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 ‘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.