The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are doomed to fail. They’ll fail to achieve what they are trying to achieve; they’ll fail us; and they’ll fail future generations of people, plants and animals. We shouldn’t dismiss them entirely, but we need to promote them with our eyes wide open.

When people create graphics about things like the UN SDGs they tend to do it like this:

Or, like this:

The most striking thing about these graphics for me is that every goal is the same size. The implication being that they are all of equal importance and should all be prioritised equally.

The reality of course is that businesses, governments, NGOs, schools and individuals are more interested in some goals and less interested in others. On the face of it, that is fine. You play to your strengths and make good things happen for goal 4 and 12 and I’ll do my best on 2 and 16. Others will look after the rest; between us we’ll give them all the attention and effort they need. Except that won’t happen, one goal, more specifically one target (out of a grand total of 169) will be given way more attention than all the others.

I’m talking about target 8.1, which reads like this:

Sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries.

This target relates to least developed countries, but we must remember that every single country (not to mention every multinational corporation) aspires to achieving economic growth.

The UN SDGs will fail because economic growth, target 8.1, is prioritised over all the others by almost every signatory to the Goals. It is not just slightly prioritised, it is highly prioritised.

The graphic should look more like this:

This inconvenient truth is the single greatest flaw of the SDGs. We are doing the sustainability movement an enormous disservice if we ignore it.

According the United Nations, 48 countries currently fall under the ‘least developed’ definition. In 2016 the combined GDP of these countries was $930 billion US dollars.

If, as per target 8.1, the economies of these 48 grows by 7% per year, they will double in size in just over a decade. This is exponential growth; the economy grows bigger and by a bigger amount every year (it will be FOUR times as large in just over 20 years time).

The economies of the least developed countries are currently growing at around 5.6% per year, so they are nearly at the aspired growth rate already.

The assumption that is used to justify this target is that we’ll somehow fully decouple economic growth from environmental and social exploitation. It’s based on very little evidence and is a fantasy that is indulged by a sustainability movement that is either devoid of rational thinking, completely lacking in imagination, or in the service of corporate benefactors (in some cases all three).

7% growth in GDP per year, year on year, is only possible if natural resources are plundered and workers rights are eroded or abused. Recent history shows us that. It is the story of capitalism. We might manage to do a little bit of (relative) decoupling, but the gains will be incredibly limited compared to the absolute amount of extra stuff all this additional economic activity will produce.

So, what we are talking about here is a ‘Sustainable Development’ Target that encourages nations to DOUBLE the amount of economic activity they are doing in the space of just ten years. This will inevitably result in countries producing twice the amount of ‘stuff’ that they currently do with twice the amount of waste and pollution (minus some marginal efficiency gains). As Jason Hickel puts it:

Goal 8 calls for 7% annual GDP growth in least developed countries and higher levels of economic productivity across the board.

In other words, the SDGs call for both less and more at the same time. How can they expect to succeed with such a profound contradiction at their root?

Remember, target 8.1 is not a peripheral one; exponential GDP growth is a core policy of almost every nation on Earth. Its dominance even corrupts our analysis of how well we are doing on the other SDGs, like number 4 on education.

The SDGs are so compromised by this enormous flaw that they are bound to slip out of reach, we shouldn’t be surprised about that. 8.1 designs failure in – in many cases, its pursuit makes achieving the other targets harder, not easier.

It staggers me that anyone who was involved in the process and who claims to be serious about environmental and social issues, allowed this target to be included in the SDGs. Actually, I’m not that staggered. Like the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the SDGs are the result of an imperfect process where money talks and dissenting voices are easily dismissed – for every brave NGO leader or academic who is prepared to speak truth to power, there is another who will bow down in anticipation of that next grant or sponsorship deal.

I’m not advocating that we throw the baby out with the bath water, there are a lot of excellent goals and targets. Very many excellent education resources have been developed in their wake. My hope is that environmental educators use the SDGs as a conversation starter and give students the space to look at them with a critical eye. I would love to have written an essay on ‘Do the SDGs call for both less and more at the same time?’

So, we must persist, a lot of hard work was put into the SDGs and helpful monitoring structures are in place. But, we need to re-evaluate and rework the SDGs so that they are fit for purpose. This work should begin with a complete overhaul of SDG 8. Maybe managed Economic Degrowth in the most developed nations would be a good target to add?

Dr. Morgan Phillips