Are the SDGs a dangerous distraction?

The worldview baked into the Sustainable Development Goals is inherently flawed – based on the same paradigm that created today's major problems, say On Purpose contributors Oliver Matikainen and Tom Rippin. Are we addicted to quick-fix painkillers – and still failing to address the underlying causes of our ailing economy? 

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We are approaching the half-way mark between the inception of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their looming deadline in 2030. It’s a good time to take stock and understand whether and how the SDGs will help us transform our economy and society towards the just and regenerative future we need.

Seventeen SDGs were adopted by all UN member states in 2015 as part of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They were an extension, in scope and time, of the eight Millennium Development Goals that had pledged to end extreme poverty in the first 15 years of the century. When you dig into them, the SDGs are surprisingly complicated, comprising not just the well-known 17 Goals (such as ending poverty and hunger) but also 169 sub-targets and 232 indicators. 

They are not exactly a marketer’s communications dream and yet, especially in the last few years, awareness of, and engagement with, the SDGs has rocketed. The business community especially has taken them to heart and it’s difficult to navigate any corporate social responsibility or sustainability report without finding reference to them. Shell, for example, claims it contributes directly to 13 SDGs (including Goal 13, “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts“) and indirectly to other goals as well. It has even created a dedicated microsite for the SDGs. The Coca-Cola Company also reports generating progress against 12 SDGs, including Goal 3, “Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”.


Laced with assumptions

How have a set of technical, complex and remote goals achieved such a wide reach? The importance of the issues at stake is indubitably partly responsible. Canny marketing and large budgets have helped as well though. Whoever designed the omnipresent colourful pictograms deserves a branding award of the first order! But more importantly, the SDGs contain something for everyone. Whether we extract fossil fuels from the ground or sell sugary drinks, we can all feel good about making some part of the SDGs happen.

What change are the SDGs bringing about and does it create the transformation that we need? As any organisational or systemic change specialist will tell you, change will only be sustained if it reaches the deeper levels of our collective psyche. For organisations, we call this “culture”. At a societal level we talk about “worldview” or, more technically, “paradigm”. A paradigm consists of the shared questions, approaches and, crucially, the acceptable solution space to which a community adheres, consciously or not. Originally, the term was coined in the 1960s to describe how major shifts occur in the world of science, but it has since spread to societal and economic sea changes as well.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” and “problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them”, are often-cited phrases. They underline the fact that significant change doesn’t happen unless it affects these deep levels formed by the values, beliefs and assumptions that shape how humans see, understand and interact with the world.

Like any collective agreement, the SDGs are laced with the beliefs, assumptions and values of the paradigm from which they emerged. This paradigm, known as the reductive paradigm, has its roots in the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. It has been central to much of the progress Western science, medicine and engineering has made in the last centuries and dominates our collective thinking. One of its hallmarks is that it disaggregates (“reduces”) a problem into its constituent parts, which can be solved independently of each other. The very idea that complex and inter-woven global challenges we face can be separated into 17 Goals and tackled separately is emblematic of this way of thinking. Although the SDGs do not explicitly advocate tackling the Goals separately (many supporters would, in fact, admit they need tackling together), their design and presentation reinforces separating them into individually addressable problems.

Such disaggregation necessarily involves neglecting the connections between different issues. We treat the climate crisis (SDG 13) and hunger (SDG 2) as independent issues that can be tackled with little or no reference to each other. And we assume the economy can grow indefinitely (SDG 8) on a finite planet. 

We treat the climate crisis (SDG 13) and hunger (SDG 2) as independent issues that can be tackled with little or no reference to each other

A second influential idea that is central to the reductive paradigm is that, as thinking beings, humans stand apart from and above nature, because nature is considered an unthinking machine. Nature is there to be exploited, or at best managed, by humans, but we are not a part of it. This subtle but consequential idea has reinforced the guilt-free overexploitation of natural resources around the world and is clearly visible in the wording of the goals, such as SDG 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” (authors’ italics).

A third assumption implicitly permeates the SDGs: that the social problems of less developed economies, such as access to food, education and healthcare, will be solved if these economies follow the path that rich economies have trodden before them; specifically that growing GDP will generate the social outcomes we need because wealth creation is assumed to “lift all boats”. This expectation, derived from the post-World War II experience of Western countries, is visible for example in SDG 8, which exhorts us to “sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7% gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries”.

In reality, the challenges that the SDGs are meant to address are complex in the technical sense of the word – they are interdependent, constantly evolving, have no single root cause and no single owner. Unfortunately, the paradigm from which the SDGs have emerged, and which has created so much of the progress Western societies have experienced, is ill-equipped to tackle complexity. 

The phrase “sustained and sustainable” growth, as SDG 8 puts it, is a contradiction in terms

Looking at three examples described above more critically: you cannot tackle global food shortages in isolation from the food insecurity, famines and population movements that climate change is itself creating. The current situation in the Horn of Africa bears tragic witness to this. Second, we can’t go on growing economic activity on an already over-exploited planet. The phrase “sustained and sustainable” growth, as SDG 8 puts it, is a contradiction in terms. In 2022, Earth Overshoot Day – the day when we have used all the natural resources that the plan can regenerate in a year – was on 28 July. Once we are just over half-way through the year, we have used up all the planet’s natural “budget”. And this date has been creeping forward ever since it was first introduced in 1971, when it fell on Christmas Day. Third, we must find new pathways for all countries to provide for their populations without replicating the mistakes that so-called developed countries have made. Treating GDP growth as the solution to social problems is not only ecologically unsurvivable, it is also socially unnecessary. Examples such Costa Rica, where high social and environmental outcomes are achieved with relatively low levels of GDP, demonstrate this. 


From symptoms to systems

The reductive paradigm is not only impotent in the face of complex issues we face, it also harbours a more uncomfortable secret: as the paradigm that has shaped our economic model, it is not only impotent but also a root cause of the issues we face. Long before shaping the SDGs, the reductive paradigm shaped the economy from which our global challenges have emerged: biodiversity loss (SDG 14 and 15) and the climate crisis (SDG 13), for example, are caused in large part by our pursuit of growth, which we can only justify by artificially isolating from each other the issues of economic activity, environmental health and human wellbeing. The reductionist paradigm also fuels inequality by allowing us intellectually to separate wealth creation from wealth distribution and focus on the former at the expense of the latter. 

The reductive paradigm can’t generate effective, long-term solutions to the complex problems it has itself generated. We need a “different level of thinking” that asks different questions, develops new approaches and can shift the solution spaces we can imagine beyond where the reductive paradigm lets us venture.

We must also realise that the better approach to dealing with the interdependent nature of the global challenges the SDGs outline is not to try to solve them all simultaneously. The better approach is to address their common root cause. If you suffer from a lifestyle disease that has 17 different symptoms, the route to recovery lies not in taking a separate medicine for each symptom (although some short-term interventions may be necessary). You get better by changing your lifestyle that is causing the symptoms. You improve the system so as not to generate the adverse outcomes in the first place.  

If you suffer from a lifestyle disease that has 17 different symptoms, the route to recovery lies not in taking a separate medicine for each symptom

The danger of the worldview that is baked into the SDGs is that it leads us to expend our limited time, resources and imagination on developing and administering the planetary equivalents of painkillers, dieting pills, anti-itch creams and even beauty treatments. And this energy is lost to the vastly more important task of changing our lifestyle – the global equivalents of a healthy diet, regular exercise, social relationships and meaningful occupation. Tackling the symptoms lulls us, collectively, into a false sense of security that “something is being done” and “I don’t need to change what I do in any fundamental ways”. We are collectively behaving like the life-long smoker who, between chemotherapy sessions, carries on smoking 20 a day. If we are to bring about the transformation we need, we must free up our collective headspace and our resources to focus on the most important challenge we face: how do we shift to a paradigm in which a healthy economy can take root? 


Solutions in sight

The good news is that much of this kind of thinking and action is emerging all around us. We don’t need to invent it, we simply need to be able to spot and amplify it.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES, which comprises 130 governments) says that “goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes [ie, paradigms, goals and values] across economic, social, political and technological factors”. 

The Wellbeing Economy Alliance works with people and organisations from all sectors to understand how to develop an economy that focuses on environmental and human wellbeing in and of itself, not as a byproduct of economic growth.

Earth4All, a collective of economic thinkers, scientists and advocates, is vocal about how our current economic model is destabilising our societies and our planet. It has articulated five turnarounds for an economic “upgrade” to bring about a safe and healthy future for everyone, within the limits of our planet. 

Our task is to stop wasting precious time on rearranging the deckchairs

Transformational leadership is, however, not limited to policy and advocacy initiatives. All around us, organisations and individuals are experimenting with fundamentally new ideas of what it means to be part of our economy.

The global furniture company Vitsoe, for example, states its aim as helping people to “live better, with less, that lasts longer” – and that includes less furniture. The company goes to great lengths to help its customers buy only as much furniture as they need and keep it for as long as possible, even though this is not in the company's narrow financial self-interest. The French fashion company, Loom, states: “We have no choice, we need to produce better and, above all, consume (a lot) less!” Like Vitsoe, Loom goes to considerable length to encourage you to buy less. They do not advertise, they have no sales, no regular change of “collection”, no customer manipulation and, maybe most surprisingly, a conviction that the customer isn’t king after all. 

Both Vitsoe and Loom are successful brands which, in our traditional paradigm, should not succeed. In a world where we believe everyone and all companies must be self-interested and growth- and profit-maximising, this proactive downregulation of consumption doesn’t compute. But these companies no longer operate within our traditional paradigm. They are part of a wave of thousands of organisations that are doing things not just a little bit differently, but according to very different beliefs about what business is for. They are experiments for what a genuinely new and healthy economy might look like.

William Gibson, the science fiction writer, famously said: “The future is already here - it’s just not evenly distributed.” Organisations that already align with a new paradigm are already all around us. Imagine if we didn’t focus on pruning and trimming the branches of organisations whose roots are firmly embedded in the depleted soil of the old paradigm. Imagine if we looked around us and spotted those organisations rooted in the fresh soil of a healthy paradigm and if we learnt from them and started to regenerate the soils our economies and societies are rooted in. Change would follow much more swiftly than we think possible and take us to places we can’t currently even envisage. 

This is not an easy undertaking. The pioneering systems thinker Donella Meadows acknowledged that “[societies] resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist anything else”. Our task, therefore, is to stop wasting precious time on rearranging the deckchairs. Let’s redirect the energy and resources that are going into the SDGs into activities that can bring about the transformation we need: celebrating those organisations all around us that are already aligned with a new paradigm, and investing in the capabilities we all need to be a part of this critical shift. That includes developing wide systems-literacy from school rooms to boardrooms – and engaging everyone in the exciting and hopeful conversation about the values, beliefs and assumptions in which we choose to root our world.

  • Oliver Matikainen has a MSc in Sustainable Development and is currently an Associate at On Purpose London. Tom Rippin is the CEO of On Purpose and a writer and speaker; his previous career spanned social business, charity, management consulting and scientific research.

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