About Sustainability…

Can the World Achieve the SDGs? Part 1 of 2

June 14, 2022 Institute for Global Environmental Strategies Season 1 Episode 7
About Sustainability…
Can the World Achieve the SDGs? Part 1 of 2
Show Notes Transcript

This time, Andre, Bob, Erin, and Simon went into a broader discussion around the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and why it seems so challenging for the world to achieve the goals despite them constituting the ‘good’ of development. The discussion touched upon many items, including how the SDGs are different than the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that preceded them, how to measure poverty, the different approaches to govern relying more on governmental sanctions or letting the invisible hand of the market do the job. The discussion stretched beyond the limits of what we normally see as one episode, and therefore the second part will be published shortly. As always, we do not profess to have all the right answers to these questions but enter into these exchanges to learn new perspectives on the difficult and challenging questions about sustainability, we hope you do too!

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About this podcast:

"About Sustainability..." is a podcast brought to you by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), an environmental policy think-tank based in Hayama, Japan. IGES experts are concerned with environmental and sustainability challenges including, but not limited to, climate change; biodiversity and ecosystems; sustainable consumption and production; the Sustainable Development Goals; and overarching governance issues. Harnessing this expertise, the podcast serves to discuss and draw attention to contemporary issues and events relevant to sustainability with a frank reflective discussion from both within and beyond the Institute.


Everything shared on the podcast will be off-the-cuff discussion, and any viewpoints expressed are those held by the speaker at the time of recording. They are not necessarily official IGES positions.

Bob:

I asked my co-hosts to try and experiment with me and take a possibly controversial topic and have an open discussion about it. I find this a bit scary and I'd like to start with a few points about the discussion itself before getting into the topic. First, that any views expressed in the discussion are the views of the speaker at that moment in time and not an official position of IGES. They may also not be the speaker's view at the end of the discussion because, and this is point 2, we're trying our best to keep an open mind during this discussion, giving other speakers respect, the benefit of the doubt, and keep open the possibility of having our minds changed during the discussion. And finally, I'd like to ask you to be kind enough to do the same. If you disagree with one or all of us, please just give us the benefit of the doubt. We're putting ourselves in a vulnerable spot, having an unscripted discussion, and trying to be as open as possible. So please just take in the discussion with that same sense of openness, whether you agree or not. So with that said, let me introduce the question to kick off this experiment. I think there have been several events in recent years - Russia's invasion of Ukraine being the most recent one - that have called into question the utility or effectiveness of these large intergovernmental bodies like the UN. I'm interested in looking at a slightly more focused question, namely looking at mutually agreed targets coming from parts of these larger bodies, from the Convention on Biological Diversity or CBD - that would be the Aichi [Biodiversity] Targets, I guess - and the largest one - maybe the one that will take most of the focus here - is the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs. Now, my first instinct when hearing about the SDGs or similar sets of goals is skepticism on a number of fronts. Clearly, there are problems with these efforts. It's probably impossible to completely eliminate bias from development and implementation of these goals. And there will always be power disparities at play. Movement towards the goals will also not be evenly distributed. But I guess the question that I'd like to discuss here is, are these efforts moving us in the right direction? Are we moving asymptotically toward a perfect world, or are we metaphorically bulldozing and rebuilding the global neighbourhood into a uniform new bloc modeled after the powerful's platonic ideal of what society should be, disregarding all the diverse beauty that we had before? To put that question in a little bit shorter form: are these goals effective enough to help us avoid the disasters we're hurtling towards, and did they move us towards the good? What do we sacrifice with this approach? It's a huge topic and I'm not going to dictate where we dive into it. If anyone has some thoughts on this, let's go from there.

Simon:

I mean, maybe first, to get into this big question.. First, maybe I want to ask kind of question, [that] is, the SDGs, right? The Sustainable Development Goals as they are called - they're part of Agenda 2030 and the idea was when all the governments of the world agreed to them in 2015 that they'd be achieved by 2030. Will they be achieved in 2030, you think? What do we think?

André:

Simon, I was actually wondering, even if we should take a step even further back and sort of talk about what the SDGs involve because, I mean, maybe just to very quickly define them. I... And I'm sorry to sidestep your question for the time being, but let me just give a very quick definition from... A very layperson's definition from my side - From what I understand, they try to encompass all goals related to making the planet a more sustainable place, but not just sustainable, but also a better place. Now, it's importantly both of those things. So there are things like industry involved, not just about saving biodiversity, for example, and mitigating harm. It's also about, you know, travelling towards making life better for people. And so, they cover everything from the environment, and that itself is divisible into different parts to economic or economy-related or economy- oriented goals to society oriented goals, including poverty alleviation and alleviation of hunger - so they're very diverse. But please disagree with me - I think you guys probably all have a slightly better idea - of the overall idea of what they mean. But just to go back to that first definition, I would say that they aim to do two things -- to make the world a better place for everybody and to do that in a sustainable way so that it's not just achieving a goal for the short term.

Simon:

Okay. I think that's a good addition. It doesn't actually... Hmm... It's... I mean... So what actually I wanted to say with... What I was trying to say - I think links very well and you're right, maybe we should talk about what these goals are and what they encompass, but I guess... And maybe then later get into the point I was trying to make [which] is, so if we say that these goals - they encompass human development, prosperity, human well-being, but also environmental sustainability (keeps us within planetary boundaries), takes care of the necessary economic activity to pay for, you know, prosperity and human well-being. So, okay, if we say that those goals are the "good". We aspire for those goals. That's what I wanted to ask. If that's what they do, then... The hidden critique in my question is then why aren't we achieving them? We aren't achieving them by 2030. You know, the latest projections now, which I believe were even prior to COVID, the situation looks even... probably even more difficult now after COVID, two years of COVID. But the latest projections were that we would achieve the SDGs in 2065. So that causes me to then question, then either the goals don't encompass the good or something else is happening because we are not moving towards the goals. Several of them are experiencing regression, especially the environmental ones, actually.

André:

Mm hmm.

Simon:

So are they even what we aspire to? I guess that's my question.

André:

Mm hmm.

Erin:

Mm hmm. Well, I mean, I think there's one thing that sort of comes up immediately is that, the fact that, if you're going to be as comprehensive as that, you can't expect, um... you can't expect to be able to move forward without tradeoffs between goals. Um, and so that's, I mean, that's something we've spoken or touched on previously already. So, and that's a key thing which I think we'll probably automatically get into. But can I just quickly throw something else into the kind of initial discussion mix? So it's also responding to that, Simon. But the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which ran from... Was it 2000...? 2000, yeah.

André:

2000 to 2015. Right? The way they were conceived was very different that the SDGs were conceived as far as I understand. So basically Kofi Annan, who was then the Secretary-General of the UN, got together with a very small group of people, sort of at his sort of level of officialdom, and - this is probably an oversimplification of a story, but - they sat together and put these goals together. So they were done with a much smaller number of people that really didn't consult very widely at all. There are a far smaller number of goals. There were seven. And I don't actually know or remember the other targets-

Simon:

There were eight actually.

André:

Was it eight?

Simon:

Seven plus one. Yeah.

André:

Right. Okay. But generally sort of simpler and to a large extent with the exception of the environmental ones and maybe I'm missing others, they were actually quite successful. And so one thing I wonder is sort of how, you know, how that's different to the SDGs, like what was done differently there? I don't think it was just the conception of them that's important, but just the general way that they were... The progress made towards them and how they were structured. So that's just kind of something I was trying to throw into the mix at the beginning. And again, I'm not really responding directly to your question, Simon. But...

Simon:

No, but they were different- those were different times, right? Development was decided by the North for the South. The MDGs - the Millennium Development Goals - were sort of goals that were supposed to help direct ODA (that means official development assistance) and directed towards like those eight human development goals like gender equality, maternal mortality, hunger...

André:

Right. So just to spell that out.. . Thanks for mentioning that. So the MDGs were for the developing world - they were not aimed at the developed world. They were aimed at the developing world, whereas the- and that's kind of again, I'm just going on what I've heard, what I've been told - that the major difference definition-wise of the SDGs is that they're supposed to be for everybody, whether they're from the developed or the developing world. Is that the correct understanding?

Erin:

Yeah, I think so. Yeah. I think that's also what I learned when I learned about the MDGs versus the SDGs. I also learned that the MDGs were largely successful because they were so vertical and siloed and targeted. But then I think, you know, it's really a question of what we're measuring, right? Like if we have very simple targets and, you know, very well-defined goals and targets and indicators, then it would be easier maybe to achieve. At least, we know what to do, whereas I'm not really so sure about the SDGs, to be honest. Like, I mean, there are a lot of targets and then there are a lot of indicators, I guess, to those targets. And to be honest, I don't know what all of them are.

Simon:

There are 232 or 234 indicators.

Erin:

Yeah, that's crazy. That's crazy, right? I mean, I don't know how people are going to be able to, first of all, track all that. I mean, I assume there are a lot of resources that go into even just monitoring the SDGs to begin with, let alone, like, actually take action on them. So yeah, I really don't know, but I think you're right that there is a big distinction between... Like "development" is for the so-called "developing" countries and then the so-called "developed" countries don't need to do that anymore. That was kind of the idea behind the MDGs, whereas the SDGs - maybe this is also why Japan really took it on... They're like, okay, well everyone needs to become more sustainable- Well, everyone has room for more development in a sustainable manner. So I think that is the key word there. Yeah.

Simon:

Every country is developing when it comes to the benchmarks set by the SDGs.

Erin:

Right. Right, yes.

Simon:

So it's different. But, you know, not to cast a spanner into the works here, but there has been... Of course, a lot of sort of evaluation has been done on the MDGs and to what extent they were successful. And I suppose, in a way, as Erin mentioned, if you look at sort of the more simple targets and indicators, a lot of progress was made. And if you talk to Jeffrey Sachs or Bill Gates or people like that, they definitely argue that those MDGs - they did focus development to make sure that things are going in one direction. So that was maybe a really good thing. But there are others that say that... you know, for example, if MDG 1 was to eradicate extreme poverty, alright? And if a country that had a lot of poverty - they had like extreme poverty and not-so- extreme poverty and half-extreme poverty and different kinds of poverty... But in order to perform well, you would go in and target just the "extreme poverty", but all the other abject poverty or poverty in different dimensions, you know, poverty depending on what societal group you are from. All of that was not included in the MDGs, so it was a much more simple exercise on increasing / improving prosperity, improving the position of people compared to the SDGs, I think. And... And countries also didn't have the same starting point. They know that there were countries that were just about to achieve.. . So it was easier to go and work with those, whereas countries that had bigger challenges were more difficult to work with. So they focused development in beneficial ways, but also in ways which, in hindsight, may not have been so beneficial, at least according to what I have read.

André:

So Simon, just to take that example, because it is a very important one - poverty. Arguably the most important of the SDGs and the MDGs.

Simon:

Arguably.

André:

Yeah. There are so many questions in my head. But basically, I think that - I'm worried about getting too specific here, but - I think that if you measures to raise people out of extreme poverty are likely to raise people out of poverty as well - in medium level poverty. Why would you assume that that wouldn't be the case?

Simon:

No, no, okay. So I'm not saying it did. It did or didn't, but let's say, like, first of all, it begs the question, how do you measure poverty? Back then, poverty was a dollar a day. I don't know. I mean, have you tried living on a dollar a day? I have tried it in my in my early backpacking days when I was... When I ran out of money. You know, I lived on a dollar a day for a while. That wasn't fun. But I think I still had an insurance somewhere, so it wasn't really a dollar a day. But I'm sure that the- so the first question is like who sets the boundary between poverty and extreme poverty? And the way you set it will affect your result as well. So if you set it too high, your task is too big [to] get people above that threshold. If you set it too low, like a dollar or dollar and 25 [cents], then your task is really well. But then if you're making $2.50 a day... Still suffering, you know. And... Or if you're living in a patriarchal society where your husband makes $10 a day, but you only get $0.50 because you're a woman, you know, your lot is still in trouble. So it's really complicated also when we're talking about poverty, and I think that's partly as a result of a very different process to articulate or define the SDGs, as you mentioned in the beginning, which was really almost all countries in the world that came in and wanted to have a say. The exercise has become much more complex, so complex that it's almost... You kind of get lost in it.

André:

Mm hmm. So, Erin, please jump in anytime-

Erin:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm just thinking. I'm ruminating, yeah.

André:

Okay, so, yeah. Um, I mean, just a quick disclaimer is that virtually everything I say here is stuff that I am not informed enough about - the kind of things that I don't feel particularly strongly about, but kind of like a hypothesis - from one hypothesis to another. But so one is - my impression is that the SDGs - more than other goals and targets like the biodiversity targets that Bob mentioned earlier - are aspirational rather than - I don't know what the opposite would be, but - they're really kind of, they're not very technical or scientific or specific. And so they're kind of- it's almost like something for countries to keep in the back of their minds, you know, when they're writing up plans and deciding on policies and that kind of thing. And I would be interested to know - I don't know what the answer is, but - I'd be interested to know to what extent success was achieved or not achieved because of, you know, very strategic and specific decisions that were made and to what extent it was kind of going to happen anyway. And one huge example is, the main reason why that poverty goal was so successful for the MDGs is because of China, because of the number of people who were raised out of poverty in China.

And that's because:

a few things. Number one, they were a hell of a lot of people in China, and number two, they were and to some extent still are a hell of a lot of people in poverty in China. And number three, the ruling party gradually decided to open their markets basically, and to remain communist in terms of government, but not in terms of market. And that is the single factor that's responsible for most of the success of that particular achievement of the MDGs. And so there are probably other examples like that - and that's a really big one - of how... You know, I don't think the Chinese government did that because of the MDGs. I don't even think they got the idea from the MDGs. There was just a path that they were already on and that's kind of where it led to. So I guess that begs the question, with the SDGs, do they have value beyond just awareness raising? And I'm not saying this isn't very valuable, but perhaps their main value is just being... Just kind of mainstreaming the idea of sustainable development. And I think that they've really achieved something to that effect. But I think that- my general sense is that that's their value rather than actually strongly influencing government decision makers and policymakers and strategy. And but, like I say, this is a hypothesis - I don't have a huge amount of proof to back it up, and I don't feel terribly strongly about it. But that's my impression.

Erin:

I kind of share that view. I mean, I feel like maybe there is a difference between the Agenda 2030 and, like, say CBD or UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) and I'm not sure why that is, necessarily because I know that countries agreed on all of these strategies or frameworks or whatever, but I definitely get the sense that it feels a little more voluntary than, like, the UNFCCC or CBD. But yeah, I don't know what everyone else thinks about that. Yeah.

André:

Yeah, there's less accountability.

Erin:

Right.

André:

We've talked about this a little bit in the past.

Erin:

So it doesn't really matter whether you achieve it or not. Is that how it is?

André:

Well, I think it's more difficult to pin on a country to say... Well, although, I mean, it's kind of like, whether they succeeded or not is going to come out not in meetings but in data, right? In reports on-

Erin:

Right.

André:

on what the HDI (Human Development Index) is or the GDP or whatever, whatever it is. So it's a different form of vetting- Well, not vetting, but evaluation, I guess.

Bob:

Do you think that the reason that the SDGs tends to be more voluntary on, I guess, on whether it's achieved or not, how it's measured, and I see voluntary national reviews and everything seems to be more voluntary as you've been saying. Do you think that's because of the scope of it needed to get everybody on board? Like you said, the MDGs are more focused on developed countries, and I don't know how much say those developed countries have-

André:

Developing.

Bob:

Developing countries. Yeah. And what- I don't know how to what extent those developing countries had a say in what the Millennium Development Goals were going to be. But is that maybe why the SDGs are more voluntary? Because they're covering a broad spectrum of topics where you have a lot of stakeholders that would want to be involved, and it's covering the entire globe. And then the second thought I had on that is that, it seems like everyone's saying that the SDGs is a kind of a new thing, a different thing, I should say. The Aichi targets and the new GBF (Global Biodiveresity Framework) coming out of CBD and and these other... MDGs as well - were more focused and more detailed, perhaps, and the SDGs are broad and cover a wide framework. And I can see a difference in how they're known by the public. I don't know if I would see it differently if I was in a developing country, whether I would know the MDGs more. But I honestly didn't know what the MDGs were for half of their existence. And the SDGs are everywhere here right now.

Erin:

Right. I think maybe they're not necessarily- I mean, maybe it's because we live in Japan that they're just everywhere, like, just, you know, when you walk around town and so forth. But I lived in New York for two years. And literally, you didn't see the cities anywhere except for like in and around the UN building. Yeah. So, I mean, I think there's a question of like, how many people actually know about this? Yeah.

André:

I think it has gathered a bit of steam, Erin, over the years You were there a few years ago?

Erin:

Yeah yeah, before COVID.

André:

Yeah. So maybe that's one thing. Another just another very quick thought is that I think the MDGs are part of the reason for the relative popularity of the SDGs. Although maybe I'm- Bob and I are wrong about the SDGs being more popular. But if they are, I think it's partly because the MDGs kind of laid the ground for them. You know, those who knew about the MDGs would obviously know about the SDGs. So there was a bit of a continuation there.

Simon:

Are they - André, are they... I mean, I think we've also discussed that in a previous episode. But also, I mean, are the Aichi Targets or what is... What will be expected with this new global biodiversity framework, will that be binding? Is that binding on governments?

André:

No, it's not.

Simon:

It's not.

André:

So, you know, so in that sense, there's not that much difference between- as Bob said, the voluntary national review as the name suggests, not compulsory. And a lot of these things are. But there is something about the SDGs that seems to be a bit less so, right? I mean, and maybe it's partly that - very recently we spoke about the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) and the regional version of that ([APFSD]). These forums are not- they don't scrutinise progress to the same extent as others, do they...? Do that?

Simon:

No, no. My feeling is that that they create a- my perception, just very personal perception - is that they create sort of an indirect peer pressure through this norm-setting. You see what others are doing and you feel that when you as a government, you hear what other governments are doing and tackling, and you feel that you should be doing the same. And it creates that sort of.. . In that sense, the SDGs, those 17 colourful goals are trying to set a new norm or new frame for discussion around what is development, what's the good world that we... What's the goal? There are Goals. There's all race towards those goals, so it's kind of a but it's a voluntary race, right? It's not- it's not binding because if it was binding, probably would never get an agreement on this. And I would like to ask André or anyone else is like, do you think if we had to renegotiate the Convention on Biological Diversity today, do you think that would be binding or voluntary?

André:

Well, the the convention actually is binding, but the decisions that are made subsequently are not. And so the- you know, it's just the articles contained within the convention, within the original text of the convention, and then the protocols that have been laid on top of it over the years, but I mean, so I guess you could rephrase the question is potentially it could have been that the decision was made... That all decisions from the beginning - from the drafting of the convention, you know - all the decisions made subsequent to that could have been binding in theory. Right. I don't know if the UN structure would even allow that, but in theory, your question is whether that would be better?

Simon:

No, my question is not whether it would be better. I'm- sorry.

André:

Whether it would have happened?

Simon:

Yeah, no, I'm just trying to make a distinguishing... No, I'm trying to- I'm trying to argue that maybe there's a trend in governance from what happened in the 90s and and what's happening today or what has happened to try to characterise what are the SDGs as an animal of governing our human behaviour compared to the UNFCCC (which is the Framework Convention on Climate Change) or the Convention on Biological Diversity, which you could argue - Well, I think they are... They are. And that's what I would like to ask. Aren't they more binding if you compare them to the SDGs? Because the SDGs are just this sort of - well, as we've been saying - a more broad conversation around what we ought to do.

André:

Yeah, well, there's nothing binding about the SDGs, right? That's the key difference. Yeah.

Bob:

But yeah, I think that is an interesting question. If you- if they were negotiating CBD now, would they still be able to make it a binding convention?

André:

Would they be able to ? Yeah, okay.

Erin:

I mean, I just... You know, taking like the, I guess, other example of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. I mean, technically that is binding, right? And we were able to achieve that in 2015. So I think, you know, maybe it's hard to get everyone to agree on a binding treaty of some sort or an agreement, but it has been done relatively recently. So it's not impossible, I don't think.

André:

Yeah, there are probably other even more recent examples that are outside our field.

Erin:

Right. Right, exactly.

André:

But like Bob was saying, the SDGs are so broad, so comprehensive, that, I mean, there's no chance of making something that's... you know, governments could basically be held accountable legally, internationally for anything they did. You know? If they were legally bound to all of the SDGs. And this goes back to the idea of trade-offs, you know, by doing exactly what they're required to do towards one SDGs or, let's say one target of one SDG, they might be moving away from another, and so incurring a penalty if it was binding. So that's I guess that's another reason why it couldn't work.

Simon:

Actually, just a side note to Erin - your comment on the Paris agreement that was agreed in 2015, same year as the SDGs came about. It seems to be a child of- I mean, the Paris Agreement is a child of the UNFCCC, right? So it's sort of that legacy. But if you look at... We have done a textual analysis of those different governing instruments comparing Agenda 2030 with the CBD, with the UNFCCC - I mean the treaty text and comparing also with the Paris Agreement that came out in 2015. And you will see that there is a much stronger reliance on market-oriented approaches and market-oriented instruments.

Erin:

Interesting.

Simon:

And very much more market oriented rationality to how we should govern these challenges in - what we find in after the millennium, I mean, 2015, compared to before the 2000s. I just wanted to make that point.

Erin:

That's so interesting.

Simon:

Based on what we have done.

Erin:

Yeah, that's so interesting. Why do you think that is? Why do you think there's a shift towards market-based approaches?

Simon:

Yeah, so I want to ask, is that because the binding things didn't work or is it because we've just evolved or... I mean, or do the non-binding things work better? I mean, there are all these kinds of questions within that I can't answer, but we don't know. It's just the trend that has changed a little bit.

Erin:

So interesting. Yeah.

André:

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do think that the question of to what extent we rely on - this isn't- this goes beyond the SDGs even - I mean, it can be applied to anything, to any aspect of governance. To what extent do you regulate versus incentivise? And it's a - I'm no economist, but I think it's fairly clear that the correct balance lie somewhere in between. And the correct answer depends on the part of the world and the governance structures and the people and the level of development of society and all sorts of different things.

Simon:

And the issue.

André:

And the issue, yeah for sure. But I think that, like the... I think the- in favor of incentives, which I tend to lean towards, generally speaking, I think what can be said for incentives is that, they require less competence and less commitment and less discipline. You know, it's basically identifying mechanisms and tweaking those mechanisms, rather than trying to constantly control-

Simon:

Police someone.

André:

Say that again?

Simon:

Rather than policing someone, or...

André:

Yeah, policing or just sort of a level above that. It's like.. It's extremely difficult to know exactly what's going to work and what's not going to work. And I mean, this kind of, like, goes back to the division between communism and capitalism. Communism is not a mechanism, is the way I see it. It's government mistakenly thinking that they can decide what's best in any given situation. And it's failed repeatedly. Yet it's it's proven itself to be a completely impossible task for any government, no matter how competent. And capitalism, with all its faults, is a mechanism which certainly needs regulation, careful regulation, and careful re-evaluation. And yeah, and that has plenty of flaws. But generally speaking, if you can get the incentives in the right place, if you can tweak it, it's the best system that we know of. And I think this kind of thinking applies to something like the SDGs and the general developmental goals. You know, you can't make things happen, you can't force things to happen, you've got to kind of go with the flow, which is basically what I mean by the flow is like basically, human nature. I mean, like it more or less boils down to human nature and the physical constraints of our planet. I guess those would be the two things.

Simon:

Okay. Okay. So we can say that the market or capitalism has some characteristics, that a centralised government or governing structure will have different characteristics. And maybe flexibility and nimbleness - this is more something that the market has. And I... My observation - my personal observation - is that development and sustainable development has become very much a marketplace of where you shop for development solutions over the last decade, decade and a half. Increasingly so. And I agree it has... I'm sure it has lots of advantages, but I also think it has some pitfalls. One of them is, for example, just what you said just before, just before you finished, André. It's like, we are on a finite planet and capitalism is not constructed for finite. Capitalism just keeps on going. So how do we... if we just leave it to human nature and then coupled it with a mechanism like capitalism, aren't we asking for trouble?

André:

So I would say that the capitalism that I believe in is one that's based on doing more with less, like constantly doing more with less. So that's one thought. The other thought is - I just want to get three things up quickly before I forget. And I've forgotten the other two already.

Simon:

But what about doing less with less? No, I don't think-

André:

Oh so the second thing is that unfortunately, we don't know any better system. What we do know is that communism is more wasteful than capitalism, not less. And the third thing I want to say is, actually, the one thing that - I would say - the one thing that does work better in communism and this is, again demonstrated quite well by China is, and this is actually, Simon, contrary to what you're saying now, that the capitalist system would be more nimble. But actually I think the communist system is more nimble because it means that a government- well, maybe not necessarily... kind of. An authoritarian communist system is able to react to changes immediately. You know, these governments can make things happen overnight if they decide to. They want to change something, they just say that that's the new rule. And then it gets followed or else. And and democratic capitalist systems don't work like that. So this is kind of just to give socialism or communism its due. That is one thing to be said for it, I think. But I've kind of mixed two separate things there. The main thing you're pointing out there was like where- You were pointing out this capitalism can't keep on going. Economic growth can't keep on growing. But that depends on what you mean by economic growth. And I'm really out of my depth there. But my kind of

Simon:

The GDP!

André:

Hey?

Erin:

Yeah, GDP. GDP growth. Yeah, this is the typical.. . Right, measure.

Simon:

Right, but like okay, so someone I spoke to recently just gave an example and there are literally countless examples of this. But he was talking about the light bulb, the development of the light bulb. That is an incredible history of the development of a light bulb. And I can't recount at all now. But just the latest step in that history was the jump from incandescent to very briefly, compact fluorescent, which didn't last very long to LED now, right? And LED is over ten times more efficient than incandescent bulbs. And so even if we are much more wasteful, you know, leaving the lights on a lot more often - there's no way that we're going to get any more anywhere near as wasteful as we were previously, because it's such a huge change. And so if we keep on being this efficient... And I mean, I just think that innovation and technology... I don't want to be labeled, although I probably am or have become a bit of a technophile - I just think that that's the only realistic way that we're going to be sustainable at this stage, at this point in time. It's just kind of being innovative and choosing the most efficient technologies constantly and keeping on getting better at that. Yeah.

Bob:

Yeah. I think light bulbs though, in particular, are a good example of places where capitalism, I mean, it's not a free market thing, but if your whole- the motivating factor of the market mechanism is the economic forces and you're forgetting about the social courses and things like that, that brings you to the Phoebus cartel, which was a cartel that set the lifetime that light bulbs could last, and we had artificially short lived light bulbs for- I don't... I shouldn't say how many years because I don't know-

André:

But I think it is very short.

Bob:

-a very short time.

Simon:

Um, because they... Yeah, it's like-That's like planned obsolescence, right?

Erin:

Right, yeah. Yeah.

Bob:

Right.

André:

But yeah, can I just jump in, Bob? So the thing is, that's not capitalism, that's cronyism, as far as I understand. And, you know, you could call it crony capitalism, but it's not the definition of capitalism.

Bob:

Yeah, yeah. I get that point. But you-lLet me see how I can express what I was trying to say. I knew I was stepping into that trap as I was saying it. But capitalism also doesn't account for these social mechanisms in any way except for how it affects the bottom line, how it affects profits. And so I can't remember which economist it was and had this to say about the invisible hand theory from Adam Smith. He said, "The thing about the invisible hand, the reason it's so invisible oftentimes is that it's not there."

Simon:

Maybe it's shaking another invisible hand.

Bob:

And and that's- There are places where that free market works great. And it has been a big.. . It has moved human civilisation forward quite a bit in a lot of ways, I think. And technology is on an incredible curve of improvement that the gap between us learning, first making bone axes and moving to using metal axes is much, much longer than the gap between us using metal axes and having computers. So our technology is increasing at an incredible rate, and that's partially due to these kind of free market ideas. But we also tend to forget about- I think it leads to tending to forget about the social aspects and equality and things like that.

André:

But that's why- this is very quickly- That's why I would never advocate for a completely free market. That's why you have to have that balance.

Simon:

I just wanted- I wanted to add, yes, because, André, what kind of pure capitalism is it that.. . Let me rephrase that. We don't really have a pure capitalism. Well, we have it in the textbook.

André:

That's what I mean.

Simon:

But, but none of this can function. I read somewhere, and that's what made me understand. Like, you cannot even have a capitalist market functioning without sanction from the government; for example, without guaranteed private property rights, there will be no incentive for a farmer to invest in something that can, you know, increase the production of their land. So there is.. . So we come back to what you said much earlier, that there is a there's a role to play for, I think, both command- and-control and the powers of markets. But the markets are never pure. The light bulb example is one. And I think cronyism is a tendency. When you say human nature, I mean greed and and and seeking for ever bigger items and growth - that is also part of human nature and that needs... We need to manage manage that rather than just expanding it away by saying that's human nature. Because if we don't, I mean, I know I'm sounding like a preacher, but if we don't, then that's when we paint ourselves into this corner here, which is, on the one hand, is climate change. On the other hand, it's pollution or plastic or so on. So I think they are- So it's nuance, right? I think the market has many good things, but the market also brings out many bad things in our society. And if it's only the market, if it's only neoliberal and we need to find a balance and and what societies are out there that can show us how that might work.

Erin:

Is the issue of markets, I mean, with respect to the environment - and of course, there are many issues with markets, but is it that there are not enough negative externalities or costs taken into account in, say, like the price of a product or service? Is that the issue? or I mean, I'm still like- I'm still on the fence with with markets. I believe that they foster more innovation probably than, I guess, you know, top-down command-and-control type of regimes. But I also think, well, there are other ways in which innovation can come about, right? Like military. War is like a huge motivator for different technologies to come about. So, like there are different other ways, I guess, other than like pure profits. But still I just wonder like the current issue... The, I guess, the critique of capitalism with respect to environmental and sustainability issues - Is that because we're not putting a price on carbon? is that because we're not putting a price on pollution? Is that the issue? What do you think?

André:

You made so many good points there. I mean, uh, they so... Just two quick things. One is that, I mean, the main question is not whether capitalism is good or bad, but whether there is a better option.

Erin:

Right. Right.

André:

As a general system. And I think that- to me, the answer is a very large no. That one. And another thought is that - and these are just two kind of very partial answers to your question -But the other thing is that, um, property rights. Both of you mentioned that just now, I think are... um. Like it's like little shining jewel somewhere in the crown of solutions to this problem. And I don't know exactly how that's how that work. It works in various different ways. So I can talk about specific examples, but I think that it has a huge role to play, and I think that we as a society have thought enough about exactly how that works and how important it is.

Erin:

Mm hmm.

André:

But if the- and just to demonstrate that point, you know, two of the biggest environmental problems we have now are the climate - the way the climate is changing. And I would argue an even bigger problem is the way that the oceans are mismanaged. And both of those are commons, right? Both of those are resources that you can't buy property rights to or no property rights, essentially. And so this is like an old problem, but the tragedy of the commons. That's a very well known problem and there's no sort of easy solution to it. So I'll end my short monologue there and see if anyone else is going to answer.

Bob:

Thanks for listening in on the first half of a longer discussion. We'll bring you the other half in a later episode. It was interesting to note that with the broad nature of the SDGs, sometimes pushing one goal forward means losing ground on others. It was also alarming to note how far off track we seem to be on achieving the goals. I particularly enjoyed getting into the discussion of underlying economic systems and how they influence our approaches to achieving the goals. Thank you for listening to About Sustainability... Please subscribe at podcast.iges.jp or search for About Sustainability... wherever you normally get your podcasts. If you've got feedback, you can review us on your podcast directory of choice or reach out on Twitter @IGES_EN. About Sustainability... is produced by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies. Any views expressed during the podcast are those of the speaker at the time of recording and do not necessarily reflect the views of IGES. Thank you for choosing to spend your time with us. We don't take that lightly, and we hope you'll join us next time.