I just counted the number of times the word “sustainable” (and its close cousin, sustainability) appear in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that the U.N. has endorsed. I got 14.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals plans to end poverty, end hunger, promote sustainable agriculture, healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages, inclusive and equitable quality education, achieve gender equality, availability of water and sanitation, access to sustainable and modern energy, promote economic growth and employment, sustainable industrialization, reduce inequality, safety, sustainable consumption, combat climate change and its impacts, conserve marine resources, protect terrestrial ecosystems, access to justice for all and global partnerships for sustainable development among few others.
The SDGs, as they’re called, aim to improve life on earth, especially in poor countries and the designers of the goal clearly wants them to be sustainable. However, I wondered about the exact meaning of the word “sustainable” with respect to development goals. You would get a different definitions from different analysts on any given day.
It can mean an end to the aid programs run by governments of developed nations
If the Sustainable goals are achieved, aid is not necessary in perpetuity. Local governments will begin to kick in financing and set up ways to deliver food and medicines. The idea is, the country that benefits from the initial round of aid will eventually build on it and become self-sufficient. Then it can be called a sustainable effort.
It is an indication that short term fixes is not as good as a long-term solution
The Ebola crisis exposed that we may get caught flat-footed if we do not have a strong and resilient health care system in place. We need a strong health work force, quality clinics, quality medicines and financial infrastructure for constant improvement of this infrastructure. In every country we need a system designed to bend but not break and bounce back from those big shocks in an increasingly unstable world.
It can also be called vague
The designers of the goals wanted to cover everyone and everything on the planet all of which has unique solutions. That is good for instil motivation but it is a bad news for those who want to implement. The sustainable goals are a vision which needs more actionable definitions and more specificity. We cannot define well-being, let alone measure it.
It also implies that we need to spend money to change the world
To create strong health care system we need a strong infrastructure and food security. In a report on “A Grand Convergence in Global Health,” the forecast was that one to three percent of GDP is enough for “a universal reduction in infection” and a drop in maternal and child death rates to “universally low levels”. Governments need to raise money and spend it systematically to build a sustainable ecosystem.
It can make governments think about the consequences of their actions.
Douglas Beal, managing director of the Boston Consulting group, gave a Ted talk about sustainability. Before sustainable became an eco-buzzword, he says, it was a business term. And it simply meant “loongevity, something that can continue.”
Hence the word sustainable puts governments on notice. When the government ignores good governance, the environment and ignore civil society the people and society is harmed. This defeats the purpose of the sustainable goals.
It adds a positive spirit to the goals
The word “sustainable” is trendy, cool and has a positive connotation. It’s a nice word we feel better about buying a product or doing an activity if the word ‘sustainable’ is in it.
Sustainability goals can be compared with Moses’s 10 commandments. Only if the SDGs could be so concise.
It can mean that we really care about the earth.
When the Millennium Development Goals were constructed in the late ’90s. Their focus was around social development issues and didn’t give much attention to climate change. The word “sustainable” indicates that poverty and climate change are intimately linked. Take for example something as small and simple as a plastic straw. Its cheap (less than 1 cent per straw) and accessible to the poorest of the poor. However a plastic straw outlives us by 900 years in a landfill.
The word sustainability has become so overused that it is becoming fairly meaningless. The truth is something we don’t want to face. Our modern life is not sustainable. Recycling, hybrid cars or reclaimed building supplies may help to turn that around. Either we undertake a radical change in our collective lifestyle, or a huge wake-up call will force that change. Reducing our footprint is not just about someone in Silicon Valley making an algorithm to reroute the energy of mars into our car batteries or a sustainable vision. Every little decision we make to be conscious of the waste we leave behind can have an impact on our planet’s future.
500-million plastic straws are used in US every day, which can fill 127 school buses.
Can we move to an alternative that is reusable, biodegradable and durable enough for your drinks?