Lessons a year after hundreds of scholars called on UN to ditch the failed ideology of Sustainable Development
Jem Bendell is Professor of Sustainability Leadership, University of Cumbria, UK. He has recently published the book ‘Breaking Together – a freedom-loving response to collapse’
On 23rd May 2022 over 100 scholars released a public letter calling on the UN and its stakeholders to admit that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not be met and are based on an already-failed ideology. Their claims linked to a journal article I had written that summarised the evidence for such a view. In the year since, I have discussed this difficult reality with many people who work in the fields of international cooperation, sustainable development and corporate sustainability. Although it was an informal process, I made notes about my reactions when I heard people explaining why the flaws and critiques of the SDGs can be set aside, therefore being a form of autoethnography. In this essay I will share the seven main ways in which professionals in fields of work connected to sustainable development, whether public, commercial or non-profit, appeared to me to be engaged in ‘implicative denial’. That is when the inconvenient data is not ignored outright, but when conceptual strategies are used to avoid accepting what the data demonstrates. I will then share some thoughts on why this might be the case, and the dangers it presents.
I will describe these forms of denial without citing anyone, for a couple of reasons. First, the communications were private, and were not actually intended by me as research at the time. Second, I am presenting my own interpretations of those conversations, where I was fully participating in shaping them, and may have been projecting onto others. I was likely able to identify these conceptual devices in others because I exhibited them in the past myself. Therefore, this essay is as much a summary of how I denied reality in the past as a hypothesis on what is happening in other sustainable development professionals today.
Goals aren’t goals. The first conceptual device is to reframe what goals and targets mean. Whether MDGs, SDGs, or a ‘target’ such as less than 1.5C degrees ambient warming, the claim is that such goals are aspirational and so failure to meet them does not necessarily condemn the efforts made or the political economic systems that are failing to deliver on them. The same is said about sustainability and sustainable development in general, that are reframed as utopian ideals rather than situations to obtain, so that any progress can be welcomed. The problem with this device is that it ignores how the goals were not very aspirational and that regress not progress is occurring in many areas. In addition, as even a tiny improvement in one area amidst mass starvation and species extinction could be focused on with such logic, it renders all the goals and concepts as meaningless. If one is using the language of goals then one is either choosing measurement and accountability, or one is choosing simply to use the typical lingo of managerialism in order to ‘sound right’ with no seriousness about what one says.
Just try harder. A second conceptual device is to argue that the improbability or inability to achieve the SDGs, or sustainable development and sustainability more broadly, demonstrates the need for massive change, while being vague or uncritical in how one defines that change. Typically terms like “transformation” are used to describe the change, with emphasis on more and better leadership, investment and technology, i.e. more of the same managerialist sustainable development ideology. Another favourite of this device is to use terms like “disruption”, “discontinuity” and “breakthrough”, and yet still not explore either capitalism or associated ideologies that have led to the current predicament. There is, therefore, an assumption that such goals are compatible with incumbent power and market forces, rather than political organising being required to deliver a transformation.
Keep up appearances. A third conceptual device is to believe that to clarify and publicly communicate criticisms of either the framework of sustainable development or capitalism would be counterproductive. While it is true that to communicate like this will lead to ostracism by some people and organisations that want to maintain the current delusions, that does not mean more will be achieved by maintaining the policies, investments and practices that arise from that delusion. A variant on this conceptual device is to believe that if people state publicly that they believe the future of modern societies is one of disruption and breakdown it will lead to panic or apathy. One example of this was when a board member of a conservation organisation thanked me for the work I did, said he privately agreed, but that he had to keep making upbeat speeches so as not to dishearten the staff of his organisation. I explained to him that new research on the effects of realising how bad the situation now is for both humanity and wider life on Earth, finds that it can be transformative and motivating, with many new ideas and activity arising from such a perspective.
Focus on the positive. A fourth conceptual device is to turn away from these wider analyses of failure, and find solace in the belief that one is helping some people or ecologies through specific projects under one’s control. Such a perspective is encouraged by the way grant-makers for individual projects require monitoring and evaluation of activities that will demonstrate positive outcomes. That also encourages activities for which data can be generated to show an impact, whether or not that is significant within the wider context. For example, a former colleague of mine said that amidst depressing evidence of increasing rural insecurity, she focuses on the women she is helping in rural India, and so will continue to produce the positive stories that her corporate sponsors want to hear. That highlights the problem that nearly all projects related to sustainable development in some way are used to tell ideological stories to each other, leaders and wider society. Let us remember that the activities that development consultants work on are externally funded because the internal system can’t afford them, or would not choose to allocate resources in that way. Therefore, they are typically less likely to be models to replicate without funding, rather than stories to tell to maintain an ideology.
Don’t lose faith. A fifth conceptual device for implicative denial is both understandable and untenable. It is to reframe the worsening situation as the moment before a miraculous change occurs. Phrases like ‘it is darkest before the dawn’ convey this view. Sometimes it comes with a graph that shows we are at the start of an exponential curve of change, backed with over-generalised arguments about social transformation never being linear. Unfortunately, the reality is that the situation is still getting darker, and the ‘graph of change’ is not flat but in decline in many areas, including environmental, social and economic. The problem with this exhortation that we mustn’t lose faith despite what we see before us, is that it can justify a continuation of business-as-usual as one waits for someone powerful or something technological to produce that miracle/dawn/exponential. Yet the opposite is true. By supporting business-as-usual one is suppressing potential miracles and postponing that dawn.
There is no alternative. A sixth device for implicative denial is that despite the recent data showing nearly every indicator headed in the wrong direction, the situation would be worse without either the SDGs, the SD paradigm, or all of us trying our best on that. Such a view is entirely hypothetical, even counterfactual, as it can’t be proven. It is more accurately understood as a proclamation that there is no alternative to what has been attempted. This attitude supports all the previous devices of implicative denial, and reveals the full ideological capture of the contemporary sustainable development professional. Instead of such capture, we could be exploring multiple alternative frameworks and ways of working that come from outside the global managerial elite. That might include the global promotion of relocalisation and degrowth in high income countries.
You’re being mean. The last device for denial that I will share with you here is the most revealing of them all. As this device indicates clearly that it is not data, logic or theory that is maintaining the contemporary sustainable development professional in a state of delusion. The device is mere ‘ad hominem’ criticism of the people and organisations offering the kind of analysis that was in that letter from over 100 scholars. We are seen as being negative, unkind, impolite, or unhelpful. ‘Shooting the messenger’ reveals that someone is defending their worldview and identity in a desperate way, rather than engaging in reality.
The combination of these seven denials is strong – at least in public. Umpteen consultants, business executives and NGO leaders still take to the stage at events around the world to claim they are helping purpose-led future-fit organisations collaborate with stakeholders to deliver the Global Goals. Some are now claiming that their ‘stubborn optimism’ is courageous. rather than cowardly, which to me sounds like becoming proud of denying reality. So why is the stark data from the UN on SDG backsliding being avoided by so many professionals? How can they be so divorced from the reality that they are speaking about? I did not design any research process to look into this issue, but reflected on my own decades of work where I downplayed the negative information.
Obviously there are some basic institutional and personal reasons to continue the charade – it is more difficult to win contracts and funding if you abandon the myth of sustainable development. The powerful will not knowingly pay people to subvert their power. There is now a huge commercial sector working on a technological response to climate change, with a vast range of funded NGOs in concert with them. As such, there has been the emergence of a ‘climate user’ who sees the topic as a career opportunity as much as a global catastrophe.
But there is also something deeper involved in producing the seven deadly sins of denial. I know how much my identity as a good person was bound up with my sense of being a good professional on sustainable development. I had a moral self confidence born of my early career convictions that no longer held true. To recognise failure would mean allowing a dissolution of my old stories of self and self-worth. It proved to be very disorienting, before it enabled me to reorient myself afterwards. Over the years I also developed skills at describing the difficulties of environment, economy and society, in new ways, with new ideas, to be on the ‘cutting edge’ of my field. Yet that same skill set also created the possibility for greater self-deception.
Over the last few years I have begun to consider the deeper stories in modern societies. From that reflection, I think that there is something deep in our cultural stories that is maintaining the seven denials. It is the role of mythical stories of positive futures within worldviews that help us to avoid facing our mortality. That is because believing a common story about wonderful futures helps us to give less attention to present realities. The sustainable development story sounds like it is about the future, but it is actually a story claiming we are all calmer about life by believing we are in control, we are safe, we are ethical, and we can have a legacy. It is a story of human dominion on Earth, and of perpetual progress. It is a secular way of balming the deeper fears of mortality. Seen this way, the lack of attention to performance and failure, let alone introspection, from most professionals in environment and development, indicates that the Global Goals were about revitalising that ‘wonderful story’, not about the performance and accountability of global systems or their own efforts. Because this story is so deep in the identity of people in this field of work, their reaction to data and analysis is not rational. They want to continue to live with their delusions about control, safety, ethics and legacy and therefore reach for the seven forms of denial I listed above.
That denial matters. Neither the oppressed nor the young will benefit from professionals working on these issues maintaining their denial. Promoting the myth of sustainable development means that further injury to the natural environment, and people who depend directly on it, will occur. For example, the destruction of ecosystems in some of the world’s poorest societies to produce the minerals to fuel further electrification in the world’s richest societies. As people are suffering and the future is bleak, better ideas on how to respond are needed. Therefore, creative thought on alternative approaches should not be suppressed. There must be a prioritising of wealth redistribution, land rights, regenerative agriculture, appropriate technology, relocalisation of production and trade, and more community control of resources. Together this must add up to fair forms of degrowth in the rich world and postgrowth pathways to human wellbeing in financially poorer countries. In my new book Breaking Together, I describe this as a people’s environmentalism that focuses on a ‘great reclamation’ of our power from the manipulations and appropriations of corporations. As Kenyan agroforestry promoter Stella Nyambura Mbau contends: “solidarity with the anti-imperialists and defenders of communities in the Majority World is central.” Endorsing the book, she stated that “instead of imposing elitist schemes and scams, regenerating nature and culture together is the only way forward.”
Sadly, the situation has evolved so much that believing in the ‘sustainable development’ promise of progress within existing economic systems, has become a selfish and dangerous delusion. That is why it is time to recognise the seven deadly sins of denial of the sustainable development professional. Only then can we all help each other to rediscover ways of being useful in this new context of the breaking of global systems of industrial consumer societies. I took the time to systematise and share what I have heard over the past year, because I hope that more people might recognise these forms of implicative denial and their negative consequences, reconsider their allegiance to the sustainable development myth, and consider alternative frameworks. It is time for honest and difficult reflections, and probably some awkward conversations. Are we profiting professionally from being part of a charade that not only fails to help, but risks further harming the world? Or are we ready to allow ourselves to admit failure and creatively explore new ways forward in compassion and solidarity with all life on Earth?