Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them,” Albert Einstein.

This week, a bunch of us published an article in the international journal Nature entitled Sustainable development goals for people and planet.

We argued that if nations are to set sustainable development goals they need to take a systems approach otherwise the goals will be a patchwork of good causes that ultimately fail on long-term global sustainability. We proposed six goals. But on the way we ended up questioning some of the key tenets of sustainable development.

Our article picked up a bit of media coverage.

  • Nations urged to combine environmental and development goalsThe Guardian (John Vidal)
  • Ending Poverty Requires Tougher Environmental Goals, Scientists ArgueHuffington Post (Alister Doyle)
  • Scientists Propose a New Architecture for Sustainable DevelopmentNew York Times (Andrew C. Revkin)

Skip to the sub-heading “six goals for people and planet” if you just want the interesting bit.

New “universal” goals

The idea for a set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs) came about at last years UN Rio+20 summit. Columbia and Guatemala jointly proposed that nations adopt a set of goals to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. This gained rapid momentum. 

In any sane world SDGs would begin in 2015 when the highly influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) run out. This is far from certain. Not least because in 2010 the UN created a political process called the MDG post 2015 development agenda that kind of does but kind of doesn’t link to SDGs. Are you still awake? Stay with me. I promise this gets better.   

The MDGs have had some considerable successes. Three goals were met before the deadline. The target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reached five years ahead of schedule. So too was the the target of halving the proportion of people lacking reliable access to drinking water. Conditions have improved for more than 200 million people living in slums — double the 2020 target (2012 UN report). But the goals were not universal, they applied directly to developing nations.

Given the power of the MDGs to channel money and political will, interest in SDGs is growing. Last week, the UN held a meeting in New York involving 30 nations to discuss goals. This was followed by a meeting of experts and scientists to brainstorm ideas . Four of our team joined this discussion. Lead author Dave Griggs gave the keynote talk (UN video here).

The SDGs are important because they have the potential to help reshape the global social and economic playing field to allow a population — set to stabilise at between nine and ten billion — to thrive and prosper without it costing the Earth.

Systems thinking

So, how do you devise such a set of goals that genuinely add up to global sustainability rather than just pulling together a bundle of big issues and hope for the best.

This calls for rethinking sustainable development for the Anthropocene.

First, we looked at how to formulate new goals from a complex systems perspective. We began to realise that the entire sustainable development paradigm needed re-evaluation from this viewpoint.

Bye, bye three pillars

For many years the overarching paradigm has been the three pillars of sustainable development – economy, society, environment. This has led to disconnected, fragmented political efforts often in conflict with one another. Besides, while the economy can expand and contract, we only have one planet: the environment cannot grow.  This paradigm is obsolete.

We argued that in the Anthropocene –where humanity is the prime driver of change on a global scale — it makes more sense to conceptualise sustainable development as the economy within society within Earth’s life support system — the atmosphere and ice sheets, oceans and waterways, forests, deserts and rich diversity of life that combine to provide a place for us to thrive. We have reached a point at which future development is at risk if we fail to account for our pressure on the Earth system.

So ending poverty and improving human wellbeing may remain the number one priority, but this must be achieved with awareness of our significant impact on Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes and cycles.

In the Anthropocene, an appropriate conceptualisation for sustainable development places the economy and society within Earth’s life support system. Griggs et al 2013.

We were not the first to propose this idea, but we are arguing that now is the time to adopt it and say adios to the pillars.

A new definition

Looked through this lens, the definition of sustainable development put forward by the Brundtland commission in 1987 also needs updating. The commission defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is good. But given very real risks to Earth-system stability, a more appropriate definition may be:

 “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.”

From this foundation we identified a set of planetary “must haves” for a global population to thrive and prosper: climatic stability, biodiversity, ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle, effective use of nitrogen and phosphorus, clean air, and sustainable resource use. We called these “must haves” the global sustainability objectives.

Add to this updated and expanded MDGs based on ending poverty and hunger, better education, health, equality, and higher quality of life and you have the foundation of a set of cross-cutting targets for the SDGs.

The next challenge was identifying goals that do not end up with a false opposition between improving lives and planetary protection. Invoking the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Declaration, the essentials for human wellbeing can be boiled down to: thriving lives and livelihoods, access to sustainable food, water and energy and living within a thriving, healthy ecosystem. All this requires effective governance to change the playing field we are operating within.

6 goals for people and planet – the ‘wheel of fortune’

So the goals become:

Wheel of Fortune v2
The Wheel of Fortune. Six universal Sustainable Development Goals cutting across economic, social and environmental domains. Griggs et al 2013.

Within Goal 1 for example — lives and livelihoods — we include targets for ending poverty, improving the lives of those living in slums, health, equality and gainful employment, all linked to sustainable consumption and production patterns and sustainable cities.

Within goal 2, food security would also consider greenhouse gas emissions and excess fertilizer use, for example.

Basically, the trick is to create a suite of measurable targets within each goal that reach economic, social and environmental objectives. We made a provisional stab at some of these targets — mainly within the Earth-system domain. But this will require more work with a much broader group of experts. What we wanted to do was show that it was possible to take a systems approach and that the result is viable, on paper at least.

A unified framework

Taken together, we end up with a unified framework for sustainable development goals that bring together two priorities: poverty eradication and Earth-system stability.

Unified framework for SDGs
Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene. Figure: Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a

A further mapping of the new goals (below) against updated and expanded MDGs and our planetary “must haves” shows how this set of goals ticks all the boxes – well most of them – and helps avoid conflicts between targets.

Cube 130314-01
Six Sustainable Development Goals for integrated delivery of MDGs and Global Sustainability Objectives whilst minimising conflicts between objectives. Targets set within each SDG directly address social, economic and environmental dimensions. These goals, and the targets beneath, may be operationalized through a policy framework across levels from international to local, some of it already extant.

Goals for all

In the figure above we also show that the goals lead naturally to a policy framework. Much of our proposal is already covered by existing agreements or conventions internationally. But the key is to create something that has buy in at all levels. For SDGs to work in a globally networked society they must be adopted by international organizations, nations, states, cities and towns. More than that, businesses, schools, families and individuals must say “this is the world I want to live in”.

Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. Science, though, has a role in ensuring the goals are achievable.

Counting angels on pinheads

Medieval scholars were sometimes accused of expending intellectual effort debating issues of no practical significance such as estimating the number of angels that could dance on a pinhead. I had a lengthy discussion with an editor at Nature towards the end of the process to publication of our paper. She questioned whether our work could be considered in the same way. Is it not all hot air of interest only to international policy wonks?

Whatever way you look at it the MDGs had a major impact. So much so that many nations and people like Bill Gates are reluctant to tamper too much with them. They successfully diverted a lot of financial resources and political will towards specific priority areas, often to the detriment of other worthy causes.

This is why the stakes for SDGs are so high. Like MDGs, no global legal agreement was necessary to implement them. Nations made commitments and chose themselves how to meet them. This has a much bigger chance of success in the short-run than a single binding international agreement that would take decades to negotiate.

A prerequisite for future development will be a life-support system able to sustain a global civilization. Our life-support system is changing rapidly and in an uncontrolled way. Further interference risks overturning development gains in the last two decades. Last week’s UN 2013 Human Development Report outlined environmental disaster scenarios that could lead to three billion more people living in extreme poverty by 2050.

We have some opportunities to avoid this fate. It is all in our hands. This is the new reality. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Authors: David GriggsMark Stafford-SmithOwen GaffneyJohan RockströmMarcus C. Öhman Priya ShyamsundarWill SteffenGisbert GlaserNorichika KanieIan Noble

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