Why We're Behind on Saving the World

The United Nations' sustainable development goals have two critical problems: they contradict one another, and they focus on economic growth.
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The United Nations' sustainable development goals have two critical problems: they contradict one another, and they focus on economic growth.

In September of 2015, the United Nations tried to save the world.

Representatives from all 193 member countries released a plan they called the Sustainable Development Goals, a list of 17 global goals that would "ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity" by the year 2030. Each goal was lofty in ambition: "No Poverty," "Zero Hunger," "Reduced Inequalities," and "Gender Equality." This was by design. As Ban Ki-moon, the then-secretary-general, put it: "We don't have plan B because there is no planet B."

In June, the latest report assessing the implementation of the goals was released. Things aren't going very well.

While the proportion of undernourished people in the world declined from 15 percent (between 2000 and 2002) to 11 percent (2014 to 2016), the worldwide rate of obesity and overweight children remained at 5 percent. While the 10 largest manufacturing countries decreased their emissions, "such promising trends are not reflected in the global emissions intensity levels." While more children than ever are going to school, "many do not acquire basic skills in reading and mathematics."

It seems that whatever progress is made in one area is undone in another. Unfortunately, this is a function of a problem baked into the project's philosophy and design itself.

The glaring problem is that, with so many different goals, there are a number of contradictory actions taking place. As an examination in Nature points out, separating the goals has had the effect of undermining them:

For example, using coal to improve energy access (goal 7) in Asian nations, say, would accelerate climate change and acidify the oceans (undermining goals 13 and 14), as well as exacerbating other problems such as damage to health from air pollution (disrupting goal 3).

The U.N.'s official stance is that each goal is equally important, which doesn't reflect the reality that failures in one are not equivalent to failures in another:

Loss of species owing to lack of action on climate change (goal 13) is another irreversible interaction. Conversely, converting land use from agriculture to bioenergy production (goal 7) might counteract food security (goal 2) and poverty reduction (goal 1) but could be reversed.

The paper suggests a seven-point rating system (from a goal that helps another goal on one end, to a goal that harms another goal on the other) in order to create a stricter hierarchy that doesn't have 17 sets of policymakers operating "in silos." But before that occurs, another shift must also take place: the goals must downgrade the importance of economic growth.

In an editorial in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, three professors criticized how the U.N. placed metrics concerning humans and eco-systems side-by-side with economic growth factors. They write:

[T]he recent single-minded focus on GDP growth has exacerbated inequality and environmental damage in many countries. If one takes these elements into account ... then there arguably has been no net progress globally for decades. Increasing income inequality, environmental damage, and other costs can cancel out positive gains from GDP growth.

It makes sense the U.N.'s goals consider economics; these goals have been developed by nations, which are economically minded entities. But, as the assessment puts it, "the benefits of development are not equally shared."

The world economic powers remain strong while small and vulnerable countries continue to be disproportionately affected by natural disasters. Women still spend triple the amount of time on unpaid domestic work than men. Rural areas remain 30 percent less likely than urban areas to have clean drinking water. These are the natural run-offs of globalized capitalism, and must be guarded against, not reinforced as part of the solution.

(The economic goals, by the way, aren't even being met: Labor productivity—a marker of goods and services produced in one worker hour—fell from 2.9 percent between 2000 and 2008, to 1.9 percent between 2009 to 2016. The report says this means "adverse effects on living standards and real wages" which, as you'd imagine, isn't great for peace and prosperity.)

If these goals are to work, ideological tweaks must be made. If you want to end poverty, find a lasting solution rather than working toward a statistical zero. Want to reduce inequality? Raise the floor for the bottom, but also lower the ceiling on the top. Want to stop climate change? Don't make "sustained industrialization" an equivalent matter.

Not all goals are created equally. Until the U.N. recasts its goals with that in mind, the program will remain what it is now: nothing more than a cute public relations stunt.