I was interviewed this week by the Independent newspaper about why more than 100 scholars from around the world issued a public letter to delegates at the UN’s event on disaster risk reduction. This provides more depth than my opinion piece in the newspaper.
Q – What was the impetus behind this letter?
Jem – The impetus for this letter is a widespread experience that many of our fellow professionals working on social and environmental issues privately know that we have been using a failing approach, with all the indicators heading in the wrong direction, but that they are hesitant to say so in public. We perceive that is because they are not yet clear on how to make sense of that failure or what might come next. They also see professional risk in criticising both capitalism and the story that our world will improve with more technology and investment. Whereas more people in the general public now sense that our systems are broken, many experts in establishment institutions continue to think they must remain upbeat in public. But signatories to the letter clearly think that attitude could undermine the needed reckonings and radical changes.
Q – Who are the signatories?
Jem – The first 100 signatories come from 27 countries and cover a range of disciplines, including climate science. They all have doctorates in their relevant specialisms. Signing in their personal capacities, they include Professor William Rees (University of British Columbia, Ecological Economics), Dr Malika Virah-Sawmy (IASS, Climate Adaptation), Dr Peter Kalmus (NASA, Climate Science), Dr Yves Cochet (Former Minister of the Environment, France), Dr Stella Nyambura Mbau (LOABOWA, Climate Adaptation) and Dr Ye Tao (MEER Framework, Climate Adaptation). [You can see the full list of 100 scholars here and read a press release about the letter here.]
Q – Why do you think the SDGs have failed?
Jem – The world is halfway through the time allocated for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the UN reports countries have gone backwards on most of them. That is even before the inflation, energy and food polycrises of 2022. This failure was predicted at the outset, by scholars who identified the impossibility of promoting ecologically-demanding consumer lifestyles as the means of progress for all.
The ideology of Sustainable Development is so ingrained after 30 years that the UN’s own report on near total absence of progress towards achieving the Global Goals – now half way through the time period – has been largely ignored. The potential from having such goals is measurability and accountability. Yet the implications of failure are being ignored. So I think many people working in the international field of cooperation on environment and development could be in denial. To address that, we produced the ‘owngoals’ graphic, which makes the situation more stark. I hope we do not see too many professionals in this field more annoyed by this graphic than the reality of suffering and loss which it describes. Because such reactions would raise uncomfortable questions about their current motivations. Thankfully, I already know that many colleagues are grateful for the chance to challenge the complacency and lack of accountability.
Q – What do you propose as the alternative?
Jem – Our main proposal is that we all stop pretending that we can grow economies, reduce poverty and avert environmental disasters. Once we drop the myth that economic expansion is always helpful, a variety of ideas can come into view for either reducing or coping better with social and environmental problems. In the research paper ‘Replacing Sustainable Development’ I cite a range of philosophies for organising society, ranging from the Vatican to Bali. The problem is that the current monetary systems impose a need for economic growth in order to maintain a stable economy. That is not a natural feature of the way economies work but one designed by bankers over many years for their own ends.
But in that paper, and in this letter, the focus is on the UN and international aid. We think that the existing capabilities and networks in Disaster Risk Reduction need to be made central to future policy-making, at home and abroad. That doesn’t sound fun or hopeful, but people don’t need experts to do their dreaming for them. We can pursue our own dreams, while government and aid agencies help with the increasing risks that we all face due to environmental breakdown.
Q – Why do you suggest “degrowth” of wealthy economies?
Jem – It is impossible to decouple resource consumption and pollution from economic growth sufficiently to reduce risks of catastrophic damage to all societies from environmental changes over the coming years. The UN’s own research shows we don’t have the materials to electrify everything worldwide, so the implication is richer countries, and richer individuals in particular, must reduce their consumption levels. Clearly that idea isn’t super appealing to the folks at Davos. Neither is it appealing to anyone if it not done fairly and with a focus on wellbeing. Crucially, the economic and monetary systems need to change to allow that kind of contraction without bankrupting small businesses and households. A chapter in my co-edited book Deep Adaptation explores aspects of the re-localization of economies that is now necessary.
Q – Why did you choose to release this letter at this particular summit?
Jem – Some of the people involved the UN Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) agency are exposed to the harsh realities of increasing disasters around the world. That was shown by their most recent Global Assessment Report. Many of them know that we are entering an era of ‘metadisaster’, by which I mean an ongoing global disaster of environmental breakdown that affects every aspect of our societies.
The UNDRR only convenes government officials every two years to discuss trends, policies and assistance. Whereas this event is largely ignored by the world’s media and national leaders, we think that the agenda it works on will become central to international relations in future. It can’t copy the mistakes of 30 years of sustainable development policy making being deferent to global capitalism. We want to encourage them to break with that and develop a more realistic and helpful response.
Q – You say the “assumptions that underpin the SDGs are invalid” — what would you say are those assumptions?
Jem – In the research paper “Replacing Sustainable Development” I explain that the ideological worldview behind the SDGs one where “material and technological progress is both good and inevitable; where humanity will balance social, economic and environmental issues to progress materially, and; that it is a priority to foreground corporate economic interest.”
I argue that these assumptions are politically convenient for some people, and have avoided irreconcilable priorities over the past 30 years:
“Sustainable Development became a systemic greenwash, undermining challenges to structural power that were posed by people and organisations we might loosely describe as anti-imperialist. Therefore, the apparently apolitical quality of Sustainable Development was actually highly political in its consequences. By framing the generic planetary need as one of more and better management and technology, rather than more freedom from manipulative and oppressive systems, it justified the further extension of managerial power, both corporate and bureaucratic.”
I argue the worldview within Sustainable Development is based “a range of underlying cultural assumptions as necessary for societies to organise the destruction of the living world so effectively. One is anthropocentrism, where humans are considered the centre and purpose of all Life. Second is androcentrism, where patriarchal ways of being and organising are privileged so that aspects of being and knowing that are regarded as feminine are systematically marginalised. Third is the desacralisation of nature, where all Life is seen as merely material phenomena with no intrinsic worth, without mystery or sanctity, so it can be utilised or substituted whenever those with the power choose to do so.”
Whereas such critiques have been seen in the past as too radical or esoteric, the harsh human implications of environmental breakdown remind us that, speaking purely pragmatically, nature was always the boss. The paper is currently under review, and I am looking forward to the feedback.
Q – Why is this important?
Jem – People’s lives are increasingly in danger from the effects of an environmental breakdown that is made worse by the current economic system and those who promote or apologise for it. The people who manage large budgets and make policies need to recognise the new situation we are in, so as not to make matters worse and have a chance to reduce harm as societies are disrupted. On the other hand, people who have given up on expecting any meaningful action from large institutions need to recognise the harm that could be done by those institutions when panicked and operating from a redundant paradigm. Of course, none of these attempts to shift attention may work at scale, with complacency, cowardice, or greed characterising the behaviour of managerial elites over the coming decades. However, it feels important to many of us to try.
Q – Anything I haven’t asked?
Jem – Perhaps, what can a member of the general public do? At this stage there needs to be a global awakening to the precipice that humanity has reached, so that we might all individually explore our own responses in our own communities. It starts with simply talking. Not just sharing on social media, but actually talking to each other about this information, in an open-hearted and open-minded way. Not rushing to blame, shame, fix or deny. Allowing our shock and worry to exist – and supporting each other as we experience those emotions. Then deciding if we want to become ‘positive pessimists’, where we openly try to make the best of a bad situation, by doing good and finding joy, no matter what is to come.
Read the article in the Independent newspaper about the letter and drawing on this interview.
If you have a PhD and would like to engage other scholars in helping shift the policy agenda to one that recognises reality and the unfolding societal disruptions it entails, then please consider signing the original International Scholars Warning on Societal Disruption and Collapse.
If you are interested or working on related themes, but not a scholar, then I recommend the Deep Adaptation Forum.
If you are in the UK and would like to study leadership and communications on these topics in a 5-day starting on June 13th, then the deadline for your application is June 8th!