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North Star

20 years later, revisiting an old manifesto

Exactly 20 years ago, in late December 1999, I put pen to paper at a friend’s house in East London and began to write a personal manifesto for the new millennium.

The resulting document, "Sustainability is Dead — Long Live Sustainability" (PDF), had a short, modestly viral life. It was emailed around the internet, released by my book publishers as a standalone tract, condensed into a magazine article, included in university courses and ultimately anthologized in Marco Keiner’s "The Future of Sustainability" (Springer, 2006).

Part think piece, part cri de coeur, my manifesto was an attempt to make sense of my own thoughts and worries about where humanity was heading, and to make the case for global transformation. This was not an obvious line of argument at the time. While my own mentors in the field were mostly arguing for putting the brakes on global development, and mostly for environmental reasons, I called for speeding things up — but dramatically changing course. I saw no ethical or logical alternative.

For myriad reasons, I argued, we cannot stop development. Technology and industrialization irreversibly have opened Pandora’s box. Meanwhile, billions still suffer from hunger and need.

But if we are to be sustainable, we cannot keep doing development the same way. Transformation — rebuilding our energy systems, recalibrating financial markets, altering consumption and production patterns, rescuing an environment in decline, eliminating poverty, drastically reducing the risk of war and implementing the universal adoption of human rights — is our only viable option to achieve a sustainable future on planet Earth.

For myriad reasons, I argued, we cannot stop development. Technology and industrialization irreversibly have opened Pandora’s box.
In late 1999, thoughts such as these still seemed both alarmist and utopian to anyone standing outside the sustainability movement. I confess to a kind of missionary zeal in my need to express them in book and manifesto formats. To this day, I have no idea if any of my writing has made any difference at all in the course of subsequent events, outside the small audience of individuals who have gifted me with their attention over the years. In retrospect, the question seems quite unimportant.

Fortunately, I was hardly alone in thinking those thoughts or in writing them down and spreading them. Read, for example, the Earth Charter, adopted by thousands of organizations at roughly the same time. Drafted by a global who’s who of political and civil society leaders during the 1990s, it says roughly the same thing I was trying to say in my manifesto, but in more formal language. (I was personally unaware of the Earth Charter until 2005.)

A decade later, in late 2009, I again took stock of the global situation and, at the invitation of a United Nations think-tank process, wrote a new article called "Pushing Reset on Sustainable Development." Things definitely were looking brighter by then, but once again I argued (to an audience of global specialists and policymakers) that incremental advances in areas such as gender equality and corporate social responsibility were far from sufficient. Our aim needed to be much higher, our goals keyed to absolute standards, not relative performance targets. Transformation — "reset" — was still our only hope.

Then, in 2015, came a breakthrough. Fifteen years after the release of both the global Earth Charter and my personal manifesto, five years after my "reset" article, the United Nations formally adopted — under the overarching title "Transforming Our World" — the global 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Here at last was the proof that none of us had been "voices crying in the wilderness." We were harbingers of what was to come. In 2015, global alarm about the negative aspects of long-term development trends, mixed with aim-high optimism about the changes we needed to make, had become the official mainstream.

I was so overcome with hope and happiness that I wrote a dance-pop-reggae-rap song — and made a very U.N.-y music video — to celebrate.

A matter of policy

Now it is five years later, once again the end of a decade. The transformation we call "sustainable development" is no longer the stuff of idealistic manifestos; it is a policy and a process being pursued by governments, corporations, investors, universities, cities and, of course, countless civil society organizations.

Nearly everywhere, activists, journalists and researchers are finding it more difficult to stand up for taking principled action, for telling the truth or even for generating basic knowledge.
But the process is also under existential threat. It is far from clear that a majority of humanity would vote for this transformation, even if provided with all the relevant facts. Some governments, such as the one I now work for (Sweden), are acting internationally in strong alignment with these goals. Others seem robustly committed to moving in the opposite direction. Popular movements seem equally divided: Some march for democracy and stopping climate change; others march to oppose taxes on carbon dioxide or to resist the extension of human rights to the most oppressed.

And nearly everywhere, activists, journalists and researchers are finding it more difficult to stand up for taking principled action, for telling the truth, or even for generating basic knowledge. More and more of these "everyday heroes" are actually getting murdered for it.

So, I will not be writing any new manifestos this year. We have plenty of such documents now, with all the right endorsements (although some endorsements also have been eroding).

Instead, I am using our Swedish winter holidays to rest, reflect and gear up for yet another new chapter in the decades-long global movement to achieve sustainable development.

If I was writing that chapter, I would probably title it something like this: "The challenge of persisting, persevering against the odds and accelerating transformation."

We have turned the corner. We have mapped the path up the mountain. Yes, there are enormous obstacles, and there will be backsliding. But we know the path is the right one.

There is nowhere to go but all the way up.

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