North Star

The SDGs: How can we sustain our optimism?


The email came from an 82-year-old activist in Vermont. She was hoping for answers to questions she was hearing from others, about the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. She wanted to write an article — not for The New York Times or even for a local newspaper, but for her friends, neighbors and the various experts she meets and talks to.

She wanted to be able to explain some basic things about the SDGs, to people who often seem skeptical.

Her questions ranged from basic ("Why was 2030 chosen as the deadline?") to sophisticated: "What strategies will be deployed to mobilize the least-educated and possibly resistant people, to empower them to make the behavioral, operational and physical changes needed to reach the goals?"

Ordinarily, an email from someone I’ve never met, asking for answers to many difficult questions, would end up pretty far down on my over-packed list of things to do.

But something in the genuine care and applied intelligence of her questions made me feel compelled to start writing answers. Not "the" answers, because nobody has those. But my answers.

These were questions, I realized, that I also needed to be asking myself, and that many of us need to be thinking about.

Questions like: "How do we muster the will, from top to bottom, to make the leaps that achieving the SDGs demand?"

So here are my answers to Jackie McMakin’s wonderful questions. I hope they help you think about how you would answer these questions for yourself.

Why was 2030 chosen as the deadline for achieving the SDGs?

That’s a question better asked of national governments, because it probably has several answers. But the most reasonable explanation is this: the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals lasted for 15 years, 2000-15, and they worked quite well. We achieved many of those earlier global goals (cutting poverty in half, increasing maternal health) in 15 years or less. So 15 years seems like a reasonable global planning horizon. We have experience, as a world, on working together to achieve things in that time frame.

What gives you confidence that we can reach the goals by that date?

My expectation is not that we will reach all the goals by then, but that the 2030 Agenda will inspire us to reach higher than if we had no global goals, and no global deadline. If you want to get more specific on assessing feasibility, you can read the list of 169 SDG targets; then it becomes much easier to say, for oneself, "That target is certainly reachable; maybe this other one is not."

It’s important to remember that there will also be surprises — good and bad. New technologies or economic breakthroughs are likely to occur. Or, social breakdowns (wars and other calamities) may occur. We don’t know. But the SDGs provide us with a "North Star" to aim at, no matter what is happening in our world.

A good number of progressive and well-educated people are excited by the SDGs and are doing interesting things to reach the goals. But how will strategies to achieve the goals reach the least educated people, who form a huge chunk of the global population?

The strategies themselves will not reach everyone — and they don’t have to. Strategies are political or planning documents, affecting budgets and programs, for governments, companies, NGOs and others.

But the impacts of the strategies — the actions that people take, the policies and processes that they change, the programs that get created as a result of the SDGs and related plans — will affect every person on Earth in multiple ways.

That’s because nearly every strategy for global improvement that you might be aware of — programs to save the oceans, change to sustainable agriculture, make fishing more sustainable, reduce marine litter, feed hungry children, control carbon emissions and so much more — are in fact linked to the SDGs.

What strategies will be deployed to mobilize the least-educated and possibly resistant people, to empower them to make the behavioral, operation and physical changes needed to reach the goals?

Targeting "resistant" people, and trying to get them to change their minds (to stop being climate skeptics) and to "get on board" with the SDGs is not high on my list of things to do right now. We are still in the early stages of implementing the SDGs. We need to mobilize support from the base of that support — people who care about these global issues and who believe in the value of collaborating as a world to solve the world’s toughest problems.

Trying to change other people’s minds is often a waste of time and energy. But if the world starts to change around them, and the results of that change prove mostly positive, resistant people start to accept the "new way" — or at least to relax in their opposition. (There are always other things they can target for resistance.)

There are exceptions to that rule, of course, but that is my general observation about how change works at the largest scales.

Why are the 17 SDGs framed so optimistically and coupled with a very short timeframe? For example, can we eradicate extreme poverty by 2030? Why were not attainable goals chosen? Don’t these optimistic goals set us up for failure?

Again, only the country governments who negotiated these goals truly can answer these questions. But you can ask yourself (and others): is it more motivating, more energizing, to have a goal that reads, "Reduce most types of poverty, in most places, by 80 percent" or to have a goal statement that says, "End poverty in all its forms everywhere"?

Besides, a lot of social science research, as well as business management experience, suggests that people perform better when they are trying to achieve ambitious "stretch" goals than with "realistic" goals.

Key power players and politicians are gaining power [in some countries] with a nation-focused, protectionist agenda. How do the optimists believe that nation-focused, protectionist politicians could transform into globally focused, altruistic activists?

I cannot speak for "optimists" — but frankly, I do not believe in attempting to transform such people.

The only way forward is to outperform them and their ideologies until those ideologies are worn out and become irrelevant.

Here is one example: Resistance to renewable energy is crumbling in the face of its success. As prices drop, as the advantages are clearly seen, as the market increasingly favors these solutions, because they are better ... well, ultimately most resistance (although not all) will disappear.

Personally, I believe we face many tough, even heartbreaking, bumps in the road ahead. These "bumps" will be partly caused by delays in action on key issues (such as climate change), caused in turn by deeply flawed ideologies that turn their backs on scientific data, sound economic analysis and other sources of knowledge that are not inherently political. Unfortunately, even reliance on knowledge itself can get "politicized," as we have seen, and championed by one side or another.

About how I maintain my own optimism at such times, see my previous column — and see the end of this Q&A.

How do we muster the will, from top to bottom, to make the leaps that achieving the SDGs demand?

That is an excellent question, which everyone in a leadership position of any kind, and every caring citizen, needs to be thinking about. "Mustering the will" is a deeply personal decision. Engaging on any large task is a big commitment. Of course, there are some truly awful ways to encourage people to make such commitments; we call those ways "propaganda."

At the other extreme, there are movements for a better world that seem to grow spontaneously, because thousands or millions of people begin thinking or feeling, for themselves, that engagement is the right thing to do — that work for sustainability is the best contribution we can make to human development and a livable planet. And they convince friends, colleagues and political leaders to engage as well.

You can guess which method I favor.

One expert said, "Even if the neediest cultures are willing, there are not enough experts trained to teach them. This takes a long lead time to build up. And the reality is that people are resistant to change." How do we deal with this reality?

All we need to do is look around and see that change is happening constantly. Farmers learn new ways of farming. Teachers learn new ways of teaching. People in cities learn to use smartphone apps to call taxis that can drive themselves. People usually don’t need experts; they teach themselves. That is also reality.

The most important reality to keep in mind is that people are amazingly adaptable, they learn quickly, they can change very quickly — when they want to. They want to when they are shown something worth changing for, and changing to, by people who have earned their trust.

How do you shift money from military spending to SDG-related spending? This is a proposal for funding SDG-related work.

As someone who worked for years with the U.S. Army and services to help make military bases more sustainable — because each base is a small town, often with homes, shops, day-care centers, utility plants, health care systems, you name it — I am not the best person to ask this question. I think the military will be with us for many years, as a necessary fact of life. There are dangers in this world that only a military balance of power keeps at bay. And don’t forget that the military, even if you are a strict pacifist who opposes war of any kind for any reason, is also prepared to serve with courage in times of natural and other disasters.

To the more general question of funding SDG work: there are so many ways to do this. The formal international answer, which revolves around the phrase "Means of Implementation," is complex. And yes, there are some international funding mechanisms, targeted to specific problems such as climate change, poverty or biodiversity.

But the more important dimension here is the decentralized mobilization of resources of all kinds, in all SDG contexts. Technology exchange. Training support. Mobilizing private investment. All this and more is happening. Whether this activity is "badged" as funding the SDGs is not important.

As just one example, consider the reports of the independent, high-level Business and Sustainable Development Commission, which point out the economic benefits of investing in the SDGs. By demonstrating with analysis and working examples that investing billions now will bring benefits in the trillions later, you can start to engage the early movers. The mainstream eventually will follow.

So, what about maintaining optimism?

Optimism in these matters is most often a choice. Making that choice, and sustaining it, is based on maintaining two perspectives: looking forward with commitment, armed with good data, examples, partners and determination; but also, looking backward. The SDGs are continuing a process of improving our world that many people have worked on for generations. And we already have come a long way.

Yes, there is resistance and opposition to addressing some key challenges we face. But resistance always has been there. Compare where we are now on so many of these topics — climate, poverty, human rights — to where we were a few decades ago. So much more of the world is mobilized to act. We have come so far already. Yes, there is a long way to go, but there is solid proof that we are making progress.

For me, this makes the choice of optimism a simple one: We can’t stop now.