This week, Davos, Switzerland is hosting a networking event themed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a set of 17 ambitious UN targets around poverty, health, education, governance and environment. The event is associated with ‘The World Economic Forum’ (WEF) which says it is ‘committed to improving the state of the world’.
And it is true that some good things can come out of Davos. When I attended on behalf of Extinction Rebellion to seek to catalyse real change, in 2020, it was clear that some of the super privileged were buckling under the pressure exerted by us and (especially) by Greta and the school climate strikers. This year, an encouraging development is the small group of ‘patriotic millionaires’ at Davos urging governments to tax millionaires more.
But at a level of fundamentals, my experience of the WEF at Davos and in fact any serious analysis of their programme reveals by and large a disturbing and deeply flawed vision of the future.
For the WEF’s vision certainly doesn’t look like the world ordinary people would hope for. Rather it is a vision of an economy separated from the Earth, managed by algorithms and fed by information from myriad surveillance devices. The vision barely mentions democracy or even governance, which presumably don’t concern ordinary people. It might be a utopia for those who imagine themselves designing and running the society of the future – not participating in it. To me it looks like a system which will try to preserve the privileges of the elites while keeping everyone else as poor as necessary but unable to make trouble – a system of technological control and desire-management. It also looks like a system that is not really willing to change, a system that is endlessly exerting an impossible footprint on the planet, a system that is too big not to fail.
The SDGs and the Davos agendas overlap superficially, but what makes them such good bedfellows at a deeper level is that, as we will see, they are founded on surprisingly similar ideologies. But before we get to that, let’s first notice the simple empirical fact that the SDGs programme is in crisis right now. Half way through, the UN reported that progress had “either stalled or reversed”. Maybe the current global climate/food/cost-of-living/security/meta-crisis will afford an opportunity for the advocates of these programs to listen to their critics; or maybe not, since the criticisms undermine everything they are doing.
The very notion of ‘development’ implies that poor countries should be more like rich ones. ‘Developmentality’ is inherently chauvinistic, paternalistic, and colonialistic. Even worse, it keeps poor countries locked into the very system that is so damaging them. It requires implicitly that they should go to the markets of the rich and buy the products and tech of the rich with the money of the rich (that they borrow; though in many cases of course such debt is odious). It is easy to see how this agenda might appeal to the business elites of Davos who have particular beliefs about making the world better by dousing it with their technology; and more generally how it suits the rich to preserve a world that is designed based on the way they live, and on the assumption that that way must be preserved.
‘Development’ is a fake goal, imposed hubristically on the Majority World by those who have the audacity to pretend that they themselves have already arrived at the summit of civilisational…‘development’; when in fact the way that the global North (epitomised by its rich) are living is utterly impossible to sustain, and is a failed model.
‘Development’ is not a good thing. By calling it ‘sustainable’ one does not make it so. What we actually need instead is a relocalised world, with degrowth and a new respect for the ways of living of indigenous and of ‘peasant’ peoples and forager peoples. Such a world would prioritise technology that is appropriate for what humans need, rather than serving technology as if it were a god.
The technological fetishism implicit in the WEF vision is itself of course inherently problematic. Most of this technology simply cannot scale to serve everyone, depends on destructive/extractive industries, and is created, patented, sold and serviced to maximise the manufacturers’ profit. Some ‘technologies’ like seeds (seed-varieties, seed-banks, seed-sharing etc), can also be used, if twisted for profit, to indebt and even entrap their users, ensuring the need for continued ‘growth’, itself one of the SDGs.
Some critics (I’m one) think that growth doesn’t belong in the SDGs, since it correlates strongly with consumption of finite energy and resources and ultimately with more climate chaos. The ‘degrowth’ arguments though, are still too often falling on deaf ears. In an economy which defines its very health in terms of annual growth, poverty or any problem can allegedly be remedied by directing some of the benefits of that growth towards it – without anybody losing out.
But what if more and more of that assumed ‘growth’ is already being redirected towards the harder-to-extract fossil fuels, or towards interest repayments on the eye-watering levels of global debt? What if the growth is being cancelled out by wars over dwindling resources? Worse still, what if the cost of climate chaos, which increases year on year, is also absorbing growth before it even happens? What if the economy is, or will soon be, shrinking? How then would agendas like SDGs be funded?
The bottom-line is that SDG 8, requiring the pursuit of ‘economic growth’, actually undermines all the other SDGs. Growth is not a good thing. It is not necessary. And it will soon in any case be ending.
Going deeper, some critics (again, full disclosure: I’m one) question the very notion of Progress (with a capital P when it is an ideology). Most of us derive some meaning for life from deep narratives about the alleged progress of civilisation. It might be natural to want to export this ‘progress’ to make the world ‘better’, and the architects and financiers of sustainable development are no different – they don’t want Regress! Unfortunately the ‘Progress’ they support ends up being synonymous with the projection of economic power – to such an extent that some critics think international development itself is merely a foil for the continuation of mercantilist-era colonialism, to open up markets from which to extract money.
There are more problems too with the motivations and beliefs of the elites themselves. They push for a kind of ‘progress’ that gives them a sense of agency, of achievement, or recognition, and that expands the kind of bureaucracies and ideologies that they themselves have mastered and floated to the top of. They don’t dwell on the systemic harms of capitalism, say, or the risks of catastrophic failure of a hyper-connected world, or on the ugliness of the rich narcissistically imposing their uninformed ideas about the best solutions for vulnerable people. Suggestions that the changemakers’ day jobs, if not also their philanthropy, contribute to the very problems they are addressing are for them too insulting to merit a response. In a world of ‘Progress’, the setbacks and paradoxes you meet along the way will surely get fixed. It is easy to not see problems compounding in other areas, to not count the failures, to not take the critics seriously. That could explain why we are fed so many isolated examples of successful ‘projects’, and so few examples of system change. To suggest that capitalism and its institutions and philanthropists are part of the problem means ‘relegation’ (sic) to such insurgent publications as the Byline Times rather than say, the Economist, Time, or Paris Match.
We critics of ‘development’, ‘progress’, growthism, etc. have never been awarded the budgets and the mandates to build alternative institutions, the kinds of budgets that the ‘masters of universe’ at Davos have access to. But a new paper makes an intriguing suggestion about how the SDGs could be abandoned and replaced by an existing institution which already specialises in the kinds of the projects the world most needs.
The paper’s author, my friend and colleague Prof Jem Bendell, made his mark in 2018 with Deep Adaptation: a map for navigating the climate tragedy. In it, he reviewed the latest climate science and concluded that it’s too late to avoid resourcing ‘deep adaptation’, because eco-driven collapse is likely, possibly already baked in, possibly already happening. Food shortages may well soon (if not already) start to unwind our civilisation, and we would be wise to focus a good deal of our energy on psychological, social and physical preparations. One reason why Jem’s paper was widely read is because ordinary people, seeing the lack of real action, are in many cases losing confidence in our politicians, elites and ‘even’ in Progress itself.
I believe strongly in an emergency programme of climate-mitigation. But I also believe strongly in an emergency-programme of adaptation. Because I agree that the future is going to include focally a long series of disasters. That’s one reason why I co-edited the book on Deep Adaptation with Jem. My view is that the question before us is whether we allow the disasters to overwhelm us, or whether we pivot them into a better state of preparedness for our future. A state of community and connectedness. The kind of condition proposed and investigated in a wonderful chapter in that book of ours, on the coming relocalisation, by Skeena Rathor and Matthew Slater.
What though do I mean by ‘disasters’? Not only weather disasters, but technical and political disasters resulting from stressed systems, potential perma-recession, and perhaps across-the-board decline. The best way to deal with a disaster – the cheapest, most efficient and most effective – is where possible to prevent it, and, where not possible, to anticipate it and build resilience into the infrastructure and the society. Preparation for hurricanes, floods, droughts and heatwaves greatly reduces the actual damage done (e.g. death, houses falling down, water running out, crops being lost, then living in a government camp for years).
Bendell proposes that the SDGs could fall quietly by the wayside, and points to another meeting happening this week which is a world away, literally and figuratively, from Davos. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) is in Bali, Indonesia. Bendell has written the WEF a letter, signed by over a hundred academics (I’m one), calling them to ditch the charade of the SDGs/GlobalGoals and the flawed and failing ‘sustainable development’ ideology on which they are based. Rather, he says they should adopt more bottom up approaches resilience building, a practice which is already known in UNDRR and supported by many countries.
All of which is a lot to ask, of course. As our civilisation comes to an end (and it is coming to an end, even if it doesn’t collapse; one way or another, civilisational transformation is now certain), don’t expect to hear about participative democracies deciding how to spend international assistance. Don’t expect to hear about the farmer whose idea will help a thousands of people. Don’t expect Jeff Bezos to end hunger. Don’t expect to hear about ‘appropriate technology’, or energy descent, or building resilience, or seed banks, or debt forgiveness, or complementary currencies.
But if you hear shiny happy headlines from Davos about how the most privileged people are selflessly doing their utmost to herd us all towards a ‘better’ future, then buckle up, because the era of disasters that they are not going to magically end will hit you sooner and harder than it hits them.
 The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2021. https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2021
Teaser photo credit: By Alexey M. – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65398497