Still Confused, Misled, or Being Coy about Sustainability

greenlightbulb

My colleagues at SCORAI sent me a link to an article from the Huffington Post with the headline, “Mainstreaming Sustainability in 2015.” When I started to read further, the article was not about sustainability, but, rather, sustainable development. These two are NOT the same, as I have argued over now more than a decade, but to no avail (alas). They are importantly not the same because the concept and practice of sustainable development is one of the reasons the earth has become unsustainable. The article is all about the newly retitled Millennium Development Goals (MDGS), now called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS). For those unfamiliar with this program, these goals are meant to apply to all United Nations member states’s agendas. In more detail:

The SDGs are focused around six elements: (1) Dignity, (2) Basic needs of people, (3) Prosperity, (4) Planet, (5) Partnerships and (6) Justice. Around these six elements there are currently 17 suggested goals with 169 targets. This is a significant increase to the current number of eight MDGs. While in theory the MDGs were supposed to apply for all member nations, but practically focusing on the poor countries. As Helen Clark mentioned the SDGs are not a development agenda but a universal agenda. Every single country has economical, social and environmental challenges and therefore the new goals apply.

The title, itself, should be a clue to error in its referring to them as related to sustainability. Sustainability means the capacity of a system, like a state or nation or fishery, to continue to do what it has been doing and to maintain the norms related to its condition or output. Setting any goals to attain any of such conditions or output, per se, attest to the absence of a state that is to be sustained. The conflation of “goals” and “sustainability” is oxymoronic and meaningless. Sustainability can be, itself, a goal, but that statement affirms that the present conditions lack the staying, homeostatic qualities desired.

It is critically important that we have such aspirations as embodied in the 17 goals and 169 targets, but we should be careful of how they are labeled. For many poorer countries, (sustainable) economic development appears necessary to approach many of these goals. But even here a strong caveat is required. The tendency to view sustainable development as conventional economic growth with all eyes focused on GDP is one of the causes of these countries’ problems. Many have become impoverished by the economic activities of the richer countries seeking to grow their own GDPs. It is a great mistake to mistake economic measures of poverty with the lack of capabilities to lead lives that would meet all the SDGS qualitative targets. Manfred Max-Neef argues persuasively that it is “poverties” (plural), meaning the lack of capabilities and resources to enjoy dignified, healthy, just lives. Amartya Sen calls directly for the provision of capabilities. I truly believe that the populations and places on the planet would begin to get the proper assistance from the rest of the world and better mobilize their own resources if we started calling these aspirations: living standards (ala Sen) or capability-building goals. Such names would, then, begin to have the same meaning as the programs to implement them rather than being self-serving euphemisms.

One of the primary SDGS labels is “Prosperity.” It could be a valuable guide if it were taken to mean to prosper as a verb, but like sustainable, the adjective, is mistakenly conflated with the noun sustainability, prosperity, the noun, is construed as some measure of wealth and structure equivalent to leading prospering, or as I call them, flourishing lives. By labeling programs sustainable development or sustainable this or that, it is much too easy to inhibit efforts toward meaningful sustainability, as expressed by some set of aspirational goals such as those of Sen or Max Neef or by my own use of flourishing. First of all, this usage focuses attention on whatever is modified, development, business etc. But secondly and more insidiously, this use presumes that there is the activities performed under a sustainable X label will make a direct, positive contribution to reaching the goals, like dignity, or prospering or flourishing, all of which describe a state or condition that is to be sustained.

Such states are systems properties. They appear when the socio-economic (cultural) system, say an African nation or a more developed one like the US, is operating normally in such a way that this desired properties routinely show up. Basing this end state on some quantitative economic measure is simply wrong, as we can see by looking at the US which, with its very high level of economic prosperity (as measured by its GDP/capita), should afford all people dignified lives and the basic capabilities to flourish. But anyone who pulls his head out of the sand knows this is simply not so. I am reading Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids, which makes a compelling argument that not only does a large segment of the US lack what the wealthier fraction would claim as necessary for a good life, but are trapped in their circumstances without a viable path out of it. Social mobility, a necessary feature of a society which might become sustainable at some point in the future, is lacking. The American Dream, a distant relative of the SDGS, has vanished.

Words really do mean something. The actions we take reflect those words. If we are to strive for flourishing, a word about a quality that everyone can understand, even if confounded with many different nuances, instead of development, a word about process that is not analytically tied to that condition, we might have a chance to get to where we want to be. We would be measuring our deviation from the qualitative goal instead of from the process goal. When we discover, using this criterion, as we inevitably will, that the process goal (sustainable development) is not getting us to the place we want to be, we might face reality and begin to adopt new processes. I ring in reality because the development process to be used fails to match reality because it is based on concepts that cannot and do not capture the complexity of the real planet Earth. The SDGS themselves are the output of a process that fails to appreciate complexity and the need to adopt programs that acknowledge, from the get-go, that whatever processes they are to employ must be considered to be only guesses as to how the outcomes will track the inputs. There’s nothing wrong with that unless those in charge stick too long with their guesses, believing that represent ‘truths” instead. Pragmatists of all kinds know better, and start to adapt when their guesses fail to toward the conditions they would like to sustain. To the extent that the SDGS point to qualitative end conditions, they can be very useful, but, as they are coupled to rigid, a priori process-based programs, they are likely to fail. Now that we know how badly economists do in general in predicting the economic future of highly developed countries like the US where things are starting to deteriorate, why do we keep allowing them (and similar other experts) to plan the future for those parts of the human and natural world that are already in bad shape?

|