It is understandable that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are vague in formulation and loose in categorisation. Be that as it may, it is hard to ignore the reproach that they are simply a collection of sound bites.
One should allow for this criticism though; it is in the nature of projects with global ambitions to be such – if one is to be globally inclusive, then one’s goals have to be general in character, and these goals should make sense to all human societies anywhere in the world.
Such ambitions, however, have to be humbly pushed. A tension always exists between, on one hand our wish to be inclusive in providing opportunities and giving attention to all societies; and on the other the longing that exists among individuals and collectives wanting to be unique and exclusive.
Now, an individual wish to be excluded is a minute issue compared to when such a wish is a collective one. But even then, the isolationism that results from this is a limited predicament.
The problem becomes critical when a collective’s sense of being unique – when the definition of that uniqueness – inherently involves the defining of others and the imperative to exclude these others in one or another context. This common “othering” process is often an essential part of self-definition. Words equivalent to “unbelievers”, “infidels”, “kafir”, “barbarians” and “aliens” populate the language of all societies.
We have family members and non-family members; we have citizens and non-citizens; Asians and non-Asians; Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras; and so on and so forth. To be sure, humans having endless and dynamic sub-groups is not the issue; instead, it is the acceptance of all human beings as being inherently equal that is one of two central themes underlying the SDG discourse.
As we know, it was in the wake of the horrors of Nazism’s genocidal “otherings” that the formulation and acceptance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights became necessary– and possible.
SDGs Are about Mother Nature, Too
However, accompanying the idea that all humans are essentially equal in that they have an integrity that all should acknowledge through the simple fact of being human, is the fragility of the environment in which humans survive. That is the second central theme in the SDGs. The term “sustainability”is the hard-won expression of humanity’s “at-cliff’s-edge” appreciation of Mother Nature’s intimate processes and live-giving dynamics. Along with trendy terms such as “resilience”, it is the last-minute recognition of how close the human species have come to poisoning and destroying the very environment that sustains it.
Be it about how we relate to other human beings or to Mother Nature, the issue seems to be one of attitude, and therefore it is one requiring individual intervention. Each one of us should consider deeply what the SDGs express about the human situation today, and how we individually are part of the problem – and can be part of the solution.
The holistic approach attempted by the SDGs is in fact a reminder of our alienation from the environment and from other humans. But while the notion of sustainability calls for Mankind to rationalise his exploitation of the environment, it must not be understood to connote that Mother Nature is a means to an end. Just as we should not consider others to be means to an end but as entities with inherent rights, we should not be blind to the fact that Mother Nature is not merely a resource for us to exploit, but is instead something bigger than us, more valuable than us, and of which we are but a part.
Another dilemma to overcome is the apparently opposite idea that Mother Nature recycles enough no matter what we throw at it; or that other forces, divine or otherwise, have things under control, and that for us to worry is a sign of human hubris.
Our consumption-based lifestyle is definitely a problem; if our worth is measured by our ability to consume, and since humans will continue to grow in numbers and to urbanise, then the final sorry result is quite clear. If environmental degradation doesn’t get us, violent struggles over diminishing resources and liveable spaces will.
Like charity, the SDGs start at home.