Sustainable Development and Its Discontents

Sustainability is our chosen name and the cause to which we are dedicated. Quite simply this is because it provides a critically essential framework for humans to live in harmony with nature, rather than at nature’s expense. We believe it is an idea or principle of the same level of fundamental importance as freedom, equality, and justice and one of the most important ideas to come out of the 20th century.

However, as sustainable development (or sustainability) has grown in prominence, its critics have equally become more numerous and more vocal. We propose that these criticisms arise from either misinterpreting the fundamental nature of the concept or more recently a malicious campaign of misinformation designed to exploit fears driven by the pandemic.

First endorsed by the world’s nations in 1992, “Agenda 21” was a nonbinding UN proposing ‘sustainable development’ as a framework intended to provide an effective response to the twin global challenges of growing environmental degradation and widespread extreme poverty. It offers the possibility of maintaining and even enhancing human quality of life in harmony with nature.

In the last two decades, the framework has become a touchstone in nearly every economic sector and at every level of government, unleashing an extraordinary range of creativity in all of those realms.

However, as sustainable development (or sustainability) has grown in prominence, its critics have equally become more numerous and more vocal. These critics tend to fall into two camps.

The first believe the concept does not go far enough. This criticism, understood constructively, suggest ways of strengthening this framework. They seem largely driven from misinterpreting the fundamental nature of the concept as implying satisfaction with a minimum qualifying condition. The implication that “mere” sustainability necessarily discourages ecological restoration, is wrong. The objective of sustainable development is human well-being, and all of the activities that contribute to that objective. Moreover, the term does not automatically imply any particular type of environmental goal; these will vary from issue to issue and place to place. There is nothing in the history of the term that explicitly limits sustainability goals to merely being “less bad.” Moreover, by opening up a space for developing and implementing laws, policies, technologies and other actions that maximize the net environmental and development benefits of particular actions, sustainable development makes possible, and should encourage, more abundant and ‘thriveable’ outcomes.

The other group tend to believe that the concept, if anything, goes too far. Apparently, the pandemic has rebooted an old conspiracy theory called ‘Agenda 21.’

As noted earlier “Agenda 21” was a nonbinding UN resolution signed in 1992 that provides an action plan for governments with regard to ‘sustainable development’. At the time, it was seen as a sensible planning paper, a nonbinding statement of intent aimed at dealing with sustainability on an increasingly crowded planet.

But in the 22 years since it was signed, extremists have recast it as a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government and a nefarious effort to crush freedom in the name of environmentalism, according to a 2014 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“Fears are running rampant in the far right that [the coronavirus] is some part of a conspiracy, maybe by the Chinese government, other global actors, even George Soros, to do ‘something’ to conservatives or Americans,” Heidi Beirich, one of the authors of the 2014 report, told BuzzFeed News.

“It’s not surprising that Agenda 21 would pop up again in that environment.”

Agenda 21 content is rife on YouTube, which has long had an issue with conspiracy theories.

All these claims have no basis in fact and are demonstrably false. Agenda 21 is not a treaty. It has no force of law, no enforcement mechanisms, no penalties and no significant funding, the report notes. It only seeks to encourage communities around the world to come up with their own solutions to overpopulation, pollution, poverty and resource depletion. It cannot force anyone to act.

It is time to call out Agenda 21 conspiracy theories and the people spreading them,” Beirich said. “There is too much at stake to stand idly by as these baseless fears incapacitate the ability of state and local governments to address actual issues. This is the real danger surrounding Agenda 21.”

Rather than indulge in baseless fears or arguments over the semantics. The task ahead for us is clear. It is to craft, adopt, and implement new and modified laws, products and services, and other practices that are not only sensible and ambitious but are also so attractive that they will overcome all the many obstacles to change, including not only opposition but also simple inertia. To accelerate the transition to sustainability, it will be necessary to foster abundance and thrive ability, to actually protect and restore the environment, and to be more resilient. All of these require the sustainable development decision-making framework, and none of them can adequately replace it.