The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are bound to fail. They will not fail because the goals themselves are faulty. Most of the goals are excellent and absolutely need to be accomplished if human beings are to have a future on this planet. The goals are bound to fail because they exist within a world system largely unmentioned within the list of 17 goals. In this article, I will describe system features of our world behind the SDG document, and then review today’s World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization system that makes achieving these goals impossible.
Any serious study of these SDGs will make clear that the formulation of the goals is ideologically motivated. Nothing really happens at the UN without the approval of the largest contributors to funding UN operations. Read the goals with this in mind and it will become clear that the goals are formulated within the framework of the so-called Washington Consensus, the imperial political-economic framework in place in the world since 1945. As such, certain things were clearly prohibited from being mentioned in the SDG document while other concepts are framed in a non-threatening way.
The first thing that is never mentioned in the document is the global population crisis. It is widely understood that the world adds about 80 million new persons (mouths to feed) every year. Why is there no SDG goal stating that “by 2030, make significant gains in reducing the birth rate through providing birth-control methods and education”? Goal 1 aspires to “eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere.” Goal 2 aims to “end hunger” and “achieve food security.” As available agricultural land is diminishing everywhere on Earth, and fisheries are declining everywhere, at the same time the global population continues to explode, how can nations be expected to achieve these goals?
Although the document does claim it is committed to “family planning, information and education,” there is an inherent contradiction between the goals and the reality of our human situation. The unremitting “growth” ideology of neoliberal economics, in conjunction with an exploding planetary population, has placed humankind in planetary “overshoot.” Systems expert Donella Meadows and colleagues define this: “The carrying capacity has a limit. Any population that grows past its carrying capacity, overshooting the limit, will not long sustain itself. And while any population is above the carrying capacity, it will deteriorate the support capacity of the system it depends upon.” Environmental expert Lester Brown estimates the carrying capacity of our planet at about 5 billion persons1. Today, we are at 8 billion, without significant efforts at curbing the explosion.
The second concept that the ideological censors for these goals prohibited are any mention of world militarism. Our world collectively pours some 1.5 trillion US dollars down the toilet of militarism annually. Not only is the production and use of these weapons the most environmentally destructive of all human activities, but this immense wealth is badly needed for the restoration of ecosystems and the conversion to environmentally sustainable communities. Goal 16 advocates “peaceful and inclusive societies,” as well as “social justice,” but never mentions the worldwide war and militarism system, exporting weapons to nations around the globe, which makes this goal impossible to meet. Here is another inherent contradiction between the goals and the reality of our human situation.
Third, the SDG document frames itself as a global “partnership.” Yet, it is not much of a partnership, since our holistic and interdependent planetary ecosystem is supposed to be saved through extreme nation-state fragmentation. Item 18 in the UN SDG document states that “We reaffirm that every state has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources, and economic activity.” The interdependent and interrelated ecosystems of the world are thereby divided into some 193 spheres of absolute sovereignty.
This means that every nation has a legal right to pollute, and destroy its ecosystems, to refuse to cooperate with the SDG project. Yet any one major nation doing this endangers the whole of the Earth, which is a single ecosystem. Brazil, for example, has the legal right to cut down and destroy the lungs of the Earth, which it has been doing. The USA has the legal right to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol limiting carbon emissions, which it did. The ideological illusion is that the SDG commitment is a “partnership,” rather than a collection of isolated fragments struggling within a system of economic domination. We will see below other dimensions of this major contradiction.
The present world system arose from the struggles of the 16th and 17th centuries that ended with international agreements creating what is today known as the system of sovereign territorial nation-states. The early sovereign nations of Europe engaged in competition with one another, during and after these centuries, for obtaining foreign gold and silver by conquest, for colonizing vast regions of the world for the economic benefit of the colonial masters, and for kidnapping human beings from peripheral regions of the world as slaves to be exploited for increasing the wealth of their masters.
Capitalism, the accumulation and investment of large quantities of wealth for the purpose of further maximizing the wealth of persons or corporations, has been the framework throughout these several centuries. Nation-states have also operated from these assumptions—looking to maximize their national wealth and that of their respective ruling classes. At the close of World War II, the United States was the sole remaining superpower in the world. A secret government document, written shortly after that war, declared that “we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.”2
The Bretton Woods economic system that included the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that later become the World Trade Organization was set up by the US after that war both for the reconstruction of Europe and to institutionalize a system of global dominance directed toward funneling the world’s wealth into the coffers of US corporations, banks, and national treasury. As Petras and Veltmeyer conclude: “The US imperial state, both directly (via the departments of state and defense) and indirectly (via control over financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), constitutes a directorate to manage the global system.”3
These institutions have loaned hundreds of billions of dollars to developing countries, regardless of whether the counties are run by dictators or oligarchies who, they know full well, will siphon much of the money for their own enrichment and not the benefit of their populations. Indeed, as many commentators have noted, the system (of an imperial center and an exploited periphery) requires that there be “a center in the periphery”—a wealthy elite willing to enrich themselves while enforcing World Bank and IMF “structural adjustment” requirements on their populations.
These requirements are mandatory in order to receive a loan. Not only must the loan be repaid with interest, but major economic changes are required in order to insure repayment. These include removing restrictions on foreign investments, reorienting the economy toward exports (thereby acquiring the hard currency necessary for repayment), reducing wages or abolishing a minimum wage in order to make exports “more competitive,” cutting restrictions on imports, devaluing the local currency in order to make exports more competitive, eliminating all controls that protect labor, the environment, or natural resources, and privatizing government-run services such as transportation, health care, and education (often selling these services to multinational corporations at fire-sale prices).4
The hundreds of billions of dollars that the vast majority of the world’s developing nations have paid to the wealthy banks headquartered in Washington DC, London, and Paris, far exceeds the total of “development aid” that has been given by the wealthy first world nations to poor nations. This system has destabilized entire countries, causing major unemployment and scarcity of resources necessary for life. As Michel Chossudovsky states: “The movement of the global economy is ‘regulated’ by ‘a worldwide process of debt collection’ which constricts the institutions of the national state and contributes to destroying employment and economic activity.”5
Here we can see the complex contradiction between the SDG document, item 18, cited above, and the global economic reality. To declare that “every nation has full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources, and economic activity” directly contradicts the fact that the World Bank and IMF literally control the economic activities of most of the nations in the world. This principle of absolute sovereignty, on the one hand, fragments—for example, no one can possibly declare that the USA has no right to pour billions of tons of CO2 into the global atmosphere annually. It has a ‘sovereign’ right to do so. On the other hand, most of the nations have lost whatever sovereignty they may have had and are economically controlled by the World Bank, IMF, or other major first-world banking systems.
Sovereignty is very important under this system for another reason. The poor, the masses of labor of the world who are exploited in sweatshops under horrific low-wage conditions, must remain imprisoned within their respective countries. They cannot be allowed to travel elsewhere seeking a better life. At the same time, the multinational corporations and capital used for exploitation and extraction must be free to traverse borders in ways that even national sovereignty cannot prevent.
The illusion generated by the SDG document that its list of beautiful goals is achievable by the year 2030 is further concealed in the language of the last goal, number 17, which claims to “strengthen the means of implementation.” Item 17.4 reads: “Assist developing countries in attaining long-term debt sustainability through coordinated policies aimed at fostering debt financing, debt relief and debt restructuring, as appropriate, and address the external debt of highly indebted poor countries to reduce debt distress.”
Debt relief and debt restructuring are nothing new. They have been going on for decades as one heavily indebted poor country after another has found it impossible to keep up with its debt and teeters on collapse. As Toussaint and Millet point out, debt restructuring or selective debt relief to make it “sustainable” are simply tools by which the exploiters keep their victims alive so that they can keep on paying their debts.6
If the world were really expected to achieve the SDGs by 2030, it would be necessary to cancel all the public international debt of the world’s poor countries. The hundreds of billions of dollars now paid in debt service by these nations must be used for environmental protection and restoration. But Goal 17 clearly omits this option. Instead, the SDG document repeats the same mindless ideology at the heart of neoliberalism.
Item 17.11 declares that we must “significantly increase the exports of developing countries” and 17.12 declares that there must be “duty-free and quota-free market access…consistent with World Trade Organization decisions.” Hence, we need more of neo-liberal capitalism, more growth without limits, which is almost unanimously condemned by ecological economists as the major destroyer of our planetary environment.7
The SDGs, therefore, with their beautiful goals of ending poverty, reducing carbon emissions, supplying fresh water and nourishing food, social equality, education of women and girls, etc., are placed within the classic capitalist framework based on domination and exploitation that has enslaved the world for the past four centuries. The global core nations, led by the USA, have no intention of altering their control on the world’s economy, nor on the system that funnels the wealth of the world into their coffers, much of which is used for militarism in order to enforce with violence whatever cannot be enforced through debt enslavement.
This is why we need a real Constitution for the Federation of Earth8. This Earth Constitution unites our world in a global democracy under a genuine tri-cameral World Parliament that includes a House of Nations, a House of Peoples, and a House of Counselors. It establishes debt-free global public banking in which funding is available to create a truly sustainable world system without exploitation, debt enslavement, or military domination by one or more nation-states. It assumes the debt of poor countries and disposes of it with the creditors in reasonable ways.
The Constitution ends world militarism through the worldwide rule of law enforced by civilian police in which there is no need for a military anywhere. It sets up worldwide programs for family planning education and voluntary population reduction. It makes peace, human rights protection, economic justice, and sustainability fundamental design features of the world system.
The SDGs can be achieved only if there is a global economic and political system that empowers their achievement and unites the world holistically in the process. The Earth Constitution finished and ready for ratification, is our blueprint toward a truly liberated future for all humanity, for other living creatures, and for our precious planetary home. Let us act now to make it happen.
1 Donela Meadows, et al., Limits to Growth: the 30 Year Update. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004, p. 137. Lester Brown, Lester, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. New York: Norton & Co., 2011.
2 In Noam Chomsky, What Uncle Sam Really Wants. Tucson, AZ: Odonian Press, 1996, p. 9.
3 James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-liberal Capitalism. London: Zed Books, 2005, pp. 25-26.
4 Walden Bello, “Structural Adjustment Programs: Success for Whom?” in Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996, pp. 285-296.
5 Michel Chossudovsky, The Globalization of Poverty: Impacts of IMF and World Bank Reforms, London: Zed Books, 1999, p. 15.
6 Eric Toussaint and Damien Millet, Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010, pp. 171-188.
7 See, for example, Herman E. Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, Boston: Beacon Press, 1996; James Gustav Speth, The Bridge and the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing the Crisis to Sustainability. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008; Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2011; Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? London: Zed Books, 2007.
8 Constitution for the Federation of Earth, included in my book The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press, 2021. Also, found online.