Our thoughts on the United Nations “Sustainable” Development Goals (UNSDGs) – and how we contribute
Although we view the United Nations as an institution rather critically for their failure to address underlying causes, overly careful language regarding Climate Breakdown (and concomitantly severe disruptions to – an ultimately the collapse of – the system), pro-business attitude and their continuing unwillingness to blame rich people – who are disproportionately more to blame for Climate Breakdown and all concomitant problems (probably because many members are rich businesspeople and the vast majority of their supporters, sponsors and contributors are, too) – we admit that some of the points of their Sustainable Development Goals are important to achieve. Several UN bodies publish valuable information (for instance the IPCC or the FAO), wich nonetheless has to be read with care and a critical mind.
The term “sustainable development” is obviously an oxymoron – which is why we put it in quotation marks. Development can not be sustainable, because sustainability implies that things stay the same (=are “being sustained”), while development means that things change.
The obsession with Development is a relict from a system that is clearly not functional in the long term and that stopped working decades ago (if it ever really “worked” for everyone involved, not just the elites). “Developing” a piece of land means to utterly destroy it, reducing biodiversity to (almost) zero, and filling it with factitious garbage, voracious machines, and dead merchandise instead. Development is what got us into this precarious situation, and more development, no matter what prefix is used (perhaps with the exception of “de-development”), can’t be the answer for problems caused by development in the first place.
When we talk about sustainability, this also automatically implies that we think over the long term. Nobody can be sure after five or ten years that his lifestyle or business model is “sustainable”, since those short time intervals don’t mean anything to the Earth herself. If we were to travel 100,000 years into the future and that lifestyle or business would still be around, we might start using the word “sustainable”. As an example for true sustainability, consider that several species of humans have all been foragers for over three million years, so speaking of a natural foraging lifestyle as ‘sustainable’ is a correct way to use the term. Using ‘sustainable’ to describe a “green” start-up or business strategy after a mere two years is not.
“Sustainable development” is another example of “green capitalist” (another oxymoron!) buzzwords that sound positive, but are under closer inspection not all that good. The United Nations define “sustainable development” as a “form of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. This is very squishy phrasing, since the word ‘development’ itself is a fancy term for ‘environmental destruction’, and the definition of ‘needs’ is clearly up to the individual. There are people that claim they “need” oversized SUV’s because they have a big family. There are others who “need” their skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks to get through their boring and exhausting working day. The vast majority of modern humans say they “need” electricity, yet for three million years humans did just fine without it. So without further definitions of the word ‘need’, it is open what “sustainable development” really means.
What we can be sure of is that we need clean air, pure water, and fresh food to survive, a shelter that suits the climate and a supportive community to thrive, and a healthy environment in which to live our lives – but so far all proposals for “Sustainable Development” are severely compromising all of those unassailable basic needs.
Here are our thoughts on each individual goal (FAQ at the end):
To achieve this is theoretically relatively easy, yet what we propose is nothing short of the upheaval of the very foundation of civilization: get rid of hierarchy. It is quite simple, as expressed in this anarchist slogan: “The Tree of Life is dying – prune the top 1% and feed the roots!”
To eliminate poverty it is sufficient to eliminate monetary wealth. If everyone has the same amount of money – none at all, that is – then the concept of rich and poor becomes meaningless. If no one is rich, no one is poor.
While this is definitely achievable on the local level, globally it is utterly impossible. There are too many people inhabiting environments that can under no circumstances support such large numbers of humans during the unstable climatic conditions that will only worsen from now on. The carrying capacity for most arid climate zones and many temperate regions is exceeded, so a de-population would be needed. We don’t advocate genocide, of course, but simply limiting births through natural means (herbal contraceptives, the “pull-out method”, shared parenting, etc.) until the population arrives at levels that can live off the land sustainably. Shipping toxic GMO food halfway around the world is not sustainable.
This is rather easy, if you get rid of industry (and therefore pollution) and agriculture (and therefore chemical food). If people, as we propose, return to the land in large numbers to do subsistence farming based on permacultural methods and ethics, good health and well-being will come to them automatically. If you eat a diverse diet of local, organic, seasonal food, there will be much less heth issues arising in the first place. For instance, nobody would grow as much sugar cane/beets (and refine it) for themselves as is needed for the Average Western Diet – fruit would replace sweets. If you work in your garden without help from machines, you’ll be strong and fit.
Modern Medicine is first and foremost a business, which means it creates customers – its aim is not to heal but to create dependency, so you have to run to the pharmacy to give them your hard-earned money time and again. They profit off your misery.
For this goal, first of all we have to get rid of institutionalized education. Schools and universities implant hierarchical thinking, obedience to authority, and competitiveness. They suppress individual qualities, kill creativity and enforce conformity (gleichschaltung). It is easier to get rid of the dysfunctional education system than to try to repair it. Quality education can be achieved the traditional/aboriginal way, by looking at what one’s parents and other members of one’s community do and imitate them from earliest childhood on. Teaching kids condescendingly about their role in mass society and prepare them to be commodities, working machines, to be traded on the “job market” is not what we would consider a “quality education”.
This is a point that should be so self-evident that it is a shame for this culture that it hasn’t been achieved yet and still needs to be listed among goals for the future. Again, we can draw a great deal of inspiration from indigenous societies, where women and men tend to have equal status – but different roles. Those cultures cherish difference between the genders without becoming hierarchical in the process and without being too strict about it. Due to their non-competitiveness, egalitarianism, and their focus on cooperation, primitive societies don’t compete for who’s the “better” gender, but see that both have an important part to play and one gender couldn’t exist without the other. Although women are traditionally gatherers and men the hunters, there is no shortage of anthropological records of women hunting, too, and men gathering. Among the Penan of Borneo there were three women who went hunting with the men (and were just as skilled!) when Bruno Manser stayed with them from 1984-1990.
One more time, this can be easily achieved if industry is stopped (no more factories polluting rivers and seas, no more plastic trash to dump in the oceans), and by people adopting permacultural methods of dealing with their own waste – namely compost toilets with saw dust or charcoal powder, where “humanure” can be used as potent fertilizer.
The only truly sustainable form of energy are calories. They grow back year after year in the crops we eat to obtain energy to do whatever needs to be done with our own hands. This can’t be said of fossil fuels, but also of so-called “renewables” that are made of Rare Earth Minerals (REMs) and other non-renewable resources. Food plants grow again from their own seed, fruit trees yield more and more year after year, but neither cobalt, nor indium, uranium, germanium, lithium, molybdenum, dysprosium, copper, silicon, or phosphorus grow back year after year. It follows that truly Clean Energy has to be limited to human muscle power, generated by home-grown organic food (which emits negligible amounts of “exhaust fumes”, too).
For heating and cooking, firewood from trees you planted yourself is the only thing needed. This is affordable and clean, if compared to the massive infrastructure needed for fossil fuels or so-called “renewables” – and this is how it was for the last 300,000 years for our species.
This point is, at least concerning economic growth, an oxymoron and a textbook example of outdated capitalist ideology. Decent work? Yes, of course, as free and independent subsistence permaculturalist, small-scale forester, fisherman, hunter, storyteller, potter, musician, sculptor, and guardian of Nature – but, please, without “jobs” as wage-slaves in an economy that turns living beings and landscapes (“Natural Capital”) into paper slips of money in the pockets of a wealthy elite (or in anybodys pocket)! As for economic growth: it is the very concept of infinite growth on a finite planet that got us into the mess we’re now trying to navigate in, so why not just acknowledge this simple truth and de-grow the economy? Any rate of growth is by definition unsustainable, because no matter if you mine 10,000 or 1,000 tons of iron ore a year in a mine, sooner or later you’ll arrive at zero. No matter if you build 500 factories a year or 50, sooner or later there is no more space and the environment is soaked in toxic sludge.
Industry is, if you consider industrial agriculture a part of it, the leading cause of environmental destruction, and should therefore be abolished immediately. Everything a human really needs, she can make it herself. Innovation is not necessary – everything we need to know and all techniques we need to use are already out there! Innovation reinforces nonsense stories about “progress” and how everything gets better with technology until we are “interplanetary” – alienation in a nutshell. Infrastructure is what industry relies upon to lay waste to the biosphere – the only infrastructure needed is rivers and footpaths. Just maintaining (!) the current infrastructure would already breach emission goals [paywall], so if we want to have any chance for the future, we have to get rid of it – together with innovation and industry.
This is related to Goal #1, and we’ve said everything there needs to be said. If no one obeys, no one can rule.
Cities are inherently and by definition unsustainable – they require massive external inputs just to keep going and to fuel their (inevitable) endless expansion. It is absolutely impossible to design a “sustainable city”, and even more so to convert an existing city into one. To achieve this, all materials the city requires would need to be locally sourced and processed. Since not all cities have many natural deposits (of iron, aluminum, copper, silicon and a number of REM’s needed to build the technology required to keep such an unnaturally large settlement running) in their immediate environment, talking about sustainability of cities is laughable. Even more ridiculous is to think about how those cities would obtain food in a “sustainable” fashion (without utilizing technology that can’t be produced without inflicting severe damage to several ecosystems). The acreage of organic farms needed to sustain city dwellers would automatically convert any urban area into a rural area.
Further, Dunbar’s Number states that the maximum stable community size for humans is 150 people, not 15 million. This is the absolute cognitive maximum of our brains to keep stable relationships to every member needed to avoid unrest and violence; everything beyond that limit leads, no matter how hard we try, to us-vs-them thinking and social disruption in the long term. As with “Development”, cities are an outdated concept that will have no place in the world if we want to avoid the worst. City people, get the hell outta there and get busy planting!
Communities, on the other hand, can be sustainable, and here we once again can take a look at how the people do it who live in sustainable communities ever since their culture came into existence tens of thousands of years ago: indigenous societies.
The only responsible way to produce and consume is to do everything yourself or with your community from locally sourced and biodegradable materials, and stop relying on factories (=Industry) to produce the stuff you consume (yes, steel tools are useful, but if you take good care of them they’ll last for centuries. We sure have enough scrap metal laying around). The ecological impact of merely building a factory is enormous (where does all that concrete and steel come from?), so it is already unsustainable before it even starts producing anything. Furthermore, in industrial society you can’t have consumption without waste, and recycling, as we slowly start to understand, is a sad joke (trash is being considered “recycled” if it is burned to create electricity, or if it is loaded onto a container ship destined for Southeast Asia).
Trees “produce” fruit, year after year, and they “produce” oxygen and biomass at the same time – and they sequester carbon (it doesn’t get more sustainable than that!). To responsibly consume those fruit means to share them with one’s community and leave some for other animals as well.
The best thing anybody can do for the climate is to stop relying on industry and infrastructure, denounce anthropocentrism and civilization, and go back to a lifestyle with zero net-emissions and the smallest ecological footprint possible for humans: small-scale, organic, permacultural subsistence farming, agroforestry, and foraging. If only half the world’s people would do that, we’d finally accomplish something! So get out there, plant some trees, grow some veggies, and watch those emissions decrease.
Simply stop industry and watch the ocean recover!! Without a constant influx of plastic trash, chemicals and other pollutants, and without industrial-size fish trawlers there will be no more trouble for fish populations. Want to eat fish? Fine, dig a pond, trow in some aquatic plant species, and you can raise your own fish.
Again, stop industry (including industrial agriculture) and watch the land recover! None of this can happen with the very system that destroys entire ecosystems still in place (or even some slightly less destructive version of it)!
If most people would grow a polyculture of different annuals and perennials, inspired by natual ecosystems and adapted to suit their climate zone, with plenty of trees in between, the birds, bats, butterflies, bees, badgers, bullfrogs, and bison would dearly appreciate it. Together with the lower carbohydrate content of the diet this change in subsistence would imply, the birth rate would go down automatically, further taking pressure off the land.
The Footprint Network has calculated that our planet only has enough resources for each of us to consume 1.8 “global hectares” annually – a standardised unit that measures resource use and waste. For comparison, this is what the average person in Ghana or Guatemala consumes. North Americans, on the other hand, consume about 8 hectares per person (and Europeans 4.7 hectares) – many times their fair share. With permacultural methods, it is possible to feed a whole family on two hectares in most ecosystems, which would mean that if everyone would live like this, theoretically each person would use roughly half a hectare – which would mean enough space in between for other species to thrive!
Peace is a difficult issue, since violence is the natural reaction of most animal species to severe overcrowding – other reactions include high levels of anxiety, depression and other pathological behavior. As long as the population density is low, there will be very little violence. But if too many people compete for limited resources, there is no way around it. Make sure everyone gets their one or two hectares, and conflict will be low (and if still occurring, locally limited and easily resolved).
Justice is another issue where it might be worth learning from the cultures that our civilization has worked hard to exterminate for so long: our aboriginal sisters and brothers. They have, first of all, extremely low crime rates. If some incident occurs, it is generally solved in a spontaneously formed local council where everyone has the right to speak and explain their point of view. Daniel Quinn gives an excellent example of Australian aborigines (the Alawa people) dealing with a case of adultery im his book ‘The Story of B’.
Same goes for institutions: they have to be modeled after the tribal way of life – the only way of life know to be sustainable, because it still exists after three million years. This means that institutions have to be local, consisting of respected members and elders, and limited in their power.
Partnerships are important, and, considering the environmental impact of (even digital) infrastructure, those partnerships have to be local. In a functioning community, sustainability can be achieved easily – but development cannot. That’s the whole point.
Frequently Asked Questions:
“This is sooo ableist! What about all the people who rely on modern technology and medicine to survive?”
True, but how many species go extinct every day because of our perceived “need” for technology? (Answers range from 30 to 200 species per day! ) How many poor brown people on the other side of the globe suffer debilitating diseases and die miserable deaths every day because our culture exploits “natural resources” for our technology that happen to be located right underneath their ancestral lands? Are their lives less worth than Western lives?
All this is a pretty high cost to keep a few white people alive. If the system continues destroying entire ecosystems to extract materials needed to build modern technology (and to obtain the energy required to keep them running), soon there will be many million more requiring that kind of care, crippled by air pollution and toxins in their bodies – welcome to the vicious cycle of technological solutions. And think about how many people die or become disabled each year due to traffic or workplace-related accidents! It is the very system that causes most of those disabilities and diseases! If we get rid of the system, there will be suffering. If we allow the system to continue, the suffering will increase manifold. The Purpose of Life is surely not to get rid of all suffering – it is far less escapist and unworldly to simply accept that suffering is a part of life, and often even helps us grow personally and appreciate our own lives more.
And just because you live the Simple Life doesn’t mean you have to kill deformed babies like the Spartans (an agricultural civilization, by the way) did. Neanderthals and other species of humans cared for disabled members of their communities, and so can you.
“What you are proposing is genocide – it is tantamount to eugenics!!”
No, it is not. In eugenics, the human is the agent that decides whose life is “worthy” or “unworthy”. What we want is to let Nature make those difficult decisions again, since Nature knows best, and no human has to take any blame or does any wrong. This is how it worked for three million years throughout human history, and for much longer for all other animal populations. The reason why modern oversocialized humans cringe at Natural Selection is because they are in deep denial of their own animality. Humans who perceive themselves to be “above” Nature find it utterly unacceptable that they would have to succumb to the same laws as all other living beings. Yet Evolution (which is just another term for Natural Selection) can’t be messed with – it will eventually catch up with you. If you artificially keep people with severe diseases alive, their offspring will carry that disfunction in their DNA and make sure that the suffering becomes even more widespread in the future. You may feel morally superior if you keep everyone alive at any cost, but your guilt (and the suffering your interference causes) will merely be outsourced to future generations.
“Fine, but not everyone wants to live in a cave eating roots and grubs.”
This is something a lot of people say who have never tried eating roots and grubs – they are actually quite delicious! Furthermore, only the fewest primitive people actually lived in caves, and when they did, it was a well-thought-out decision. No need to waste time and energy building a house, caves provide excellent shelter from the elements, and can be really cozy if you furnish them well!
“This is just never going to happen.”
Honestly, we don’t really have a choice – it’s life or death. If techno-industrial civilization continues to lay waste to the biosphere, future generations may not have another chance but to live miserable lives in a ravaged environment – humanity might even face extinction in the long term. It’s better to start now for a smooth transition to a sustainable – or, even better, a regenerative – way of life, than to get thrown in at the deep end when the system finally collapses under its own weight, battered by extreme weather events.
“But if we just replace fossil fuels with renewables…”
HOLD IT RIGHT THERE! Stop! No. This is a non-solution, spread by a new wave of “green” capitalists trying to sell even more stuff, profiting off our desperate situation, and exploiting our fears and anxieties while installing false hopes and trust in the same old culprits, consumerism and the reckless exploitation of Nature. They tell you that we don’t have to change the basic beliefs and methods that this cure exhibits and uses, and that’s a red flag. It is this culture itself – waging war against the rest of Nature, justifying this ecocide through anthropocentism (human supremacist) – that has to go. In short, this isn’t possible because
- The enormous destruction caused by producing and maintaining this technology would wreck the biosphere
- Technology itself is the problem
- The underlying lifestyle – civilization – is inherently unsustainable
- Renewables won’t power airplanes and container ships that this culture depends on
- Renewables are not as reliable as conventional fuels – the wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t shine at night – and the massive batteries needed to store energy would use up all resources this world has
- The energy from “renewables” has just been added on top of the fossil energy, which didn’t decline.
And, last but not least: please note that this article is an intentional provocation – we are well aware of the high potential to offend folks and create controversy with the preceding rant. But, as feminist Gloria Steinem said: “The truth will set you free – but first it will piss you off!“