What is sustainable economic growth — and is that the same thing as sustainable development? These two phrases are often used interchangeably. For me this becomes a problem while they remain irrevocably linked in their capitalist philosophical underpinnings.

In the context of the natural environment, sustainable economic growth is an oxymoron and the conviction it can be achieved a dangerous illusion. Continuous economic growth is impossible for one irrefutable reason: there are limits to growth in any closed system like the biosphere. Sooner or later planetary limits will be reached. No amount of effort can overcome or disguise that fact.

It is no coincidence that some of the earliest warnings about population, pollution, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, and industrial output, were outlined in a report commissioned by the Club of Rome in 1970 called The Limits to Growth.[1]

Within the context of societal progress, however, sustainable development is both plausible and urgently needed — but only if what is being sustained can be separated from economic expansion.

There are still many things worth growing of course — like empathy, compassion, wisdom, ecority, community, trust, health and wellbeing, for example. But in most developed parts of the world the economy, in terms of productivity at least, could shrink, or shift emphasis from the law of supply and demand to economic justice, for example, thus benefitting more people as well as the natural world.

There is no doubt that economic transformations of this kind, best depicted in alternative models, like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, is a sensible and vital way forward.

A zero-growth economy is undoubtedly desirable from a purely ecological point of view. This applies to decarbonisation efforts of course, but also in absolute terms. Although any transition from today’s levels of materialistic fervour would be not be easy, there could be many potential benefits, including restoring the Earth’s biodiversity, a necessary element of our own continuing existence, while achieving a healthier balance between competition and cooperation, as well as between work and play.

Elsewhere, much thought has gone into the theory of inclusive economic growth, which attempts to distribute the benefits of global economic growth more fairly, particularly to groups and regions suffering from various forms of inequality, such as poor education or a lack of food and water. Nevertheless, though well worth pursuing, and an obvious improvement to the orthodox capitalist myopia, economic inclusivity in no way alters the fact that in the end growth is finite.

So what are we to make of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in this regard? It is the intention of the UN that these 17 goals inspire informed action. Within themselves the “goals” are very high level and aspirational — giving few clues as to how they can be realised. This is not surprising given that individual conditions, including political and cultural factors, will determine what works in some regions but not in others.

There are also conspicuous issues related to logical typing. Some of the “goals” are substantive, with verifiable targets, while others are not. The eradication of poverty and hunger, for example, (Goals 1 and 2 respectively) have a calculable end-game. They are of a totally different order to reducing inequalities (Goal 10) and the promotion of well-being (Goal 3) where good intentions might be considered sufficient to achieve the goal. The former categories can be authenticated, while the latter could attract everything from bluff and fluff right through to vague assertions and unverifiable markers.

Another slightly disturbing factor is the goals do not appear to have been created as interrelated elements in a dynamically complex, uncertain, and constantly evolving system. Although the UN asserts that the goals are integrated, that action in one area will affect the outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability, that is not necessarily reflected in the selection of topics, the manner in which the goals are routinely expressed and illustrated or, indeed, the methods being used by the UN to monitor, navigate, share and celebrate the results with those that have signed up for the initiative.

Some goals have a strategic keystone role in that they are vital for stimulating positive results in other goals. So, improving education and gender equality, particularly for women, (Goals 3 and 4) will have a huge impact on family planning. This will slow population growth — an issue that, though critical to human survival, does not even figure elsewhere.

Some critical factors don’t even get a mention, like the proliferation of nuclear weapons and autonomous drones, for example. Others lack measurable targets. So climate action (Goal13) features no measurable targets, even though decarbonisation of the global economy is one of the obvious objectives in that domain.

Eliminating the reasons for war and repurposing the military to provide emergency assistance in a world increasingly prone to natural disasters, for example, is vital for promoting universal goodwill (Goal 16). That this is not overtly addressed holds no surprise, probably owing to the problematical nature of corralling and persuading so many potentially recalcitrant sovereign nations to comply with universal desires. Yet that is one of the most critical roles played by the UN and the Security Council.

I could go on with my critique. More significantly, however, two fundamental issues seem not to have been adequately taken into account, and certainly not resolved, by those responsible for drafting these goals:

1. What pre-exisiting conditions should we consider indispensable — or must be created, watched, and continuously shaped — in order for the goals to be realised in ways that are both effective and enduring, locally and at scale?

2. How can we be sure that the various ways diverse communities choose to work on achieving the goals do not conflict in ways that cancel out their potential benefits, or cause unforeseen and harmful consequences to humanity and to the Earth?

I know these questions are incredibly difficult and confronting — but they cannot just be excused and are likely to continue to aggravate and frustrate efforts to realise the goals. I also accept, in principle, that it is far better to start doing something in preference to inaction.

These and other fundamental questions are bound to remain relevant for quite awhile (i) because of the inherent complexity, both within and across the global ecosystem, the goals are attempting to address, (ii) the potential confusion arising between logical types and their respective activities, and (iii) until we begin to see the results of our endeavours and can confirm that these 17 goals do indeed comprise the most urgent and relevant of all possible endeavours.

[1] In the summer of 1970, an international team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began a study of the implications of continued worldwide growth. They examined five basic factors that determine and ultimately limit growth on this planet — population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution. The key message of this book still holds today. The earth’s interlocking resources probably cannot support present rates of economic and population growth much beyond the year 2100, if that long, even with advanced technology.

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future