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 It’s clear that an approach that promotes universal growth-oriented Goals is simply outdated.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: Facts & Scenarios – Part I

What’s the Issue?

Welcome to my second post of ‘What’s the Issue’. This post looks at the long-awaited IPCC Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change and will be in two parts: first I will outline the main findings of the report, its facts, and scientific bases for climate change.

The report details some sombre conclusions. “This report is a reality check,” said IPCC Working Group I Co-Chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte. “We now have a much clearer picture of the past, present and future climate, which is essential for understanding where we are headed, what can be done, and how we can prepare.”

This can leave us all a little disillusioned about the future of our planet, so part II will focus on the positive aspects of the report and notwithstanding changes in policy, look at ways we can all help slow the changing of our climate.

Let’s get into the facts…

In my last post I explained a little of the background of the report and what we might expect from this Sixth Assessment on Climate Change – the physical basis. Climate change and sustainability experts were not expecting good news from this report, and while the findings are somewhat unsurprising, they are a sobering account of the state of our planet. The report findings combine “multiple lines of evidence from paleoclimate, observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate simulations”, and is the most comprehensive study on climate change yet.

The IPCC has affirmed that human activities are responsible for climate change, with the main driver being CO2 emissions. “Each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850.” Global surface temperatures in the first two decades of the 21st century (2001-2020) was 1.1°C warmer than 1850-1900. If we average this trend over the next 20 years, we will exceed 1.5°C warming, or even 2°C by the end of the century.

Importantly though, global surface temperatures will continue to increase to at least mid-century under all scenarios.

There will be no cherry-picking. Every region on earth will be affected. This concerns us all from all corners of the globe, and as we know that climate change is emmeshed with social justice the outcomes for the world’s most vulnerable are looking dire. We only need look at the news this week and see the devastation occurring in Haiti with a 7.2 magnitude earthquake and awaiting tropical storm Grace with all its fury.

On the current trajectory, the outcomes will be unthinkable. We are already seeing the extreme changes in weather patterns around the world, and in the coming few decades there will be multiple climatic changes which will intensify with further warming scenarios. We will see:

  • harsh changes in urban climates
  • intense wetness and drought with affected rainfall patterns
  • already occurring sea-level rise leading to more severe flooding in low-lying regions, and increased coastal erosion
  • amplified changes to and melting of snow, ice and permafrost
  • more marine heatwaves, ocean acidification and reduced oxygen levels acutely affecting ocean ecosystems.

With higher global ocean and land temperatures, both ocean and carbon sinks will be less effective at slowing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere – driving further acute changes to climate.

Despite this, there is some hope if we enact immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in CO2 emissions and other GHG emissions globally. The most positive conclusion from the IPCC is that strong and sustained reductions in CO2 would limit climate change and give us a chance to slow warming. With radical wholesale transformation of our political, economic and social systems this could be below 1.5°; however more realistically if we see immediate drastic global reductions in emissions, we could limit warming to below 2°. This means 1.5° is almost certainly locked in.

The news is not good. But we can turn it around!

To even remotely have the chance of achieving these reductions governments globally must take multiple paths to reducing emissions, in global concertation with business, and citizens. A post-extractive economy is most certainly a necessity – that means an end to fossil fuels as the mains source of energy, but also changing the economic system to limit the exploitation and exportation of natural resources (especially from the Global South) for economic growth and wealth accumulation. COP26 in November will be a momentous opportunity for world leaders to leverage on this report for change.

Technology will play an important role in lowering industrial and consumer emissions, but it will not be a silver bullet. The way governments understand and “do” development must change. The argument for relying on extractivist policies heavily based on fossil fuels to raise global development expectations to a universal Westernised standard is redundant. The problem is not just fossil fuels, but all capitalist levels of extractivism of natural resources.

In light of the work that needs to be done there is a strong impetus on looking beyond ‘development’ and ‘sustainable development’ to other decolonised ideas about how we can better approach the transformation needed to slow climate change and its impacts.

We need to ask ourselves and our leaders: is the idea of development now redundant? And, be prepared for hard truths.

The future needs all-hands-on-deck, not just a motivated few. Behavioural change in the world’s most consumerist societies will help us avoid the worst case scenario, as will a realisation of the consequences our disconnection from nature is having on the natural world. Most of all, a positive future needs people everywhere, everyday doing what they can. The next part of this post looks at what that might look like.

Sources:

www.ipcc.ch

Full report

IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.

Summary for Policymakers

IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [MassonDelmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S. L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M. I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J. B. R. Matthews, T. K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press.

Busyness and the pursuit of wellbeing

Continuing on the idea of self-mastery from the last blog post, I’d like to take a minute to discuss why we need to decolonise our ideas of wellbeing. By refocusing how we approach our individual and collective wellbeing through mental, physical, emotional control, we can have more positive interactions with those around us and the environment that sustains us.

On a personal note, I have been concentrating on finishing my first book, and writing for media to get the understanding of Buen Vivir out into a wider audience whilst being a Mother my two young children. I could have overextended myself, as society generally expects, and kept up with the blog, engaged more in academia, and pursued more projects at the same time; but when you work on an idea that promotes a decolonised view of wellbeing you start to change the way you think.

We have been far too busy for far too long. The neoliberal and indeed capitalist systems require us to keep the cogs of the economic wheel turning for continual economic growth, wealth creation and accumulation. When you take a step back from the daily grind, its easier to stop and ask ourselves: “Do I need to be this busy? What impact is this having on my wellbeing and that of those around me?”

Some people need to keep themselves, and their minds occupied. I am one of those people. It took me a long time to accept the fact that I cannot be everything to everyone, everywhere. It is a question of priorities, and stepping back to ask what really matters today? I am learning to ask: What are my needs, the needs of my family and those around me, and will this task contribute to satisfying them? If the answer is no, then I find something else to keep my mind engaged. Rather than the endless pursuit of busyness, work and errands, I turn to cooking, art or music. The benefits are multiplied if I do this with family and friends.

You see, we are living in Generation Burnout.

Experts are finding a link between capitalist societies and mental-health disorders as the leading cause of life expectancy decline behind cardiovascular disease and cancer. The forced change of pace from COVID-19 has been a welcomed aspect of lockdown on that front (without disregarding its other impacts of course).

As David Matthews said in The Monthly,

“What is abundantly clear is the existence of significant social patterns that elucidate the impossibility of reducing poor mental health to biological determinism… capitalism is a major determinant of poor mental health.”

In the book ‘Monopoly Capital’, by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy argue that capitalism fails “to provide the foundations of a society capable of promoting the healthy and happy development of its members.”

It is glaringly obvious that neoliberal approaches to wellbeing, anchored in capitalism, and measured by busyness, wealth and GDP have not worked. So, logically it is time to decolonise the way we conceive wellbeing.

There are many global alternatives to wellbeing that are both practiced and philosophised in traditional and Indigenous communities and radical circles. The Latin-American concept of Buen Vivir captured my attention however for two of many reasons: 1) not only does it include human wellbeing, but it also encapsulates environmental wellbeing; and 2) it has potential applicability outside of these niche communities.

Oftentimes we are engaged in this idea of busyness because of a societal expectation that we continually generate wealth. It goes beyond our needs and to our perceived desires. I say perceived because as anyone who has ever suffered from burnout will tell you, they work so much that they do not have time to enjoy the wealth that they have accumulated. Not only do decolonised ideas like Buen Vivir step away from a linear perspective of wellbeing gauged by economic growth, but they discourage it.

If we constantly strive for more and more, where is the endpoint?

Buen Vivir focuses on the collective. Although Buen Vivir is not about individual wellbeing as an outcome, its principles of reciprocity with nature, respect, participation, and education do demand that individuals change their own behaviours. This flow-on effects on the wellbeing of both society and the environment, for the greater good of the collective.

Those aforementioned questions of priorities also extend to reflect on how our choices affect both those around us and the wellbeing of the natural environment. After all, there is a direct correlation between the subjective wellbeing of the individual, and the collective wellbeing of a community and vice-versa. Moreover, when we feel more connected to nature, we are more inclined to protect its wellbeing.

When we make time for ourselves and our loved ones, along with more time to reconnect with nature, we experience greater physical and emotional wellbeing. It slows us down and revives us, and satisfies intangible needs that amplify wellbeing.

The way Buen Vivir approaches satisfying our needs in both a tangible and intangible way, means a move away from the neoliberal capitalist society that is having detrimental impacts on both human and environmental wellbeing, towards a more just (and healthy!) society.

COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part I

We are living in unprecedented times. This period will go down in the history books, and today’s children will be telling their children stories about times of climate change and COVID-19. How the stories end is in great part up to us, now.

It is a tale of two emergencies. They are really intersecting rises. Only one is being responded to with urgency, but they are both connected to each other, and both entail unprecedented threats to humanity.


COVID-19 has led us to a deeper understanding of how we are connected to each other and to nature. This highlights the urgent need to radically address climate change to ensure the health of that relationship.


The World Health Organization has affirmed that there is an increase in infectious diseases, particularly zoonotic viruses making a jump between animal hosts and humans, and that there is a link between this and climate change.

Not only will biodiversity loss due to climate change makes pandemics more likely, but we will have reduce capacity to tackle global health crises due to the intersecting nature of more extreme weather and environmental events on human health.


We know that climate change puts pressure on many species to move to new areas due to loss of habitat and food sources. This puts more animal and bird species in contact with human populations, increasing the risks of novel virus spillover.

According to a recent study, by 2070, around 4,000 mammal species are “predicted to aggregate in areas of high human population density…sharing novel viruses between 3,000 and 13,000 times.”


It is not yet know the definitive links of findings such as this and the potential for global pandemics, but science suggests the risks are high. For such reasons, the IPCC is currently modelling the links between climate change, biodiversity loss and future pandemics to include in its next assessment report in 2021.


Regardless of the science, we know that the wellbeing of the natural environment affects human wellbeing and vice-versa. It is this society-nature continuum, that often gets forgotten and is in danger because of human activity and the continual search for developmental ‘progress’.


We live on a finite planet. The constant, unrelenting quest for economic growth is creating more ecological destruction that we cared to imagine at the start of the industrial age. Because of this we are now living a climate planetary emergency. This has been internationally acknowledged and declared in over 1,750 jurisdictions worldwide, yet the political will to address the climate emergency with as much urgency as the health emergency is still lacking.


Nonetheless, COVID-19 has demonstrated that we have a chance for a social and ecological reset. This gives us the possibility to address climate change in the process. But, how?


I will discuss further in the second instalment of this post

Balloons blow: the environmental impact of traditions

Tasmania has some of the world’s most pristine beaches, but like all coastal regions they are subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, which often brings with it plastic debris and other garbage that has floated out to sea.

Yesterday I was walking at one rather secluded beach in Hobart’s east when I spotted a bright pink balloon complete with plastic ribbon entangled in a bush offshore. It had obviously floated there from a nearby party as it was still inflated.

What would happen if that party balloon made its way out into the ocean? Well, according to the CSIRO balloons are the “marine debris item that has the highest chance of killing seabirds if eaten, and 43 percent of short-tailed shearwaters have plastic in their gut.” What’s more, the CSIRO predicts that 95 percent of all seabird species may be ingesting plastic by 2050.

The Tasman Sea is a global hotspot for impacts of marine debris on seabirds.

This is not news, however. I’m sure you have heard about the major issues plastic and other debris cause to our marine life and coastal habitats. Yet, it continues to be a problem, as I witnessed yesterday.

What can we do about it? One effective way to tackle plastics debris in our oceans is to curb and eventually stop plastic use. This is dependant on a lot of factors including effective policy, education, and waste management. However, people’s attitudes and behaviours are the most important because mindful consumption of resources will lead to a plastic-free, and more ecologically sustainable society.

In the meantime, when looking for balloons for the next birthday party, Sustainability Victoria has put together a shortlist of some wildlife-friendly balloon alternatives, which includes bubbles for the kids, and flowers, which can be rehomed for decoration and then composted.

Changing habits is about keeping in the forefront of our minds, the impacts we have on our environment with our daily actions and decisions, and changing those accordingly.

It involves society as a whole rethinking our role in nature, so that we may effectively lessen our ecological impacts.

After all, these impacts are cyclical. Microplastics, plastic debris, and other contaminants are making their way into the food chain, and therefore having wide-ranging impacts on human health.

UPDATE: Website Balloons Blow (nothing to do with this article or its title) is a great resource for the impacts of balloons on wildlife, including education resources and a fantastic list of alternatives https://balloonsblow.org/environmentally-friendly-alternatives/

Celebrating Biodiversity, means Respecting Nature as Equal

Today, June 5, is World Environment Day. The theme for 2020 is “Celebrating Biodiversity”. What does that mean exactly?

Biodiversity is the complex web of more than 8 million species on this planet that are vital to our existence. One million of these plant and animal species is facing extinction if we don’t change our way of life.

Every species on the planet is important in maintaining healthy and balanced ecosystems. Every. Single. One.

Protecting this biodiversity is essential for our health, wellbeing, livelihoods, protection and security. We are part of nature. Our lives literally depend on it.

According to the IPBES, the five main drivers for biodiversity loss are: land use change; overexploitation of animals and plants; climate change; pollution; and, invasive species introduced through globalisation. These drivers are all human induced.

The UN says, “Nature is sending us a message: to care for ourselves we must care for nature. It’s time to wake up. To take notice…it’s time for nature”

Yes, it is time for nature. It is time then to start recognising and respecting that nature is not just a resource to be exploited exponentially for our own human wellbeing. There is a nature-society continuum at play. If we do not respect nature as equally as we respect ourselves, we throw out that delicate balance.

This is what we have been doing. One of the consequences is climate change and its related impacts.

In 2008, Ecuador made the historical decision to give Rights to Nature. This afforded a legal status to nature that recognised nature as an actor. The Rights of Nature has since resulted in a global movement to move away from the idea of nature as property under the law, towards a legal recognition that “nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.”

Affording nature rights, is more than just a legal protection, and it is certainly more than just a symbolic gesture. It is also a call for civilizational change. In Western society, we are all so used to seeing nature as a resource for our own good use, that we forget what might happen if it no longer exists.

This means that at a societal level, we also must recognise the wellbeing of nature as equally as our own, and change our habits, behaviours, attitudes and practices accordingly. After all, we need nature, more than it needs us. It is impossible to imagine life on earth without clean drinking water, land to cultivate and harvest food, trees for oxygen…

We just have to look at how nature has started to recover during COVID-19 lockdowns to be able to imagine how nature would do just fine without us.

As the UN also says, “it will take not just one, not just a village, but an entire global community to change this trajectory.” It involves rethinking our role on this planet and what we can do to ensure sustainable change.

Want to learn more? Here are some resources:

Earth School http://www.ted.ed.com/EarthSchool

Reduce plastic pollution http://www.cleanseas.org

Reduce your carbon footprint http://www.anatomyofaction.org

Reduce waste http://www.myzerowaste.com

Learn about the Rights of Nature http://www.rightsofnature.org

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.