North Star

Sustainable development and the end of history

GreenBiz Group

A warning: At the end of this article, I will raise some uncomfortable questions about sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and other concepts that many of us have been promoting in recent decades in response to global challenges, such as ending poverty, dealing with climate change and halting the destruction of ecosystems.

But first, let’s take a detour through recent political history.

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, marking the definitive end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet-style communism. But the falling of the wall was just the final, visible symbol of a political process already well under way.

Earlier that same year, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama also made history — and headlines — by publishing an essay (PDF) that asked whether history itself was coming to an end. Fukuyama’s much-cited (and often misunderstood) thesis was that the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold War marked a final resolution of the question that had been propelling the human drama for centuries: "What form of government is best?"

The answer, said Fukuyama, was now apparent: Western liberal democracy.

"History," in the sense that Fukuyama was using the word, does not mean the unfolding of events — since events obviously have continued to unfold since 1989. (One of those events was the publication of Fukuyama’s own masterful history of the political state, in two volumes, 2011 and 2014, which I am currently reading.) In his famous 1989 essay and in the 1992 book version that followed, Fukuyama talked about the evolution of human governance, which philosophers from Plato to Hegel to Marx have argued must have a direction, a goal. Marx thought the final goal of human history was communism. When the wall fell, history itself proved Marx wrong.

In the years since 1989, history essentially has proven Fukuyama right. Fukuyama foresaw a "growing ‘Common Marketization’ of international relations" that would steadily bring all but the "true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang or Cambridge, Massachusetts" under the same liberal umbrella.

In broad strokes, that is exactly what has happened. A similar way of managing politics and economics, emphasizing the development of greater individual choice, free market mechanisms and a push for better functioning governments, businesses and institutions — which in turn manage the processes of production, trade and development — has taken root all over planet Earth. Nowadays, we call this "globalization."

By now you may be thinking, "But what about ...?" (fill in the blank with the illiberal political despot of your choice). "Why does history now seem to be going backwards in some countries?"

Fukuyama would likely say, because history can and does go backwards at times. His most recent book warns about this in the title: "Political Order and Political Decay."

But while humans are prone to backsliding, human history’s ultimate political goal remains the same: a "de-ideologized world" where democratic institutions manage market economies in liberally minded states. Look around: Even states that are not very democratic often pretend to be, with stage-managed elections. Others are slowly introducing democratic processes at sub-national levels.

Shopping malls are everywhere.

Perhaps you do not see this ideological victory as something to celebrate, but then neither did Fukuyama. He closed his 1989 essay not on a note of triumphalism — as many people assumed he was expressing — but melancholy.

"The end of history," wrote Fukuyama, "will be a very sad time." Why? Because all the zing and zest of political ideas battling it out for ultimate supremacy would be gone, replaced by a dull technocracy. Fukuyama continues:

The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.

The above paragraph seems haunting in its predictive power. Global history since "The End of History" has largely followed this pattern.

As Exhibit A, consider the challenge of ensuring that eco-certified espresso drinks are served in a similar way to customers in San Francisco, Shanghai and Sao Paolo, and at a consistent profit margin. Addressing that challenge involves performing economic calculations, solving technical challenges and dealing with environmental concerns, while accommodating the growing interest of sophisticated global consumers who desire, say, the Australian "flat white" version of coffee. Let Exhibit A serve as a typical example of what history has led us to.

Recently, while drinking a flat white, I began thinking about Fukuyama’s original 1989 essay in connection with another historic milestone: the world’s adoption, in 2015, of the 2030 Agenda and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. The SDGs are the result of an international diplomatic process that began in the late 1980s, roughly when Fukuyama was pondering the end of history. In fact, the concept of sustainable development — to which the SDGs finally have given a sense of technocratic precision — is almost another name for the future that Fukuyama envisioned as inevitable for our world.

The title of Fukuyama’s original essay included a question mark — "The End of History?" — which was dropped for the 1992 book version. Reflecting on that change in punctuation got me to thinking about another, more troubling question.

Are we approaching "The End of the End of History"?

In other words, is the post-Cold War world described by Fukuyama — a framing of the future that easily encompasses not only Western liberal democracy but also sustainable development, corporate social responsibility, "green growth" and many other current concepts and practices — up to the task of saving the planet from the ravages of climate change and ecosystem destruction, while securing a positive future for human civilization?

If it’s not, then what is?

On the one hand, the 2030 Agenda and the 17 SDGs can be seen the apotheosis of Fukuyama’s version of historical development, at least in the abstract. Finally, the world is united around a common vision that, at its heart, is firmly based on the Western liberal vision that ultimately won the Cold War. All over the planet, most people seem to want the same thing: good individual lives, in prosperous market economies, managed by well-functioning institutions, in a healthy environment.

Granted, the word democracy does not make an explicit appearance in the SDGs, but "fundamental freedoms" do, as does "responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels."

The SDGs themselves are also presented as a set of technical problems to be solved by the world, in perfect alignment with Fukuyama’s framing — but also in alignment with his concluding worry that the end of history might ultimately seem "boring" when compared to the sturm und drang of history itself.

Unavoidable change

On the other hand, Fukuyama did not foresee, in 1989, the extent to which human civilization in the 21st century would be faced not merely with "environmental concerns," but with a full-blown planetary environmental emergency. Nor did he foresee how accelerating climate change, the devastation of marine environments and the decimation of land-based ecosystems would precipitate exponentially growing flows of human migration, put recent extraordinary gains in poverty reduction and hunger alleviation at risk and add fuel to the fire of some very historical and ideological struggles, resulting in armed conflict and terrorism.

When hung up on the wall beside today’s sustainability challenges, Fukuyama’s 1989 conception of human political destiny seems woefully lacking. And today’s Fukuyama might agree. He noted — in the first chapter of 2014’s "Political Order and Political Decay" — that "the existing structure of international institutions is inadequate" for dealing with climate change and many other problems. Being an historian, however, he offers no prescriptions about how that structure needs to change.

And yet, profound change is unavoidable. It is widely acknowledged that we cannot address this planetary emergency, nor achieve the ambitious global vision of the SDGs, through business-and-governance as usual. The 2030 Agenda itself acknowledges this reality its own title: "Transforming Our World." The idea of sustainable development may have grown up during the "End of History" period of globalizing, post-Cold War, 20th-century liberalism and all its supporting institutions.

The SDGs are arguably the quintessential product of that period.

Ironically, achieving these ambitious goals is forcing us back to the political, economic and institutional drawing board. The wobbly state of Western liberal democracy — with a growing number of states adopting "illiberal" leaders and policies — underscores the point.

So, quoting Lenin — whose vision of a communist future crumbled with the fall of the Berlin Wall — what is to be done?

I don’t believe anyone knows the answer to this question — yet. We know we need transformation. We know that transformation means fundamental change, at both the conceptual and structural level. And we increasingly suspect that many economic and governance mechanisms that created the relative stability of this "End of History" period — global financial markets, trade agreements, consumption-based economies, corporate business models, professionalized civil society organizations and much more — are the very things that need to be transformed. 

What’s required appears to be nothing less than a reimagining of our presence on planet Earth, in this age of human planetary dominance we call the Anthropocene.

As Fukuyama put it back in 1989, we often fail to understand that "the roots of economic behavior lie in the realm of consciousness and culture" (italics added). In order to truly solve "technical problems" such as "circular economy," "low-carbon development," "corporate social responsibility" and other classic sustainability issues, we will have to learn to think very differently.

We may soon have to jettison these concepts altogether, in favor of new ones that we now think of as marginal, or that we haven’t even invented yet. And we will have to develop new sets of values, norms, customs and practices that are adequate to navigating the profound newness of our emerging global, and very historical, predicament.

Ultimately, achieving the sustainability transformation is not a technical problem that can be solved by tinkering with the Cold War’s winning ideology. It requires very much more than that. It is a grand challenge of such magnitude that it calls forth the very "daring, courage, imagination and idealism" that Fukuyama feared would be lost.

That does not sound like the end of history, but rather like a new beginning.