Between Pope Francis's address to the United States Congress and the United Nation's adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals, it has been an auspicious couple weeks for powerful calls to action in the face of persistent global challenges.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or Global Goals, are a reaffirmation and extension of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted in 2000. At that time, the focus was primarily on eradicating extreme poverty for the estimated 1.9 billion people struggling to meet their basic needs on a day to day basis. The number of people affected by extreme poverty makes it gravely urgent on its own terms, but poverty also impacts our collective ability to address a number of other related environmental and public health crises. The new SDGs include 17 targets. A cluster of these are still poverty-related, but a significant number of them are focused on climate change, ecosystem protection, cleaner energy development, and sustainable urbanization.
Sustainable development is broadly understood as economic development which is both socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable. The SDGs appear to fit snugly within this general definition, including targets for "Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure" and "Decent Work and Economic Growth" which suggest the belief that the best way forward for addressing global challenges is still fostering opportunities for collective global growth. Inclusive growth is especially important from this perspective because the traditional mechanisms of economic development have not spread the benefits of global development equitably. The wealthiest parts of the world have thrived on unsustainable consumption, but the benefits of this have largely remained with those countries while the burdens have been shared with, or even exported to, the developing world. The SDGs, and the MDGs before them, acknowledge that the developed world must do more to see that technological and economic gains that are the dividend on development make their way to the worst off.
According to the United Nations (UN), there has been significant progress in reducing extreme poverty and hunger since the original goals went into effect. The number of people living in extreme poverty has, by the their measurements, been reduced by half. As economist Jeffrey Sachs notes, major reductions in poverty produce cascading quality of life effects including greater access to health care, and thus reduced child mortality and increased prospects for getting an education. Over 90 percent of the world now has access to improved drinking water sources, up from 76 percent in 1990. But poor access to improved sanitation, a major disease vector, is still very common, leaving about a billion people entirely without access to toilets or wastewater treatment. Women benefit the most significantly from investments in alleviating poverty as it frequently means a chance to become educated, join the workforce, and to raise fewer children. Many of these gains do not require huge investments in new technology, and in fact they largely require intensive efforts to ensure that existing low-cost, effective solutions simply get into the hands of the people who need them. For instance, the widespread delivery of long-lasting insecticide treated mosquito nets has begun to make a significant dent in malaria (down 60 percent in the last 15 years).
The SDGs continue to put pressure on ending poverty and its associated challenges of hunger, clean water, health, education, and gender equality. In fact, the scope of the goals has been extended to include relative inequality as well. But most dramatically, they now include a much stronger stance in dealing with climate change. One of the deep complexities of sustainable development is the pent-up growth that successfully bringing the developing world out of poverty represents. Even if fertility rates fall along with decreasing poverty, people who have long been excluded from their share of global prosperity are set to put increasing demands on the shared resource base. It seems difficult for the developed world, which has long enjoyed its advantages (gained first through the active exclusion of colonialism and then at the cost of concerted environmental exploitation) to convince the developing world that now they must be more cautious. Sustainable energy and agriculture will be necessary here, and they are places where our faith rests largely on technological advances that have yet to arrive. The SDGs include targets for both of these problems, but they are unsurprisingly vague about the path to sustainability.
In the face of absolutely unprecedented global threats like climate change, it is tempting to be skeptical about the value of the grand call to action that the SDGs represent. The SDGs, however, aren't meant to solve problems by themselves. They're meant for coordinating our attention on the sorts of challenges humans are especially bad at solving—ones that are slow to develop via lots of individually insignificant actions, most directly affect people with whom we don't have contact, and are intergenerational in their impact. The greatest threat to the SDGs satisfaction is not likely to be the failure of the developing world to progressively improve the lives of their citizens. It will, instead, be the unwillingness of the developed world to do its part in moving toward sustainable consumption and production. "Doing more and better with less," as Goal 12 requires, is unfortunately perceived as a heavy lift for places like the United States, which have been unwilling to accept limitations that potentially constrain its economic interests. This may be part of what underlies the assumption that sustainable development requires indefinite global economic growth. Even so, the Global Goals' manage to echo Pope Francis's injunction that "we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it." Whether we manage to act on that shared conviction will define both the prospects for sustainable development and the future stability of the planet.
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