Over 100 scholars from around the world have co-signed a letter imploring the United Nations to abandon its rhetoric of pursuing the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs), given the lack of meaningful progress towards meeting them. The letter coincides with the United Nations Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) professionals meeting this week in Bali, Indonesia to discuss a new UN Global Assessment Report on disaster risk that was quite forthright in raising the existential threat of crossing multiple ‘planetary boundaries’ (Steffen et al., 2015) that can contribute to a “global collapse risk” (UNDRR, 2022, p52). At the same time, in recent years some UN agencies themselves have begun to emphasize the value of indigenous knowledge to address these systemic issues. This essay argues that if most complex life on Earth is to stand any chance of weathering the myriad storms that the 21st century will unleash upon us, it is imperative that the United Nations rapidly shifts from its current focus on top-down interventions and more fully integrates local indigenous wisdom into every facet of its Disaster Risk Reduction plans. Such a shift would necessitate centering the following over and above the SDGs (some of which are guided by deleterious industrial development euphemistically marketed as ‘green growth’): unsustainable resource use, and indigenous communities’ proven capacity in ensuring long-term sustainability.

Unsustainable resource use

When thinking of disaster preparation and mitigation, one is perhaps inclined to think of short-term natural catastrophes (hurricanes and floods) or multi-year climate extremes (droughts), all of whose impacts will worsen this century due to a rapidly warming world amidst collapsing ecosystems. Typically, national and international agencies respond to these disasters by dispensing some combination of food, medical relief, and infrastructure repair. Such disaster mitigation interventions cost vast sums of money, rely heavily on industrial processes within donor countries, and would be impossible without utilizing large amounts of fossil fuels, as exemplified in the World Food Program website image below:

            Source: United Nations World Food Program (https://www.wfp.org)

While such interventions may be feasible in a world experiencing only a few simultaneous crises, we are transitioning to a state of permacrisis; thus, continuing to foster such dependence on increasingly scarce imported resources only serves to undermine long-term local resilience.

Further, our ‘food aid’ system over the past seventy has been highly reliant on grains grown using chemical fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels. These energy-intensive artificial fertilizers generated by the Haber-Bosch process[1] have significantly increased crop yields, estimated to now supply the caloric needs of about half the world’s population.[2]  But like steroids abused by athletes, these short-term gains have long term consequences. In addition to being responsible for 1.8% of global carbon emissions by their production[3], these synthetic fertilizers and pesticides also negatively impact biodiversity and destroy microbial life, devastating long-term soil health.[4] The UN has estimated that continued use of conventional ‘industrial’ agricultural practices may result in our planet being able to generate only about another 50 food harvests[5] before all soil is degraded beyond its capacity to feed a global population of 8+ billion humans.[6] In short, while UN representatives assert that it is our moral imperative to curb carbon emissions that make climate-related disasters more likely [7], it is simultaneously dependent upon these same fossil fuels for its default disaster responses. And whether or not we consciously wean ourselves off fossil fuels, eventually we will reach a point when oil is no longer feasible to extract without using more energy than the oil itself would provide.[8] As such, the time is coming when most communities will need to completely rely on their own local resources to weather the increasing environmental disasters on our horizon.

Emphasizing Indigeneity

To be fair, the UN’s new Global Assessment Report on disaster risk reduction does rightfully acknowledge the value of looking to insights from indigenous knowledge, and increasingly recognizes the importance of including indigenous voices in disaster management plans as one among many important stakeholders.  But given the severity of our energy and climate predicaments, this recognition doesn’t go far enough, especially since the UNDRR still reaffirms that the “the State has the primary role to reduce disaster risk”. Considering that a destructive economic-industrial paradigm has been the calling card of virtually every UN state (to varying degrees), the UNDRR should instead emphasize the centrality of indigeneity and local resilience to their whole agenda, which would, in part, necessitate advocating for land stewardship to indigenous communities. Many indigenous communities have successfully managed long-term sustainability; after all, indigenous people represent 5% of the global population, yet they are custodians of 80% of our planet’s biodiversity, and many have managed to live and thrive for millennia without any reliance on fossil fuels.

Incipient global conceptions of land rights for indigenous communities actually date back to the UN’s progenitor, namely, the League of Nations. The UNDRR’s advocacy for indigenous sovereignty is not only ethically appropriate, but would serve to restore indigenous communities’ proper role as land custodians. Indigenous conceptions of sustainability are tied to understanding the land. Indigenous cultural practices often have local knowledge about food and water sources embedded in them, especially during times of deprivation (i.e. droughts). In their recent book “The Dawn of Everything”, Graeber and Wengrow (2021) have meticulously documented how many indigenous societies were only part-time agriculturalists; some even experimented with it only to find it to be fundamentally destabilizing (both socially and ecologically), and subsequently abandoned it.  But when such communities did practice any form of horticulture or agriculture, they successfully managed soil inputs from natural sources through dynamic biological integration (such as the practice common across North American indigenous communities of companion planting of the three sisters of corn, squash, and beans) in ways that preserved their ecosystem’s functioning. [9]

But even such regenerative agricultural practices may be insufficient for our changing planet. The past 10,000 years have been characterized by an unusually stable climate (the Holocene), which has enabled settled communities to rely on agriculture for most of their caloric intake.  To adequately prepare for living on a planet transitioning away from this farming-friendly stability, it’s essential the United Nations empowers local communities to adapt to a future world in which communities may no longer be able to rely on a stable climate to facilitate reliable food production, as ever worsening heat waves, floods, and droughts will increasingly devastate harvests worldwide.

Once again, indigenous communities are best suited to lead in adaptation to a post-Holocene climate, as indigenous cultures have long understood that ecosystems are always in flux, and many have centuries (or more) of practical adaptation to adjusting how and where they live by observing the land. Of course, there is no universal indigenous practice or outlook; the value of indigenous wisdom lies in its diversity, as indigenous cultures have emerged from, and are often uniquely suited to, their respective bio-regions. In this sense, the very notion of universalist approaches to global sustainability via SDG goals are anathema to the essence of indigenous decentralized management systems.

We must be honest about the dire nature of our myriad ecological predicaments; the transition from what Catton has called our fossil-fueled “Age of Exuberance”[10] through the bottleneck of ‘life after fossil fuels’ will involve great hardship and countless deaths. Risk management has never promised to eliminate hardship, but rather to mitigate it. The higher standards of living delivered by our global industrial civilization have always been modern society’s bargain with the devil – a short term boon (even so, mostly restricted to the Global North) whose ecological debt our descendants will be burdened with paying.  Exposing the myth of progress proffered by the profiteers of industrial civilization lays bare that true sustainability cannot co-exist with contemporary industrial models of development. It is time for the United Nations and its various agencies to recognize that its top-down organizational structure is not suited to address our myriad ecological crises, and rather use its influence to advocate for, and allocate its resources to support, land custodianship for the millions of indigenous communities keeping alive the knowledge of how to live within the bounty of what our mother Earth provides.


[1] Originally designed to manufacture explosives – a legacy clearly made evident in the ammonia nitrate explosion in Beirut in 2021.

[2] https://ourworldindata.org/how-many-people-does-synthetic-fertilizer-feed

[3] https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/green-ammonia/green-ammonia-policy-briefing.pdf

[4] https://www.rand.org/randeurope/research/projects/impact-of-ammonia-emissions-on-biodiversity.html

[5] While some have pushed back against the likelihood of such a specific, bleak forecast, most experts are in agreement that future soil health is severely threatened.

[6] In fact, as fertilizer prices have recently skyrocketed in 2022, some countries such as India has already announced they plan on sunsetting their reliance on these fossil fuel fertilizer inputs.

[7] In the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, “the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness”.

[8] Physicist Gioietta Kuo recently provided 2052 as an estimate.

[9] Even conventional agriculture in ‘western’ countries used to be reliant on crop rotations and legume integration for nitrogen prior to the widespread western adoption of NPK fertilizers. Contemporary permaculture systems also apply these principles as well.

[10] Catton, W. (1982). Overshoot: the ecological basis of revolutionary change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


Teaser photo credit: A Bakweri farmer working on his taro field on the slopes of Mount Cameroon (2005). By Amcaja – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=227721