Sustainable development requires an infusion of love

The New Year is a big one for planet earth. New Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will set our trajectory into an increasingly uncertain future. But country delegations are arguing over the wrong thing – says a paper entitled 'love-infused development'.

20 December 2013
A line of Christmas trees. Photo: Brett Flanders (Creative Commons

A line of Christmas trees. Photo: Brett Flanders (Creative Commons

As a forester, I celebrate the ways forests contribute to the festive season: Christmas trees, holly wreathes, logs on fires, Boxing Day walks through the woods. But globally, forests are in trouble, and their fate is not unrelated to the consumerism that afflicts Christmas celebrations.

A fivefold expected increase in global consumers between 1900 and 2030 is dwarfed by a fifty-fold expected increase in consumption, from US$2 trillion in 1900 to US$100 trillion by 2030. There is a growing squeeze on forest land to meet this demand. Halting forest loss – which causes 17 percent of global carbon emissions was heralded as the easy win in UN climate change negotiations. Perhaps not… Humanity's ecological footprint already exceeds by 50 per cent the area actually available to produce renewable resources and absorb carbon dioxide.

So we live in interesting times. For people and the forests we depend on to share this planet of ours, we must cut overall consumption, and there are two basic options open to us. Option 1 is more consumption for the favoured few and increasingly critical deprivation for the rest (constrained business as usual). Option 2 is contraction and convergence towards a more equitable consumption patterns (universal development goals). The latter is clearly the love-infused path – but how on earth can we bring it about?

It is that question that is vexing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and others tasked with designing this new universal set of development goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that end in 2015.

Any new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) or revamped MDGs would be New Year's resolutions on a planetary scale. But the process from which they will emerge is a dark art – a United Nations cauldron presided over initially by a High Level Panel of Eminent Persons, and now by endless sessions of Open Working Groups that sift and stir 'priority areas' into the bubbling froth.

Activists marshal a motley mix of interested parties and expert evidence to smuggle in their pet themes – food security, water and sanitation, energy, health, gender and so on. It will gradually boil down into a handful of pithy goals and indicators. None of it, frankly, is likely to make a blind bit of difference — we already know what has to be in the mix.

Countless academic tomes have been written on human needs, values, capabilities and rights. They fall into at least six categories: natural and cultural heritage; material health and wellbeing, affirmative social relationships; present and future security; the potential for creative fulfilment and; a sense of identity and purpose. As I argue in a new paper, country delegates influencing the SDG process have the wrong thing in their cauldron. That's because whatever the mix of priority areas, it matters far less than how that mix is pursued.

For any given goal, polar opposite results are possible, depending if it is pursued selfishly or selflessly. Yet much of the economic machinery of business and nation states is set up for the former – giving more to those who already have too much (Option 1 above). To overcome this we need SDGs that are explicit in how they will encourage the machinery of business and governance to deliver more equitable and universal outcomes (Option 2).

As my recent paper and a two-page backgrounder show — the designers of these goals need to seriously rethink them, based on love, not selfish greed. We need love-infused development goals. Rather than focusing on what priority areas must be in the mix, the SDG design process should debate how best to pursue them. That debate would be difficult and contentious– but to kick it off, how about the following as SDGs (with indicators of progress to follow)?

  • SDG 1. Inclusive resource rights and land use planning processes
  • SDG 2. Locally controlled business models and health systems
  • SDG 3. Federations that represent localised democracies
  • SDG 4. Redistributive justice backed by fair judicial systems
  • SDG 5. Public entrepreneurial education and family support systems
  • SDG 6. Service oriented, gendered business and peer rewards.

Duncan Macqueen's new IIED paper argues that the mix of SDG priority areas matters less than how that mix is pursued

Such goals would enable humanity to pursue fair and sustainable development for the masses, not the few. I got a glimpse of what can happen when policymakers follow that path last week, when I had the good fortune to attend a forestry conference in China.

China is of course ahead of the game. As I reported in my blog post for IIED:

  • China's reforms of forest tenure over the past five years have granted 90 million forest farmers with licenses to manage their land
  • Such farmers planted about 70 per cent of the 29 million hectares of land reforested in China between 2000 and 2010, cutting the net global rate of forest loss by almost one third
  • Some 115,000 forest cooperatives have formed
  • Total forest sector output is reported at a staggering US$650 billion – much shared locally. More than 1,000 centres now deal with disputed land titles and trading
  • China has rolled out forest insurance at breathtaking pace and invested in capacity development – including in traditional agricultural knowledge, understory crops and eco-tourism.

It's not all perfect – but I'll wager that a higher percentage of rural people in China have reason to cheer in their New Year than their British counterparts do this festive season. 

It is a time for celebration and reflection – not just a Santa sack of consumer goodies and a hung-over New Year promise of 'never again'. Christmas celebrates the birth of one whose command was simply 'love one another'. It's a message that has much to offer to the bureaucrats and diplomats tasked with steering humanity to a sustainable future.

Duncan Macqueen is Principal Researcher in the International Institute for Environment and Development's Forest Team (

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