A Good Life for the SDGs

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Time to change the lens for sustainability?

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to social and environmental sustainability, with an overarching goal of ending poverty and protecting the planet by 2030.  Universal is the keyword. This means they apply to everyone, everywhere, regardless. This makes them more aspirational than practical and because of this, it’s argued that they are impossible to achieve. Indeed, by all accounts, they are failing. And, we’re running out of time.

The 2022 Progress report on the SDGs details the immense challenge ahead of us in terms of achieving social, environmental and economic sustainability. The report admits a backward slide against the Goals (albeit in the face of significant “cascading crises”, most notably in terms of poverty, climate change, and environmental indicators.

Climate change and sustainability come hand in hand. A changing climate is a major challenge for social and environmental sustainability. In turn, the way modern society functions is far from sustainable long, or even medium term and is hastening the speed of climatic changes that are occurring.

The IPCC has confirmed that climate change is caused by human activity, and it is happening at a speed faster than first realised. Thwaites “doomsday” Glacier in Antarctica, for example, is melting at a speed faster than could ever have been anticipated, threatening global sea levels to rise up to .6m https://theconversation.com/thwaites-glacier-the-melting-antarctic-monster-of-sea-level-rise-podcast-191057

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has called the current climate situation a “code red for humanity”. Everyone everywhere will (and already is) experience the wrath of the past decades’ inaction. As I have argued many times, we cannot continue to decouple human and environmental wellbeing. These “cascading crises” are complex, and they are entangled.

The outlook is not good. While it seems like we are on a one-way course for destruction, there is definitely hope in limiting the scale of future destruction, if we band together, separately. That is, if we change divert the approach from ‘universal’ to ‘contextual’. Immediately.

In the words of Sneddon et al. (2006)

“Sustainability may yet be possible if sufficient numbers of scholars, practitioners and political actors embrace a plurality of approaches to and perspectives on sustainability, accept multiple interpretations and practices associated with an evolving concept of “development”, and support a further opening up of local-to-global public spaces to debate and enact a politics of sustainability.”

Because climate change is a global challenge (perhaps the biggest!) with no geographical limits it requires a global response. Let me rephrase that, it requires a response globally, that is anchored in local geographical, climatic, ecological, socio-political, economic and cultural context.

The thing about place is that no one locale is the same. Place is a complex notion. Each comes with its own identity, challenges, and socio-economic situation. The identifying factors aren’t just social, each place is unique with its own environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, topographical, geological, and geographical advantages and disadvantages. Place influences a person’s identity and their empathy towards nature, which plays a role in the motivation for climate and sustainability action. The perception of place is then vital to social and environmental justice at the community level. This makes the community context the most practical viewpoint for addressing social and environmental issues.

What’s more, climate change is not and will not affect each place equally. Each community will mount its own challenges that are unique to that place. So, it is nonsensical to then believe that we can apply a universal approach to these issues, even if they have global scope. Plus, large-scale transformational systemic change is inherently complicated, and especially drawn out – a major issue when dealing with issues on an urgent timescale like climate change.

Global declarations and treaties are a vital part of the international system. They are an important tool to set the wheels in motion for action in all parts of the world, and they outline states responsibilities and obligations in responding to challenges that affect us all. But, they are not effective in their own right. International action is firmly squared within the boundaries of neoliberalism, which promotes universal values in line with Western standards, and ignores the diverse realities of communities everywhere. This has indeed been one of the most common critiques in relation to global climate declarations. International climate diplomacy must be coupled with locally anchored solutions within a context that speaks to locally-identified needs and challenges, otherwise they are all but useless.

What alternative approaches like Buen Vivir do is remove local action for social and environmental justice from ideal and aspirational universal values and provide local communities with agency to drive solutions that meet their realities. As a hypothetical example, let’s look at two climate-related flood disasters, the solutions that are required for (comparably) affluent communities in Northern New South Wales in Australia will not work in the poor communities of Pakistan who are currently experiencing climate flooding of biblical proportions.

 Small-scale transformational change breaks up larger big-picture goals like the SDGs and makes them amenable to place and context. Smaller chunks are easier to swallow and (notwithstanding all the complexities in a community) quicker to achieve real change. Concepts like Buen Vivir also help reconcile the social and environmental aspects, that builds bridges between the two rather than having them almost compete for attention.

Local action for climate change is crucial and Buen Vivir provides a framework for locally driven solutions that build resilience, mitigate impacts, and allow communities to adapt in relation to their own realities. It that respect it provides a tool for increasing social and environmental wellbeing in the face of these challenges. Having local solutions unadulterated by the global agenda yet capable of working together in cooperation with it is vital for transformative action at this point. ‘Together yet apart’ – much like the catchphrase of the COVID lockdown period.

Even the upcoming COP27 in Egypt has recognised the importance of working together for implementation against the old notion of a single negotiated outcome. The Presidency Vision states the need “to replicate and rapidly upscale all other climate-friendly solutions towards implementation in developing countries”. “Together for implementation” is the theme, with the Presidency saying that implementation needs to happen “on time and at scale”, and be “specific, measurable, and impactful”.

Each of the principles of Buen Vivir has the potential to cooperate with the wider global Goals, but leaving it to the communities to identify the needs and respective solutions. I outline just how the principles converge with the Goals in my book and more recently paper published in the Community Development Journal .

Never before has the term “think globally, act locally” been more prevalent than now. And never has the call been more urgent!

The People’s Charter for an Eco-Social World

The Global People’s Summit: Co-Creating a New Eco-Socio World was held 29 June – 2 July 2022. I was honored to have been included in the program, presenting my research on Buen Vivir.

One of the key outcomes of the Peoples’ Global Summit was the ‘Peoples’ Charter’ shaped by diverse voices across the globe and based on the values of Buen Vivir, diversity, respect and Ubuntu, for the co-creation of globally shared values.

The People’s Charter is a living document and reference point that will grow as the world’s populations share their solutions for a sustainable planet where people live in peace and security. It is co-designed and co-built.

“The People’s Global Summit recognises that the pledges made by governments since the founding of the United Nations – the pillars of peace, development and human rights – have facilitated crucial steps forward but have not yet been realised. Challenges are at crisis point. Rights have been eroded. Inequalities and fractures have grown. Poverty sits alongside extreme wealth. Nature has been degraded, leading to climate warming and environmental destruction. Millions of people have been displaced as a result, adding to the millions more displaced by conflict and violence. The governments that made these commitments have prioritized competition over collaboration and sovereignty over solidarity. They have not yet served the people they represent.”

The Charter sets out five values for a new Socio-Eco World and seven implications going forward. The purpose was to create a call to action for world leaders at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum and General Assembly in July 2022.

If you missed the Summit, you can still watch the presentations by clicking the sessions in the program here. Be sure to check out some of the amazing keynote speakers, as well as the opening ceremony by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez and climate activist Dr Kumi Naidoo.

You can read the contribution book here.

The ‘Transformative’ SDG Moment for Rethinking Sustainability

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The 76th UN General Assembly has kicked off this week with the ‘SDG Moment’- a call to renew momentum for the SDGs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had profound impacts on how governments manage global social and environmental policies. It’s clear that an approach that promotes universal growth-oriented Goals is simply outdated.


Several scholars and experts have called for the need to revise the SDGs for a post-COVID world – one which will be profoundly different to the world in which the SDGs were designed.


Transformation often happens through crisis, and right now the entire planet is living a climate crisis, a social crisis, and a health crisis. This tells us that business-as-usual will not suffice to overcome the challenges we are living right now. To achieve environmental and social ‘transformation’ the SDGs will need recalibrating to include a contextual, community-led, and wellbeing-oriented alternatives that embraces holistic visions of wellbeing.


The SDGs call for ‘transformation’, yet as a perpetuation of the idea of mainstream development, they are doomed to fail if we do not abandon the people-above-nature-growth-above-all-else mindset and align 17 Goals with community-based, grassroots, alternative approaches. The way the SDGs have been conceived is simply not feasible, realistic, sustainable nor attainable.
Opening the 76th session, the President of UNGA 76, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, said we need a “new narrative” for the SDGs. The UN itself has admitted that “to get the SDGs back on track and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, a profound shift in economies and societies everywhere, is now needed.”


Our Common Agenda” contains 12 points for action, agreed on by member states.

Member states concluded that our challenges are interconnected and can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism with the United Nations at the centre of our efforts. While collective action is crucial, especially with crises like climate change and COVID-19 that transcend national boundaries, it is equally vital that this high-level multilateralism better incorporates community-led action and capacity for transformative change.


One way to do so is to reprioritise five fundamental dimensions: people, planet, peace, prosperity, and partnership to ensure that ‘people’ refers to shifting power to allow for bottom-up approaches to environmental and social change. It is also imperative in that respect that the five dimensions do not perpetuate the anthropocentric vision that has dominated global sustainable development approaches so far, and that it reintegrates ‘planet’ to include people as part of nature, not a dominant force upon it. By shifting the power from a universal approach to the SDGs to proliferating plural community-led approaches, we incorporate the aspect of ‘partnership’ to achieving change. Here, the keywords are connection, reciprocity, and plurality.


What is needed is a framework that appeals to both the SDGs calls for ‘transformation’, as well as for a more citizen-empowered approach to achieving sustainability by aligning the global Goals with a local, community-led and biocentric approach to social and environmental wellbeing: the Latin American framework for Buen Vivir.


In my book, I discuss how Buen Vivir can allow governments to rethink the way they approach sustainability and align the global goals with contextually-appropriate community-focussed action. You can find a copy of my book here. The chapter titled “Rethinking Sustainability: Making the Global Align with the Local” is available for download on the SDG Online portal.

Howarth (2012) argued, “A sustainable future will emerge if we build institutions that, on a practical level, sustain the natural environment and the social and technological conditions that will empower future generations to define and pursue their own conception of the good life”. Buen Vivir will require rethinking sustainability, in particular the SDGs as a plural albeit community-led approach, requiring cooperation from local, national and global actors for rapid and genuine transformation.

The IPCC Report on Climate Change: What you can do

What’s the Issue?

In this part II of my post on the IPCC report I’d like to look at the positive aspects of the report – that is, the ways we can help limit global warming below at least 2°C by a wholesale change in behaviours, attitudes, practices, and a mindset that is better coupled to the human-nature connection. A decoupling of this connection is what has ultimately led to the changes found in the report including a 1.1°C temperature rise since 1850-1900 from CO2 emissions.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the inactions of governments on climate change, which can lead to eco-paralysis and the inability to act, so in this post I’d like to focus on what individuals and communities can do and the power we have to drive change. I’m not saying that individuals are wholly responsible for slowing climate change, but I am saying that everyone has a part to play.

Climate change is an ecological, scientific and technological issue; but it is also a social, political and cultural one, and tackling it will involve social, political and cultural changes that need Joe Bloggs as much as the highest levels of government.

Let’s stay solutions-focussed!

This will mean looking to alternative ways of limiting our impacts on the environment, which will include changing attitudes, mindsets, behaviours and practices.

The most detrimental “solution” is the one that believes that we can tackle the changes needed using the same tools we have always used.

We can change behaviours and attitudes about our place on the planet by recalibrating our understandings of our connection to nature. Humans are part of nature, not superior to it. Indigenous knowledges of the role of nature in human society and vice-versa were instrumental in the ways in which people lived for millennia before industrial activities. In recent times, activists and policymakers alike have pointed to the need to return to Indigenous knowledge in environmental management and social policies.

Ideas like Buen Vivir (among similar traditional and Indigenous concepts and philosophies) recentre Indigenous approaches to the environment and community, thereby making them potential solutions for changing the way we live and organise society, globally. By changing this aspect of society, not only in how we act and the choices we make on a daily basis, but also in the policies that governments adopt, we can lessen our usage of natural resources and thus impacts on the natural environment.

However, we have one big global problem: political inaction. So rather than waiting for policies to change, we can start to do our part in slowing the changes to climate. How? It starts with a change in the way we think, followed by a change in the way we live.

The Indigenous Kichwa Peoples of the Andes in South America call this change in mindset and practices Vivir Bien.  If you’re familiar with Buen Vivir, you will know that Buen Vivir is the big picture idea of what sustainability and wellbeing should look like. It involves not only environmental sustainability, but also the social wellbeing of communities (not just competitive individuals), which in many ways is connected to the ways we value the environment. So, environmental and social wellbeing are inherently connected to each other in an idea I call Socio-Eco Wellbeing.

Vivir Bien is the same idea, based on the same principles as Buen Vivir, only it is described as how it manifests in daily living. The full matrix of principles can be found in my book. There are many examples on the internet about daily actions individuals can take to tackle climate change such as:

  • contacting leaders
  • adopting a climate friendly diet
  • limiting our resource use
  • switching to renewable sources where possible
  • consuming less, and
  • using your vote wisely.

These are great micro ideas that make important changes, but they also need to be backed up with the right mindset. That is, a switch to communal thinking and away from individualism, and; a consideration of the reciprocal human-nature connection in every action and decision taken. This also calls for macro ‘big picture’ thinking.

Here is an excerpt from my book on some of the (non-exhaustive) ways in which communities can implement the principles in their daily lives:

•• Adopting a reciprocal approach to our relationship with nature;

•• Public participation and enabling decision-making in a manner that honours

that reciprocity;

•• Fostering solidarity and harmony through an environment of community;

•• Ensuring equity in participation in public decision-making;

•• Manifesting a responsibility to participate in decision-making;

•• Educating future generations;

•• Participating in economic life;

•• Understanding their fundamental rights and responsibilities, including those

of the environment;

•• Exercising those rights;

•• Promoting and protecting cultural values and practices;

•• Valuing the role of health in a community.

Adding to that is the reducing consumerism and the material vision of the environment as a commodity – a consequence of adopting a reciprocal relationship to nature in our decision-making and behaviours.

These changes combined can help empower individuals and communities to do their part in limiting environmental impacts and therefore slowing climate change. Inevitably, the changes flow up.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

More reading:

Buen Vivir as an Alternative to Sustainable Development: Lessons from Ecuador, Routledge, 2020

How to Live the Good Life, Sustain the Mag

Regenerating and Restoring the planet goes beyond Earth Day. Here’s how we can do it

Our world is broken in many ways, compounded by climate change and biodiversity loss. Human impacts have had a profound effect on the changes in nature.

Humans have led to a broken world. It’s time to for us restore the earth! For today, Earth Day 2021, that is the theme.

The global pandemic highlights the urgency of environmental action at every level of society. Restoring the earth doesn’t just mean relying on government action, it’s  a reminder that we all have to come together and contribute to a brighter future – one of hope.

‘Sustainability’ is no longer enough. ‘Sustainable development’ hasn’t worked. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s look at other approaches that can reconcile our society with the planet that sustains us. We have the opportunity to turn away business-as-usual, challenge the staus quo and regenerate and renew the earth.

We can do this by shifting our behaviours, and changing our worldviews on our role and relationship with nature. This involves deep societal change. But in the words of Martin Luther King, “today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

Earth Day should not be just symbolic, however, it’s an opportunity to continue the conversations of change which can lead to real, practical transformation. Here some ways all levels of society can do so from individuals,  communities, industry and governments:

• Prioritise Indigenous and traditional knowledge and incorporate them in public policy and decision making.


• Look towards ideas like Buen Vivir that seek to restore the connection between people and nature, and between each other. This means moving away from a transactional society and towards collaborative living and collective socio-eco wellbeing.


• Start implementing and supporting regenerative activities like regenerative farming, agriculture, gardening, and tourism.


• Educate. Teach the next generations what can be done for the future, and instill a reciprocal planet-people mindset. Centre Indigenous and traditional approaches to resources in education.


• Move to a circular and regenerative economy, and localising that through social and solidarity economies that connect producers with consumers and provide equitable outcomes.


• Change consumption patterns with cooperation between people, governments, business, and organisations. At the most basic level this can involve tree planting; reductions in energy consumption and waste by individuals and industry, supported by effective policy; better waste management solutions incorporating new technologies.


• Support research in and harness sustainable technologies to support a circular and regenerative economy, and help support individual efforts.


• Declarations of a climate emergency coupled with effective strategies and policies to implement necessary changes.


• Celebrate and promote a ‘culture of restoration and regeneration’ through art, music and storytelling to motivate and inspire action.

A Reset for Unprecedented Times

Maria Zambrano* lives in the highlands of Ecuador’s Cotacachi Canton, home to two of the world’s 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hots pots. It is also home to a people fiercely committed to their own social and environmental well-being. Zambrano is an Indigenous Ecuadorian of the Kichwa people. Sitting at a café in Cotacachi, the seamstress is dressed in a black wrap-around skirt and a traditional embroidered white shirt, on which she’s done all the embroidery. The colorful stitching, she explains, is symbolic of her land, depictions of the connection between humans and Pachamama, which she uses to refer to Mother Earth. Pachamama, she says, is at the heart of everything she does.

Read more

Published in Yes! Magazine Winter 2020 https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/what-the-rest-of-the-world-knows/2020/11/03/a-reset-for-unprecedented-times/

Buen Vivir: The Good Life for People and Planet

What do you think of when someone talks about the ‘Good Life’? There are many ideas about what the ‘Good Life’ should look like, most of them involving wealth accumulation.

What if I suggested that a Good Life should no longer revolve around wealth and economic growth, but should be something that enhances and protects the wellbeing of humans as part of a broader community, and that it should also protect the wellbeing of our environment? After all, one cannot really exist without the other. That is the aim of the Latin American conception of the Good Life: Buen Vivir.

Buen Vivir is a complex concept for social and environmental sustainability based on Indigenous worldviews – one that has evolved over time to include ideas from politics, academia and non-Indigenous communities.

It’s about abandoning old ideas of individual happiness backed by an accumulation of wealth and economic growth, towards a life with more intention, a reciprocity with nature and embracing the idea of community.

As an alternative to sustainable development, it addresses the gaps in policy that have led to the type of social and environmental injustices we see today. Policies that are driven by top-down visions of what communities need. These injustices are part of the structural failures that are driving climate change.

You may of heard of other culturally-originated concepts like the Danish Hygge or Lakom, the South African Ubuntu, or the Japanese Ikigai. But what stands Buen Vivir apart from these other cultural concepts is that it is both an aspirational goal that can be used by the likes of governments and policymakers to ensure a more socially and environmentally just order; but on the flip side, it is also a lifestyle driven by the same key principles.

Just what those key principles are I will discuss in later posts, but this means that Buen Vivir has both the potential to change policy for more responsive and participatory democracies, but it is also rooted in the attitudes, behaviours and practices of individuals and their communities. Both feed into each other, but ultimately it starts with the people. And that’s the beauty of it.

Buen Vivir’s ability to marry both people’s behaviour with policy is one of the most important parts of the concept, and it is why I have chosen to focus on developing a framework tool that not only helps guide communities for the changes they want to see to meet their own needs, and implement Buen Vivir within their own homes and communities; but also helps guide government institutions when working with communities and their needs to make sure that the developmental goals match the community realities.

The most crucial aspect of Buen Vivir though lies in the way both policymakers and communities change the way we view our relationship with each other and with our earth.

That is where Buen Vivir has the innovative ability to ensure both social and environmental wellbeing – of our communities and our planet. Sustainable communities for a sustainable earth for generations to come. In these challenging times, that is exactly what we should be aiming for.