by Nafeez Ahmed
September 04, 2015
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is
an investigative journalist, bestselling author and
international security scholar. A former Guardian
writer, he writes the 'System Shift' column for VICE's
Motherboard, and is a weekly columnist for Middle East
He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award, known
as the 'Alternative Pulitzer Prize', for Outstanding
Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was
selected in the Evening Standard's 'Power 1,000' most
globally influential Londoners.
Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney
Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy,
The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde
diplomatique, New Internationalist, Counterpunch,
Truthout, among others.
He is a Visiting Research Fellow
at the Faculty of Science and Technology
Nafeez is the author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of
Civilization: And How to Save It (2010), and the Sci-Fi
thriller novel ZERO POINT, among other books.
His work on the
root causes and covert operations linked to
international terrorism officially contributed to the
9/11 Commission and the 7/7 Coroner's Inquest.
Why the New Sustainable
is "Fundamentally Compromised"
by Corporate Interests.
UN records reveal that the intergovernmental body has already
marginalized the very groups it claims to be rescuing from poverty,
hunger and climate disaster.
At the end of this month,
the UN will launch its new
Sustainable Development agenda for "people, planet and prosperity"
in New York, where it will be formally adopted by over 150 world
The culmination of years of consultations between governments,
communities and businesses all over the world, there is no doubt
that the agenda's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) offer an
unprecedented vision of the interdependence of global social,
economic and environmental issues.
But records from the SDG process reveal that insiders at the heart
of the UN's intergovernmental engagement negotiations have criticized
the international body for pandering to the interests of big
business and ignoring recommendations from grassroots stakeholders
representing the world's poor.
Formal statements issued earlier this year as part of the UN's Post-2015 Intergovernmental Negotiations on the SDGs, and published
by the UN Sustainable Development Division, show that,
Groups' representing indigenous people, civil society, workers,
young people and women,
...remain deeply concerned by the general
direction of the SDG process - whereas corporate interests from
the rich, industrialized world have viewed the process favorably.
Among the 'Major Groups' engaged in the UN's SDG process is
'Business and Industry.'
Members of this group include,
fossil fuel companies like
Statoil USA and Tullow Oil
multinational auto parts
manufacturer Bridgestone Corporation
global power management firm
insurance giant Thamesbank
financial services major Bank of
hundreds of others from
Walt Disney to Dow Chemical
These interests have showered the UN's
SDG agenda with glowing praise - calling only for the need for
further engagement with business and industry.
In its 24th July statement before one UN SDG review meeting, the
Global Business Alliance (GBA) - set-up by corporations to represent
their mutual commitment to "market-based solutions" - proudly told
delegates that the process "amplifies our traditional role in
economic growth and innovation" and commended the SDG draft:
"An important role for business is
But the GBA also called for further
"fully capture the special role -
and special obligations - that will fall to business as this
Representative at the UN on behalf of the International Chamber of
addressing delegates the 9th World Chambers Congress
the UN's sustainable development goals (SDGs).
The GBA is a global business network set-up specifically to
"global, regional, national and
sectoral business organizations and associations" at the UN's
SDG process, "as well as companies from multinational
corporations… from all geographic regions."
It describes itself as,
"having a shared vision that
market-based solutions are essential to move toward a more
sustainable and equitable world."
At the UN, the alliance works,
"to ensure that private sector
messages will resonate positively and coherently."
The GBA represents global and regional
business associations across key industries in the financial,
mining, agricultural, fertilizer, pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and
The alliance's mission can be discerned from a GBA statement in
January made at the SDG Stakeholder Preparatory Forum at the UN
Headquarters in New York.
While noting that business "enthusiastically welcomes" the
sustainable development agenda, the GBA declared that its main
priority is to create,
"policy environments" in poor
countries "that are conducive to both domestic and international
By re-structuring poorer economies to,
"mobilize and attract domestic and
international investment", the GBA claimed, they can build the
"infrastructure necessary to spur inclusive economic growth."
The problem is that this
business-centric vision of "inclusive economic growth" is barely
different from the failed neoliberal paradigm of market
fundamentalism, which critics say has widened inequalities and
Despite claims that the UN's previous Millennium Development Goals (MDG)
have succeeded in halving global poverty since the 1990s, there is
good reason to question this narrative.
Today, 4.3 billion people live on less than $5 a day. Although
higher than the World Bank poverty measure at $1.25 a day, the
development charity ActionAid showed in a 2013 report that a more
realistic poverty measure would be under $10 a day.
Yet far from decreasing, since 1990 the number of people living
under $10 a day has increased by 25%. Global poverty has not
reduced - it's got worse.
According to Dr. Jason Hickel of the London School of
Economics, this is not surprising because the,
"claim that growth can eradicate
poverty is not scientifically robust."
Hickel told me that this might,
"sound reasonable if you believe in
trickle-down economics" - as do most conventional economists
- "but the past forty years have delivered precious little
evidence for this paradigm. The only way that the SDGs can claim
that growth will eradicate poverty is by pushing the poverty
line and the hunger line to incredibly low levels… lower than
humans can actually survive on."
I asked Hickel why, despite so much
internal criticism from UN stakeholders within the SDG process
itself, these concerns had not impacted on the text of the SDG 'Zero
"In an early version of the Zero
Draft, there was a commitment to replace GDP with an alternative
measure of economic well-being. But somehow that disappeared
from the final text," said Hickel.
"I don't know what happened behind
He refers to an account from someone
working with the Brussels-based
CIDSE (International Cooperation
for Development and Solidarity), a network of 17 Catholic
development agencies based in Europe and North America,
"who had been involved with the
negotiations on the Zero Draft…
"She told me that the process was
highly compromised, and she quit in disgust - but she told me
she was not allowed to share details about what she knew."
This allegation is borne out by UN records, which show that its own
Major Groups representing the very people the global institution
professes to be empowering - poor people in developing countries
- are increasingly skeptical of the SDG agenda.
A scathing joint civil society statement to the UN early last month
expressed "alarm" at,
"the extraordinary level of
confidence that governments are placing in the private sector to
finance and implement the Post- 2015 Development Agenda."
While the GBA's UN submissions
consistently blamed corrupt governments and legal frameworks in poor
countries for lack of investment, the UN Major Group for Civil
Society pointed out that the real obstacle is tax avoidance by
foreign investors and corporate contempt for human rights:
"The notion that we need to unlock
the potential of the private sector is fundamentally
contradicted by the trillions of dollars currently leaving
developing countries through corporate tax evasion and other
illicit financial flows.
Added to this is a general lack of
accountability despite prolific evidence of systemic human
rights abuses perpetrated by corporations that undermine
The civil society statement also points
to parallel efforts by Western governments to forge new 'free-trade'
agreements, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment
along with proposed Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)
These new trade and investment frameworks are being negotiated by
governments in secret without public accountability.
The UN's civil society group notes that
the ISDS clauses,
"empower corporations to sue
governments for reducing the value of investments through
regulations that promote human rights, the environment, and
Yet the SDGs offer little to protect
vulnerable communities in the face of such corporate encroachment.
Instead, as the UN's civil society group observes, the SDG process
"growing evidence that privatization
of essential social services exacerbates inequalities in access
and marginalizes the poorest."
A further civil society statement to the
UN on the Means of Implementation of the SDG agenda in late July
criticized the process for "failing to address" structural and
"barriers to people-centered
development rooted in an unjust global economic system."
Such barriers, the NGOs declared,
include a global "corporate rights regime" including,
the creation of "tools to sue
governments when public policy threatens profits"
lack of "binding mechanisms to
hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses"
"austerity and debt servicing
measures, which starve public coffers and restrict public
spending on social services and infrastructure"
the "failure to allocate public
resources to the public services and public goods required
for healthy and sustainable communities"
In summary, the statement warned:
"The emphasis on private financing
and the role of transnational corporations, will further weaken
public policy space [for] governments and fails to address the
unfinished business of regulating the financial sector despite
the extreme and intergenerational poverty created by the global
Other statements from UN stakeholders were equally damning.
On 25th March, the Indigenous Peoples Working
Group told a Major Group dialogue hosted by the Trusteeship
Council Chamber at UN headquarters that the SDG process,
"is in jeopardy of excluding
Indigenous Peoples from the agenda."
Both the SDG's targets and the UN
Statistical Commission's critical review of the targets fail to
"the distinct cultural identities
and political status of Indigenous Peoples who are
rights-holders and agents of change."
The Major Group for Workers and Trade Unions similarly
delivered a statement to the UN as part of the Post-2015
Intergovernmental Negotiations highlighting serious limitations to
the proposed indicators to measure progress on attaining SDG
targets, especially in addressing,
"The proposal focuses on outcome
indicators at the expense of structure and process indicators.
We want to see more indicators that assess the legal and
institutional reforms which are key for sustainable and
The SDGs make no clear reference to the
human right to water, for example, effectively providing,
"an open door for turning water into
The UN workers group particularly
opposes the emphasis on public-private partnerships, which it
"an expensive and inefficient way of
financing infrastructure and services, since they conceal public
borrowing, while providing long-term state guarantees for
profits to private companies."
The group concludes to the contrary
"Public investment in the provision
of health, education, social services and water and energy
utilities should be encouraged, instead of selling off public
According to the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, the
SDG's focus on cultivating more,
"growth, industrialization and
urbanization" fails to account for "ecological footprints as
compared to planetary boundaries."
In their March statement at the UN, the
group echoed the criticism from the UN Major Group for Workers
regarding the omission of the right to water:
"…why was the term 'human right to
water and sanitation' not included as an amendment for technical
proofing, in spite of it being agreed in a General Assembly
resolution 64/292? We notice inconsistencies in the type of
reasoning for altering the targets.
This is a dangerous precedent and
any regression is not acceptable."
The group also remarked that
on inequality and health were vague and insufficient.
"caps on maximum and incomes and
specific ratios between the top and bottom quintiles", the
inequality targets would not be impactful.
The weakness of the health target was
highlighted, especially in ignoring antimicrobial resistance.
A number of NGOs were deeply critical of the SDG's commitment to
A July statement to the UN endorsed by
Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW)
World Young Women's Christian Association
Sustainable Low Carbon Transport
Youth Coalition for Sexual and
...expressed "deep disappointment" with the SDG's
Finance for Development initiative approved at the UN conference in
Addis Ababa that month.
"Despite being heralded by many governments as a strong outcome for
women and girls," the statement said, "governments failed to commit
to the reforms necessary to redress the profound inequities in our
global and national economic policies that,
condemn women and girls
to precarious forms of employment
increase their burden of unpaid
undermine their livelihoods as smallholder farmers and
jeopardize their access to essential public
services such as safe and reliable urban and rural transport
services, which in turn hampers access to health and education"
A damning report by the Women's Major Group at the UN praised the
SDG process for representing a "significant step," but identified
eight major "red flags" where the process had fallen short.
endorsing "gender equality," the SDGs failed to recognize key human
rights relevant to women and girls:
"…the human right to food, the right to water and sanitation as a
goal, women's rights to decision making on peace and security, the
rights of indigenous peoples, and the right for women to control
their sexuality free of coercion, discrimination and violence,
amongst others are notably absent."
The SDGs also limit government responsibilities regarding protection
of reproductive rights,
"to those already elaborated in existing
agreements. This is not good enough," argued the UN group.
In fact, despite overwhelming support from UN member states for a
more robust and transformative approach, the report reveals that,
"a vocal minority, including
Vatican and Saudi Arabia, has once again blocked consensus."
root causes of poverty
The failure of the SDG process to incorporate such criticisms from
the UN's own Major Groups representing marginalized communities, is
a direct result of entrenched power disparities within the UN
According to an expert report circulated to UN officials, a detailed
analysis of SDG documents reveals that the entire process has been
"fundamentally compromised" by corporations with a vested interest
in continuing business-as-usual.
Commissioned by Washington DC-based nonprofit
TheRules.org - a
global collective campaigning to address the root causes of poverty
- the report is based on a 'frame analysis':
a social science
method of analyzing linguistic and conceptual patterns to reveal how
people define, construct, and process information.
Authored by systems theorist Joe Brewer, Director of Research at TheRules.org, the report concludes that the UN's vision is "doomed
to failure" because it simply ignores the structural causes of
"The single biggest problem is the
structural absence of any discussion about political agendas,"
"As the politics of development are completely removed from
discussion in the SDG process, this agenda gets adopted by
default without any deliberation or debate.
Add to this the myopic focus on
growth as the only solution and we get the antithesis of
sustainability or inclusive economics as a result."
In addition to mis-framing the
structural origins of poverty, the report shows that the very
concept of "development" deployed within the UN's SDG documents
derives from a,
"specifically neoliberal and corporatist conception
of how the world does and should work."
"deep problems and contradictions when relying
on GDP growth to tackle poverty", the SDG agenda still leaves
"undifferentiated, perpetual growth" as the prime basis of
The UN also demonstrates,
"a confused and contradictory
understanding of whether the economy is something linked with or
separate from the economy; there to dominate or work within. No
credible use of the word sustainable would perform this way."
I asked Alnoor Ladha, co-founder of
TheRules.org, how the UN had responded to their critique.
"We have sent versions of this
argument to various people at the UN and the Millennium Campaign
over the years and recent months, and they don't really engage,"
Yet a vast wealth of cutting-edge scientific research has cast doubt
on the viability of continuing economic growth as a solution to
global challenges, including poverty.
According to the Worldwatch Institute's new
State of the World 2015
report released in April, more economic growth is not the answer.
Economic objectives must shift away from growth toward new measures
of human well-being as their primary indicators - which the SDG
process has not done.
This year's State of the World report, which is produced annually by
the Worldwatch Institute to assess the scale of global
environmental, energy and economic crises, concludes that far from
being a no-brainer solution, economic growth is the core driver
"most environmental problems, and it has produced a world in
which human activities have grown too large for the planet to
accommodate them sustainably… Yet few recognize that growth itself
needs to be abandoned as a national goal."
While most governments and businesses still regard unlimited
economic growth as indispensable, in reality growth is "barely 50
years old" as a matter of national policy:
"An economy that is not driven by
growth of material through-put - yet that still offers
adequate employment and reduces inequality and environmental
impact - is achievable."
But exactly how unsustainable is the
UN's concept of growth-driven 'sustainable development'?
A new study in the leading peer-reviewed journal, Sustainability
Science, by an interdisciplinary team of Spanish scientists, shows
unequivocally that the era of economic growth is coming inevitably
to a near-term close, largely due to the "end of the era of cheap
and abundant energy flows."
This forecast is based on the World Limits Model (WoLim) created by
the Energy and System Dynamics Group of the University of
Valladolid, which models renewable and non-renewable energy sources,
demand generated by the socio-economic system, and climate dynamics.
The study, led by Dr. Inigo Capella-Perez of the University
of the Basque Country's Institute for Public Economics, is part of a
wider low carbon research project funded by the Spanish Ministry of
Science and Innovation.
In its conclusions, the paper rejects the common assumption within
the conventional sustainable development paradigm that,
"technological innovation will be the main driver to overcome all
limits (resources & sinks) and problems if the markets work
appropriately and the right investments are made."
To the contrary, the model results show that "if the growth paradigm
is maintained," renewable energies, efficiency improvements and
other 'sustainable' development policies will be unable to avert a,
"systemic energy shortage in the next decades… The results suggest
that growth and globalization scenarios are not only undesirable
from the environmental point of view, but also not feasible."
The ultimate conclusion of the Spanish team is that "prosperity for
all the world cannot be based on the current GDP growth paradigm."
The SDG process is not all bad. More than ever before, it puts
people and the environment at the centre of the global policy
debate, mainstreaming ecological concepts previously seen as
anathema by the business community.
A GBA position paper on resources and materials management, for
instance, drafted for the Post-2015 SDG process and authored by the
International Council on Mining and Metals, acknowledges that,
consumption of materials and natural resources is increasing, in
many cases exponentially."
This is "increasing stress" on the supply
of resources critical,
"to sustain societies, the economy and the
The paper accordingly advocates a range of environmental techniques
including sustainable consumption and production, sustainable value
chains, the circular economy, sustainable materials management,
life-cycle thinking, and reducing demand for natural resources so as
not to "overdraw Earth's natural capital."
All this is greatly welcome, but remains couched in the assumption
that sustainable development must aim to,
"extend the 'carrying
capacity' of the earth sustainably into the future."
In other words, technological fixes are required to 'sustain'
endless growth, repackaged by the GBA as "Green Growth", supposedly
"the decoupling of development from the depletion
of natural resources and capital."
Here, "decoupling" invokes the idea that clean technological
innovation can allow material growth to continue indefinitely,
without consuming natural resources.
Yet this notion of decoupling, so central to the UN's paradigm of
'sustainable development', is scientifically incoherent.
According to James H. Brown, a distinguished professor of biology at
the University of New Mexico who won the MacArthur Award from the
Ecological Society of America for his metabolic theory of ecology,
the UN's sustainable development goals amount to a huge "oxymoron."
Writing in the Oxford University Press journal BioScience a week
ago, Prof. Brown took particular issue with the explanation of the
UN sustainable development goals in a new book by Prof. Jeffrey
Sachs of Columbia University, The Age of Sustainable Development.
Sachs' book provides a lucid insight into how the sustainable
development paradigm has been co-opted by neoliberal economics, at
the expense of science.
Sachs was special advisor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on the
MDGs, and is Director of the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions
Network. Ban even wrote a foreword to Sachs' book.
But its argument,
according to Prof. James Brown, is deeply flawed.
"Continual population growth and economic development on a finite
Earth are biophysically impossible," wrote Brown, lamenting Sach's
failure to "do a rigorous scientific evaluation."
The SDGs, he
"…violate the laws of physics, especially thermodynamics, and the
fundamental principles of biology… Population growth requires the
increased consumption of food, water, and other essentials for human
Economic development requires the increased use of energy and
material resources to provide goods, services, and information
Existing uses of these resources have already created an
unsustainable bubble of population and economy. Unless current
trends can be reversed, a catastrophic crash is inevitable… Humans
are rapidly depleting the finite reserves of fossil fuels that power
the current industrial - technological economy.
Resource shortages are
evidenced in declines since the 1980s in per-capita consumption of
oil, natural gas, metal ores, phosphate (an essential fertilizer),
fresh water, arable land, and ocean fisheries."
Apart from the fact that the SDGs are conveniently designed to,
"profit individuals and corporations in developed countries that
sell goods, services, and information to the developing world,"
...Prof. Brown further dissects the "biophysically impossible"
ramifications of trying to eradicate poverty in the developing world
by applying the industrial model of unlimited growth:
"…energy consumption would need to increase more than threefold in
China and more than tenfold in the poorest developing countries to
attain a US level of economic development and standard of living.
This is clearly impossible in the foreseeable future."
Brown knows what he's talking about.
He is co-author of a startling
Domination of the Biosphere - Rapid Discharge of the Earth-Space
Battery Foretells the Future of Humankind) published last month in the
Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences which warns of human civilization becoming
completely unsustainable due to its exponentially increasing
depletion of biomass energy.
"You can think of the Earth like a battery that has been charged
very slowly over billions of years," said Brown's fellow author
Prof. John Schramski of the University of Georgia.
"The sun's energy
is stored in plants and fossil fuels, but humans are draining energy
much faster than it can be replenished."
Over millions of years, the Earth has slowly accumulated
approximately 1,000 billion tonnes of carbon in living biomass.
in just the last 2,000 years of human civilization - a tiny blip
by comparison - humans have consumed a whopping half of that
biomass already, 10% of which has been destroyed in the last century
"If we don't reverse this trend, we'll eventually reach a point
where the biomass battery discharges to a level at which Earth can
no longer sustain us," Schramski said.
Hidden between the lines of the SDG vision, then, is a great
delusion - the unflinching blind faith of
the rich industrialized
elite in the unquestionable perfection and immortality of neoliberal
capitalism as a 'way of life.'
What can explain the persistence of this blind faith in the face of
According to Brewer, by removing all discussions about power from
the SDG process,
"the increasingly unpopular neoliberal agenda
remains fully in place."
The total omission of corporate and banking power from SDG texts,
despite their unprecedented prevalence in the UN process,
telling in its own right," he told me.
"We know that multinational
corporations are the most powerful political actors, and that they
are profoundly concentrated vehicles for wealth consolidation."
From Transnational Institute report (2012)
To some extent, this is intentional.
Despite these concerns being
raised within the UN SDG process itself,
"they don't appear in the
official documents," said Brewer.
This is why, Alnoor Ladha explained, TheRules.org did not engage in
the formal UN civil society SDG process.
"The process is a sham," he said.
"They will co-opt our engagement
and say they have consulted us. All of the civil society groups that
have tried to reform the SDGs have been co-opted by the UN,
including the more critical voices."
In other words, the SDG stakeholder engagement process draws
selectively on the input of civil society groups to promote its
public legitimacy, while systematically ignoring the voices that
challenge the wider political and economic structures in which the
entire process is embedded.
"The big corporate powers via Global
Compact and the rich nations have already agreed on what the fig
leaf will look like," said Ladha.
"Whatever the SDGs end up saying
will, by the very logic of the system they serve, promote a
growth-at-all-costs, neoliberal game plan of trickle-down
economics and climate destruction."
But Ladha's colleague, Joe Brewer,
emphasized that this apparent sleight-of-hand is ultimately about
the power of ideology. Neoliberal capitalism prevails as the
default position not just because of a conspiracy of the powerful,
but because it is already everywhere.
Everyone, even the less
powerful, find it difficult to imagine a world outside capitalism -
and so the assumption is that such a world is simply not an option:
"The logic of neoliberal capitalism
is now the water people swim in culturally. It is largely
invisible and most don't realize how their minds default to the
dominant commonsense frames of economics discourse."
Yet the science is increasingly
capitalism's endless growth paradigm
The post-capitalist era is dawning. And
the frog - in this case, the human - is boiling in a dying
paradigm of its own construction that has far outlived its
Rather than languishing in neoliberal denial - sanitized with
comforting sustainability rhetoric - this entails the urgency of
embracing the inevitability of the post-carbon, post-capitalist era.
This doesn't mean we must capitulate to fatalism. The end of
capitalism will not automatically usher in the end of prosperity,
although it will require a radical rejection of the values of mass
As Dr. Inigo Capella-Perez and his colleagues conclude in their
Sustainability Science study forecasting the end of growth, a
meaningful sustainable development trajectory would involve the most
energy intensive consuming countries reducing their average energy
use rate "by at least 4 times", decreasing their GDP roughly to the
current world average.
Rather than involving a regression to an impoverished medieval
existence, the combination of high technology, circular economy
principles, along with a transition to clean and localized forms of
food, water and energy production could more than meet fundamental
material needs while permitting a considerable increase in
"reductions through lifestyle and cultural changes oriented
towards 'sufficiency' might actually be welfare enhancing," the
Spanish scientists conclude.
This simplification of industrialized
"would allow people living in Southern [poorer] countries
to increase their per capita energy use by 30%", translating into "a
threefold increase of GDP in the same period."
Sustainable development, they argue, does not mean relentlessly
exporting the broken model of endless industrial material
through-put into the developing world.
In contrast, it requires a
global "convergence" premised on equality of access for all.
WoLim system dynamics model shows that this pathway is not a
utopian pipe-dream, but an achievable possibility that could avoid
some of the worst-case scenarios for climate change.
But to get there, we must use the opportunity provided by the SDG's
mainstreaming of ecological awareness as a cultural springboard to
catalyze a public counter-narrative to the prevailing paradigm.
For Brewer, this must involve a "fully systemic" approach to
recognizing the interdependence of global challenges, employing the
"ecological economics and complexity science from the
Rather than pretending they don't exist, he said, agendas of the
powerful need to be the "central focus" of this counter-narrative:
"There needs to be a truth and
reconciliation process before it becomes possible to advance a
truly sustainable and equitable development trajectory for our
fledgling planetary civilization."