The myth of global sustainability: Environmental limits and (de)growth in the time of SDGs

In this ISS Working Paper, Professor Murat Arsel argues that the SDGs are unlikely to bring about the necessary ecological transformations as long as the primacy of economic growth is not challenged.

The elevation of sustainability from being one of the more peripheral goals in the MDGs to titular status in the SDGs could be interpreted as a sign that the international development sector has finally recognized the gravity of the ecological challenge facing humanity. Similarly, the geographic and conceptual shift from the MDGs’ focus on the developing world to SDGs’ global framing could be read as an acknowledgement that sustainability is not a problem that needs to be tackled ‘out there’ but systemic in nature.

Nevertheless, this paper argues that the SDGs are unlikely to bring about the necessary transformations as long as the primacy of economic growth is not challenged. This cannot be achieved by simply recognizing the validity of environmental limits and adapting a degrowth position. It is also necessary to recognize that transformation to sustainability is inherently a conflictual process.

You can download the full text of the working paper.

About Murat Arsel

Murat Arsel is Professor of Political Economy of Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His research concerns the relationship between capitalism and nature within the context of emancipatory socio-economic development. He is currently working on a project to reconstruct the concept of class within the context of climate change in the Anthropocene.

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The ISS Working Paper series provides a forum for work in progress which seeks to elicit comments and generate discussion. The series includes academic research by staff, PhD participants and visiting fellows, and award-winning research papers by graduate students.

All working papers can be downloaded from the ISS website.