One of the outcomes of the Rio +20 UN conference was a plan to develop some Sustainable Development Goals, partly to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire in 2015. I think they need to be complemented by some Millennium Consumption Goals for the developed world, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, there’s a big discussion starting about what sustainable development really is, and what a good set of goals might be.
Feeding into the debate is a group from the International Council for Science, whose work I’ve been referencing today in a paper I’m writing. They argue that the traditional conception of sustainable development is wrong. In the textbooks, you’re likely to find some version of the three pillars idea. Sustainable development rests a balanced three pillars of society, economy and environment.
That implies that these three are all equal, say the researchers, but they are not. In reality, they are nested within each other. The economy serves society, and both have to fit within the natural limits of the earth.
If we were to reimagine sustainable development in this way, says the research, some goals might suggest themselves. They’ve come up with six, mapped onto their nested three aspects of sustainable development. I think it’s a pretty good list. If these were our overarching goals for the coming century, I think we’d be thinking along the right lines.
If this looks vaguely familiar, one of the authors is Johan Rockstrom, who led the team that drew up the planetary boundaries concept a few years ago, which in turn led to the ‘life within the donut’ idea. Rockstrom’s co-author here is Dr. Priya Shyamsundar from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics, Nepal, who summarises their work thus: “As the global population increases towards nine billion people sustainable development should be seen as an economy serving society within Earth’s life support system, not as three pillars.”