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R. Clugston: Religion and the Sustainable Development Goals

Address to a forum on
"The Relevance of Interreligious and Inter-Civilizational Dialogue to the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals"
United Nations, New York, USA, March 27, 2015

We stand at a turning point in the direction of the United Nations’ development agenda. 2015 provides real opportunities to shift from a narrow emphasis on short-term economic growth to truly valuing the environmental and social dimensions of development as well as the needs of future generations. In September 2015, a Post 2015 UN development agenda will be adopted focusing on sustainable development goals (SDGs) for transformative change.

The following comments are taken from the book I’m editing with Mirian Vilela (the Executive Director of Earth Charter International), entitled Ethics, Spiritual Values, and the New UN Development Agenda. The book emphasizes the need for transformative change. The 14 chapter authors, from diverse traditions, describe their ethical and spiritual perspectives and use them to evaluate and strengthen the current proposals for sustainable development goals.

The book is an interreligious dialogue on the SDGs, and a process to build a coalition to demand the adoption of these goals. It has emerged out of five years of meetings with NGOs and government representatives at the UN, first focused on the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference Outcome Document. Following the 2012 conference, we have been focusing on the SDGs and the Post 2015 Development Agenda. 

The diversity of compassionate ethical and spiritual perspectives and practices provide guidance for sustainable development goals that enable full human development for all in a flourishing Earth community. Emphasizing other goals for life than financial gain and social success, they can help reorient the development agenda to better support a world that works for all.

This book reviews the trajectory of development policy in the United Nations context, explores what development is truly for, and offers input into the sustainable development goals from a range of ethical and spiritual perspectives. I’ll briefly review some points from the three parts of the book relevant to our discussion today.

From the UN Charter and Breton Woods to the Post 15 UN Development Agenda: The evolution of international agreements to create a peaceful, just and sustainable global society.

This section describes the basic direction of development shaped by the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Breton Woods agreements and institutions shaping economic growth and integration. It concentrates on the emergence of sustainable development, from the Bruntland Report and the Rio Earth Summit to Rio+20 and the shaping of the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

From now until September 2015, the 192 member states of the United Nations are debating the content of a new development agenda. What is being debated is the shaping of a policy framework, shared by all governments, for the continuing processes of globalization.

Since the founding of the UN (and its Breton Woods Institutions) the UN development agenda has focused primarily on expanding economic growth and shared prosperity for all nations. After the horrors of World War II, fueled by racist and nationalist extremism, the dominant approach has been to achieve peace and enduring prosperity through an integrated global economic system of free trade.

Gradually policy makers have realized that a narrow focus on economic growth has destructive as well as beneficial consequences, and that we must shift to a new form of development that takes into account its environmental and social consequences. This is termed sustainable development. Launched broadly at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the continuing UN sustainable development dialogues have produced much talk about greening cities, energy supplies, agriculture, forestry, climate change, etc. (Agenda 21 and CSD), as well as internalizing social and environmental costs in a new bottom line, and transferring green technologies and providing financial assistance to developing countries to leapfrog to a sustainable future.

Many of the sustainable development commitments agreed to by governments at the ‘92 Earth Summit, and the many summits since, have not been implemented, and sustainable development remains disconnected from economic decision-making. Despite 25 years of global debate about sustainable development, climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty alleviation, and so on, we are making insufficient progress toward a just, sustainable and peaceful future for all. National governments pursue their own narrow short-term interests, civil society is fragmented, and multinational corporations shape the global agenda to achieve short-term profits with little real concern for the environmental and social dimensions of a triple bottom line. 

As environmental and social deterioration has accompanied rapid economic growth, even governments are recognizing the fact that “transformative change is needed,” and “business as usual is not an option” (SG Task Force Report). This is epitomized by the following quote from the Earth Negotiations Bulletin (June 25, 2012), in its analysis of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20):

The Elders of the process and members of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability ... –like prophets of old standing at the threshold between the old world and the new –issued profound calls for a “great transformation” and a “new narrative” for the age of the Anthropocene.... As the Nobel Laureates, scientific leaders and others reminded those in RioCentro, this is the era where humankind has become the dominant driver of geological change on earth, forcing a recognition that all activity must now be judged against its contribution to the creation of a civilization that can flourish within the “safe operating space for humanity” defined by social and ecological boundaries. This will be an era that some believe demands ... an unprecedented turn in our approaches to all three dimensions of sustainable development –viewed not in isolation but as a “triple helix.”... Discussions on the green economy were also a pale reflection of current global research on a new political economy of sustainable development that would place new economics at the heart of macroeconomic decision-making at this time when fresh thinking is required to respond to the systemic crises around traditional models of growth. (ENB, pp. 20-23)

A major outcome of Rio+20 was the commitment by governments to develop and adopt (in September 2015) new, universal sustainable development goals that would incorporate the unfinished business of the MDGs into a broader framework. SDGs are to be the guides, the dashboard for this transformative change. They are to be a set of “action-oriented, concise and easy to communicate goals that could help drive the implementation of sustainable development.” The 13 open working group meetings led to the completion of the Zero Draft of the SDGs in July 2014. This extensive process, and the three intergovernmental negotiation sessions so far in 2015, have been remarkable in the emphasis placed on truly transformative change toward a truly integrated triple bottom line.

What is development for?

This section argues that development –both economic and personal –is not primarily about short-term economic gain (thereby owning, consuming and controlling ever more goods and services). Rather it is about building those conditions and capacities necessary for full human development for all in a flourishing Earth community. To paraphrase the Earth Charter, after basic needs are met, development should be about being more, not having more. Real transformative change will require the reorientation of development goals toward psychological and spiritual growth and sustainable living.

Development, to be truly sustainable, must provide the conditions necessary for everyone’s spiritual growth, defined by Rami Shapiro as an “ever deepening capacity to embrace life with justice, compassion, curiosity, awe, wonder, serenity and humility.” 

All compassionately spiritual traditions affirm that there is an ultimate goodness that we are here to help make fully present in the world, and that we can develop an identity more consciously informed by a deeper source, a higher power, a greater self. The major task in life is to awaken to this deeper reality and live in accordance with it (Wm. James). This requires a major effort to bring our awareness out of preoccupation with petty and self-centered concerns into a compassionate connection with all life, living in ways that all can live. Each compassionate spiritual tradition has developed a set of transformative practices to enable one to focus attention, desire and action to move beyond one’s small self into an identity more informed by this deeper source.

Spiritual insights into the purposes and processes of human development correlate with the insights of developmental psychology. Successful passage through the stages of human development requires the continual transformation of more limited forms of being into higher levels of cognitive and moral reasoning and generative relatedness to others. Our development as persons is a natural process of crisis and transformation, in which we must “die” to an old, no longer viable identity and be “reborn” into a new, broader and deeper identity. The good life is the outcome of the successful negotiation of these developmental crises, in which we move into an ever deeper and more comprehensive and interconnected identity. The task of parents, communities, policies and institutions is to provide those conditions that make these successful transitions more likely.

The confluence of these frameworks for understanding our psychological/spiritual journey and path to the good life points to developing our individuated, actualized “self” –a deeply ecological self, connected to all that is in its process of unfolding, and awake to the radiant presence that energizes the world and is the source of all being. Each of us has emerged from material nothingness and shall return into this nothingness at death. In between we grow and age, passing through stages of human development. This transformative journey is fundamentally about finding our vocation –those activities and relationships where our deepest passions meet the real needs of the world.

Pope John Paul II summed up well a spiritual perspective on development:

…side-by-side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of super-development, equally inadmissible, because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This super-development, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of “possession” and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned with others still better...

This then is the picture: there are some people –the few who possess much –who do not really succeed in “being” because… they are hindered by the cult of “having”; and there are others –the many who have little or nothing –who do not succeed in realizing their basic human vocation because they are deprived of essential goods.

Our recommendations for the SDGs

This section provides some general reflections on the SDGs from the ethical and spiritual perspectives in the book. The book, to be completed in June 2015, will focus on the 169 targets and the needed indicators as well.

Like most of the NGOs and governmental representatives involved in framing the SDGs, religious, spiritual and values-based organizations seek to extend opportunities, and build capacities, for full human development for all in a flourishing ecological system. (The OWG Zero Draft commitments to provide social protection floors that meet the basic needs of all without crossing the planetary boundaries are fundamental to this task.)

Our ethical/spiritual sustainability lenses have us approach SDGs from a conception of the good life in which economic growth and providing a wide array of consumer choices is good if it enables the fullness of life. We would support many of the OWG priorities, but shift their focus away from a too narrow and overly materialistic emphasis on increasing income, education for success in the current labor market, high-tech health care etc. Instead we emphasize providing conditions for persons to sense their interconnectedness with all life, and to find their vocations.

We affirm the purpose of economic development is to provide opportunities, and to cultivate capacities, for full human development for all in a flourishing Earth community, now and for future generations. We recommend that the drafting of sustainable development goals emphasize the following:

Ending poverty in all forms everywhere means enabling sustainable livelihoods for all. Eradicating absolute poverty is fundamental, but so is moderating the pursuit of excessive wealth and overconsumption of all sorts of luxury goods with little consideration for the equitable distribution of opportunity for all. The sense of relative poverty is also problematic, in which people are consumed by the desire for ever more, envying those who have it all.

In many ways, eradicating poverty is not primarily about increasing income – access to money to buy goods and services. It is primarily about providing rich social and ecological environments in which individuals and communities can thrive –respecting human rights, cultural diversity, accepting common, but differentiated, responsibilities. Eradicating poverty requires eradicating greed, corruption, violence and oppression, in part by changing policies and institutional structures that promote intolerance and short-term gain for the few. We all must choose to live in ways that all can live, recognizing that after basic needs are met, human development is about being more, not having more. As we set floors for how much is too little, we need also to explore ceilings on how much is too much.

Providing decent employment, social security, and health care for all. Here too it is essential that we do not define good jobs, social security, and adequate health care as primarily the result of having more money available for each individual to spend. Finding one’s vocation –satisfying work –may mean a simple life of service. Social security is primarily social-being embedded in a caring community. Effective health care should also help us to embrace necessary suffering and prepare us for the labor of conscious dying. In developed countries a large percentage of health care services (and costs) are used in the last years of life. High-tech, drug and surgery-based interventions are used to prolong life for a short and often miserable time. Drugs are prescribed (or taken) to eliminate every discomfort. The model we are pursuing is much more low-tech, palliative, and includes a quite different approach to death and suffering. Leo Tolstoy said that 90% of human suffering is caused by us trying to avoid the 10% that is necessary, and we do a poor job of helping people to suffer well.

Adopting a new bottom line for economic development that provides necessary goods and services, builds opportunities and capacities, within planetary boundaries. We affirm the need to reorient the dominant global development paradigm toward an economics of full human development in a flourishing Earth community. Our failure to place our economic policies in the broader context of the environment and humanity’s social and spiritual existence has led to a corrosive materialism in the world’s more economically advantaged regions and has exacerbated conditions, and perceptions, of deprivation among the masses of the world’s peoples. It has also accelerated the destruction of many species and the ecological systems essential for our well-being. Drawing together the variety of alternative frameworks and indicators for genuine progress, gross national happiness, human development, life satisfaction, buen vivir, Mother Earth Rights, personal and planetary well-being into a viable alternative to GNP is a bottom-line task for transformative change.

Providing quality education for sustainable development for all. Ironically, it is the most educated that have created and are benefitting most from unsustainable practices. Our formal and informal education institutions all too often promote intolerant social projects, or the excessive pursuit of individual consumption and gratification. We want access for all to quality education, but a specific kind of education for sustainable development, one that enhances our capacities and motivation to:

  1. Engage deeply and effectively in contemplative and transformative practices that awaken and orient us toward the creative force or radiant source informing the universe and to our vocations, our greater selves.
  2. Experience our interconnectedness and interdependence with the whole living world, embracing diverse cultures of people and animals, agriculture and wilderness, the cycles of life and the seasons, as well as the unfolding cosmos.
  3. Feel, and act from, compassionate concern for others, doing no harm, reaching out to assist all beings.
  4. Live in ways that all can live, consuming no more than one’s fair share of Earth’s bounty –choosing products and services (e.g., food, energy, transportation, housing) that are ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable (e.g., local, fair trade, organic, carbon and pollution neutral, humane).
  5. Ensure that our decision making and conflict resolution processes are open, enabling all to participate and clarify their preferences and grievances. Our process capacities –to be humble, honest and respectful; to not blame and to forgive; and to compromise for the good of all –are foundational for arriving at structures and solutions that further everyone’s development.
  6. Act to shift policies to support a just and sustainable future by voting, lobbying, and participating in political decision making at all levels to promote policies to better care for future generations and the whole community of life, e.g., creating better measures of genuine progress than GDP, internalizing social and environmental costs in pricing goods and services, eliminating perverse subsidies, and creating ombudspersons and trusteeship structures at all governmental levels for all members of the life community, current and future.

Dr. Rick Clugston is the Co-Director of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future and directs the Sustainable Development Programs of Forum 21. From 2009 to 2012, Dr. Clugston directed the Earth Charter Project at the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education at Florida Gulf Coast University. From 1989 to 2009, he served as Executive Director of the Center for Respect of Life and Environment in Washington, DC, where he assisted religious and academic institutions in transforming their teaching and practices to support strong sustainability. Dr. Clugston is Publisher and Editor of Earth Ethics: Evolving Values for an Earth Community and the Deputy Editor of The International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (MCB University Publications). Prior to coming to Washington, he worked at the University of Minnesota as a faculty member in the College of Human Ecology, and later as a strategic planner in Academic Affairs, in Continuing Education and in the Office of the President.