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Why Sustainable Development and Radical Alternatives are not Compatible

By: Ashish Kothari


By Ashish Kothari, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta

André Reichel’s very thoughtful piece ‘Retaking sustainable development for degrowth’ raises several very important issues. We start by acknowledging that we and Reichel are clearly on the same page in criticizing current models of ‘growth’ including in its ‘green’ and ‘eco-modernist’ forms. We concur also on the need for the world to move towards sustainability, justice, equity, and human well-being in tune with the planet. In this sense we have a common cause, and our response to his article below is an attempt to show how, despite this commonality of goals, our pathways may be different.

Reichel deals rather cursorily with the origins of ‘development’ as a western hegemonic concept, and asserts that it is universally accepted with even the global South being for it. In support of the latter, he provides two links, both to G77 positions. What this implies is that because the governments of the South accept (nay, assert as a right) the notion of ‘development’, it is universally accepted. This ignores the fact that peoples in the global South have for decades questioned development, its impact on them and their ecosystems, and that within their own countries they have challenged the power and right of the nation-state to determine their fates. Anti-development movements are strong and growing stronger, especially amongst indigenous peoples and local communities, and amongst civil society engaged in human rights, environmental, and other justice movements. The fact that some of them continue to engage with development, including its new variant sustainable development, is more strategic than in principle, something we will come back to later.

Reichel argues that sustainable development is now the “only overarching concept left in the discourse on the future of humankind”. To us, this in fact is one of its dangers, for any overarching concept of how humans should progress or be or do or live, is hegemonic. This is all the more so when the full might of nation-states and corporations is behind such a concept, as it has been for development sans sustainable, earlier. We have argued elsewhere that one crucial principle of nature, including humans within it, is diversity, and thus the need to re-assert a range of worldviews and frameworks of what it means to live well. One of us (Kothari) has just come back from an indigenous area in southern India, where a welfare state with noble intentions is bringing sustainable development to the community, entailing schools, hospitals, roads, power lines, clothing, employment, all in the framework of modernity, for after all the project of development is to convert people from ‘primitive’ to ‘modern’, never mind that in the process entire cosmologies, knowledge systems, ways of living in harmony with nature, and identities are erased.

How is poverty seen and by whom?

This has relevance for Reichel’s assertion that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are fundamentally about ending poverty and hunger. How is poverty seen, and by whom? Even the SDGs are cast within the overarching notion of poverty as being below a certain income level, and so an indigenous people that lives off the forest or the sea or farmlands, and engages minimally with the monetary economy, is poor and needs to be developed. Reichel’s definition of sustainable development as being linked to quality of life, social well-being, inclusion etc, is creative, but one of the fundamental problems of the SDGs is that they retain a unilinear notion of progress, as indicated in the continuing unfortunate terminology of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, and in the belief that the only technology transfer that is good is one from the North to the South. There is no space for multiple, diverse ways of living, including those largely outside the monetary economy, in such a worldview. To be clear, we are not saying that those who are really deprived of what is needed for well-being, such as for instance a basic quantity and quality of food and water, or health and learning, should be left as they are. But universal notions of what it means to be developed paint all kinds of peoples and their situations in broad generalized sweeps, and this is fundamentally against the notions of diverse ways of living well. It may be noted here that the SDGs, even the SDGs, only cursorily talk about going beyond GDP as a notion of progress … this despite at least two decades of work on alternative notions of well-being that countries negotiating the SDGs have had access to.

Growth remains at the core of the SDGs

Reichel argues that sustainable development can be compatible with degrowth. If the SDGs are now the overarching framework of sustainable development, we do not see how this is possible. The SDGs are explicitly supposed to be all read together, they are an integrated package … and growth is very much part of this package! Some of our friends argue that degrowth may be a relevant concept for the North, but the South needs to continue growing; we do not necessarily agree with this, but even if for a moment we did, the SDGs have no explicit mention of degrowth or of the need for the North to drastically cut down production and consumption (the goal on ‘sustainable production and consumption’ is vague enough to be ineffective). There is no target for reducing the consumerism of the global North. Growth, in other words, remains at the core of the SDGs, and no amount of creative rewriting can make them compatible with degrowth or post-growth scenarios.

Reichel says that degrowth need not align itself with notions like buenvivir and Radical Ecological Democracy, for the latter also borrow from sustainable development’s theoretical frames (e.g. notions of sustainability and equity). We submit that this is a very partial and misleading reading of alternative notions. Firstly, these notions pre-date, or are based on worldviews that pre-date, sustainable development by a long long way (buenvivir and its various parallels such as sumac kawsay are as ancient as the indigenous peoples of Latin America; Radical Ecological Democracy is based partly on the Indian notion of swaraj, badly translated as self-rule but encompassing a complex set of principles and practices ranging from individual to global levels).

Secondly, the notions of sustainability and equity (and justice and well-being etc.) are also ancient though the terms used would be different and diverse (e.g. the native American belief in taking only those steps that would benefit seven generations from the present is quintessentially one of sustainability and inter-generational equity); if anything Brundtland and now the SDGs would have learnt them from peoples of the world, though not explicitly acknowledged. Third, these notions are based on, and explicitly state, fundamental values and principles such as diversity and pluralism, interconnectedness, solidarity, the commons, oneness with nature, and others, while it is instructive that the SDGs have no such base, at least not explicitly stated. Fourth, alternative worldviews are in many senses fundamentally different from the SDGs, for instance in their assertion of power at the grassroots or direct/radical democracy while the SDGs retain power mostly at the level of the nation-state. In these senses degrowth has more in common with these alternative worldviews than with the SDGs (which is not to deny that there are a number of aspects that it also has in common, but the fundamental incompatibilities remain).

Sustainability is not the same as sustainable development

As an aside, Reichel seems to conflate ‘sustainability’ with sustainable development a few times, e.g. in his discussion on the ethics of sustainability. We would argue that our alternative worldviews are indeed compatible with the ethics of sustainability, but not with sustainable development; as soon as ‘development’ gets added on, the points made above kick.

We started this response with fundamental elements of concurrence with Reichel, and we end with two more. First, we fully agree that some ‘anti-globalisation’ movements are xenophobic, and in the current scenario of the ‘refugee’ crisis in Europe, certainly this is great worry. But this is why we would like to assert an ‘openlocalisation’ in response to economic globalization. This is a process of achieving local economic and political self-reliance (noting that the term ‘local’ has complex connotations we can’t get into here) which does not close itself off to interactions with and accommodating ‘the other’. The European degrowth movement has attempted to make clear its opposition to xenophobia. However, the alternative worldviews we espouse also explicitly encompass notions of justice and inclusion, so there is no need to align with sustainable development for strategic purposes. If at all one does it, it will be as an interim measure. Which brings us to the final point.

Reichel argues that we cannot “surrender” sustainable development to green-growthers and eco-modernists. We agree. So just like in our movements and writing and actions, we continue to engage with the state, continue to fight to expand spaces within the system (e.g. asking for greater accountability of governments, or for public right to information), while also struggling to achieve more fundamental transformations towards a very different world, we should engage and expand the spaces available within a global process such as the SDGs while simultaneously seeking radically alternative futures. This dual role may appear contradictory, but it is not if one views it as short-term and long-term, and as long as the latter is not forgotten in engaging with the former. Too many civil society groups appear to have bought into (or grudgingly reconciled themselves to) the SDGs as the desired framework, which is tragic for the world cannot be saved by a worldview predicated on growth and the nation-state. The authors previously argued in the Guardian that "Sustainable development is failing, but there are alternatives to capitalism", which kick-started this debate on our blog. A longer and more detailed version is available here

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Ashish Kothari

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