies contrast with the persistent poverty amongst the rest of humanity, it is also the main cultural vector of environmental degradation.
Faced with this situation, the Church has spiritual resources that resonate deeply with a long tradition that values simplicity of life and solidarity. This tradition, which has monastic roots and is conveyed during Lent and penitential ascetic practices, has a great potential to catalyse community transformations and for re-interpretation along ecological lines.
Thus, socio-political transformation and community action can go hand in hand with a spirituality of asceticism and voluntary simplicity. The interweaving of spiritual and ecological benefits of asceticism is highlighted by Pope Francis’ proposal for Saint Francis of Assisi as an anthropological model for integral ecology. “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.” (LS 11)
With LS, Pope Francis has addressed a relatively new area for Catholic social thought – the subject of sustainability. In so doing, he has allowed a fruitful exchange to take place between civil society, the scientific community and the business world. This has been an ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in which the voice of religious traditions is being heard with surprising interest.
In this sense, LS is one of the greatest exercises in public theology of the last decades: it has questioned the political class, dialogued with the academy, and restored interest in the ecclesial institution. And at the same time, LS has updated Catholic Social Teaching by including in its agenda the greatest concern of our time: the call to care for our common home.
This is a translated and edited version of an article Experiencia religiosa y Laudato si’ by Jaime Tatay Nieto, SJ which appeared in the journal Corintios XIII, Revista de teología y pastoral de la caridad, Julio-Septiembre 2016, n.º 159.
Accessing information from the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) has never been easier. The GEOSS Portal has undergone a transformation, to be unveiled in time for GEO’s Thirteenth Plenary.
The European Space Agency (ESA) in partnership with Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) has built an intuitive interface to discover, access and use all of the ever-growing numbers of GEO-resources from a variety of providers all around the world.
Users can now perform temporal, thematic and geographic searches, allowing them to retrieve the resources they are looking for quickly and accurately. Keywords can be used to perform general searches and progressive filtering is applied to support users in refining and narrowing down their search results. A synthetic summary is presented of key metadata fields. Icon buttons help the user quickly assess the results' relevance. Make use of the GEOSS Portal’s feedback form and let us know what you think.
The team members that made this new look possible are: @CNR-side (GEO-DAB): Stefano Nativi and Mattia Santoro; @ESA-side (GEOSS Portal): Joost van Bemmelen, Guido Colangeli, Piotr Zaborowski; @Geo Secretariat-side: Paola De Salvo and Osamu Ochiai
A new online knowledge hub launched today provides an unparalleled view of multilateral, national and sub-national efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The International Institute for Sustainable Development’s SDG Knowledge Hub consolidates our Policy & Practice knowledgebases—and the tens of thousands of published articles contained within them. Focused on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and its Sustainable Development Goals, the platform draws on IISD’s network of experts to provide real-time information on SDG implementation.
“The development of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was one of the largest participatory processes ever,” said Scott Vaughan, President of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “Information sharing, measurement and assessment will need to continue if the global community is to achieve the aims set out in the new agenda.”
“The SDG Knowledge Hub provides a much-needed space for that exchange to take place,” said Vaughan.
IISD experts are at the meetings we report on, talking to those involved, and gathering information from official, primary sources. We also develop partnerships with the institutions and organizations we cover, and publish original content from invited experts who are working on the frontlines of SDG implementation. The SDG Knowledge Hub does not aggregate news from other sources.
The SDG Knowledge Hub will be presented at an event in Geneva, Switzerland, on October 26th, and on a webinar on November 3rd. Register for the Geneva event here, and the webinar here.
The value of the hub lays in the depth of information it will contain on each SDG, as well as the breadth of knowledge across all elements of the integrated 2030 Agenda. Content is organized and searchable according to the 17 SDGs. Information is also categorized according to actors, focusing on intergovernmental bodies, agencies and funds within the UN system, as well as national governments, major partnerships, stakeholders and non-state actors. In addition, content is searchable by seven regional groups as well as three regional groupings of small island developing States. A comprehensive calendar provides details on events that address SDG policy and practice.
Users can also filter posts by issue area, action type and specific elements in SDG 17, on the global partnership. This filter permits users to focus in on news based on whether it addresses means of implementation (MOI), such as capacity building and education, or the following systemic issues: data, monitoring and accountability; multi-stakeholder partnerships; and policy and institutional coherence.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be the guiding framework for international development until 2030 and are intended to provide a reference for setting national policy priorities.
This unique, searchable database provides a snapshot of what those national priorities are. Users can compare existing national targets with the ambition of the SDGs. We intend this to be a living document, supplemented and kept up to date by crowdsourcing, and we encourage others to send us new information on national goals to update the tracker.
Over the last two centuries, the impact of the Human System has grown dramatically, becoming strongly dominant within the Earth System in many different ways. Consumption, inequality, and population have increased extremely fast, especially since about 1950, threatening to overwhelm the many critical functions and ecosystems of the Earth System. Changes in the Earth System, in turn, have important feedback effects on the Human System, with costly and potentially serious consequences. However, current models do not incorporate these critical feedbacks. We argue that in order to understand the dynamics of either system, Earth System Models must be coupled with Human System Models through bidirectional couplings representing the positive, negative, and delayed feedbacks that exist in the real systems. In particular, key Human System variables, such as demographics, inequality, economic growth, and migration, are not coupled with the Earth System but are instead driven by exogenous estimates, such as UN population projections. This makes current models likely to miss important feedbacks in the real Earth-Human system, especially those that may result in unexpected or counterintuitive outcomes, and thus requiring different policy interventions from current models. The importance and imminence of sustainability challenges, the dominant role of the Human System in the Earth System, and the essential roles the Earth System plays for the Human System, all call for collaboration of natural scientists, social scientists, and engineers in multidisciplinary research and modeling to develop coupled Earth-Human system models for devising effective science-based policies and measures to benefit current and future generations.
"C-ROADS is an award-winning computer simulation that helps people understand the long-term climate impacts of policy scenarios to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It allows for the rapid summation of national greenhouse gas reduction pledges in order to show the long-term impact on our climate." For more information, click
9. Fostering Sustainability in the International Community
The Deep History Behind Trump's Rise:
How a ruthless network of super-rich ideologues
killed choice and destroyed people's faith in politics
This article was originally published in
The Guardian, 14 November 2016, and
Evonomics, 18 February 2017 REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975. At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the story goes, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. “This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.
The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.
This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.
He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.
Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take.
He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.
The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.
Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs”. Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.
Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources. It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.
By the time Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.
Thatcherism and Reaganism were not ideologies in their own right: they were just two faces of neoliberalism. Their massive tax cuts for the rich, crushing of trade unions, reduction in public housing, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services were all proposed by Hayek and his disciples. But the real triumph of this network was not its capture of the right, but its colonisation of parties that once stood for everything Hayek detested.
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not possess a narrative of their own. Rather than develop a new political story, they thought it was sufficient to triangulate. In other words, they extracted a few elements of what their parties had once believed, mixed them with elements of what their opponents believed, and developed from this unlikely combination a “third way”.
It was inevitable that the blazing, insurrectionary confidence of neoliberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pull than the dying star of social democracy. Hayek’s triumph could be witnessed everywhere from Blair’s expansion of the private finance initiative to Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which had regulated the financial sector. For all his grace and touch, Barack Obama, who didn’t possess a narrative either (except “hope”), was slowly reeled in by those who owned the means of persuasion.
As I warned in April, the result is first disempowerment then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation. The man who sank Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency was not Donald Trump. It was her husband.
The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming.
Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives. The key task now is to tell a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century. It must be as appealing to some who have voted for Trump and Ukip as it is to the supporters of Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.
A few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that – as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.
Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.
George Monbiot is a British naturalist and journalist who fights "environmental destruction, undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency." See his personal website, George Monbiot. For his current assessment of the world situation, see Unlucky Number.