Sustainability is a process of managing the unanticipated interconnected elements of an increasingly complex global agenda: a challenge which was deemed the ‘global problematique’ in the 1970s.
It remains the primary challenge for the international community as it confronts an increasingly globalized and complex set of issues on the international agenda. This process of drawing connections – and the essential criteria of avoiding false positives and false negatives – occurs through linkage politics.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are best thought of as signaling devices for the intentions and expectations of the international community (International Organizations, philanthropic sectors of civil society, and national aid agencies) than as concrete rules or a roadmap for development and sustainability policies.
Governments remain watchful of such putative rule oriented goals because such goals affect the long term flow of resources, and because they provide implicit expectations about how governments –particularly in the developing world – should spend their own scarce resources.
The political challenge is to devise meaningful SDGs. Rather than laying down common rules for all to follow, the SDG process may be better imagined as a process of learning to deal with complex issues.
Meaningful (robust and resilient) commitments occur when states share norms and causal ideas about which elements are on the global sustainability agenda, and which are closely intertwined. Formulating the SDGs rests on identifying elements of the global problematique which satisfy these two requirements.
Provisional research suggests that “global sustainability” lacks global consensus as a norm, nor does it command the causal understanding for how to achieve it. More viable candidates include food security, energy security and water security. Further research and political discourse remains to be done to identify further candidates.
Prof. Peter M. Haas is professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst MA, USA; and member of the Earth System Governance Lead Faculty.