Glen T. Martin
This essay is dedicated to the loving memory of Swami Agnivesh
(Please note: the views expressed in this essay are my own
and do not necessarily reflect those of the organizations in which I serve.)
In the first years of the 20th century, the dominant global world-system entered into a phase of institutionalized “modernity” characterized by militarized sovereign nation-states, the ascendency of corporate capitalism, and the domination of a narrow technological rationality. This essay shows that these forces have deeply colonized the lifeworld (consciousness) of those who developed the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to the point in which a false idealism coupled with unconscious blindness has placed our entire human project in serious and imminent danger. It also shows the role of the current global empire of the US as framing the background for these goals. It considers each of the 17 SDGs in the light of this dual background. Finally, it argues that a sustainable civilization and viable future for humanity can only be achieved through transcending these “modernist” 20th century assumptions (that linger on from early-modern, entirely outdated, centuries old presuppositions) and ascending to ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth (www.earth-constitution.org).
Part One: Colonizing of Our Lifeworld by the System
The evolutionary history of the capitalist system from its emergence during the Renaissance in the 15th century to the early 20th century has been traced by many scholars. The evolution of the militarized sovereign nation-state system from its 17th century origins to the early 20th century has also been widely traced. The development of technology from early inventions like the steam engine in 1698 to its systematic development and pervasive infiltration into nearly all aspects of life on our planet is also broadly known. What is not generally understood is the degree to which this triumvirate of forces has colonized the consciousness of leaders and educated persons worldwide, including those who participated in the development of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Philosopher Jürgen Habermas (1989), building on the work of social scientist Max Weber and other thinkers, presents a penetrating analysis pointing to why human beings seem unable to successfully address our most fundamental problems. He calls this the “colonizing of our lifeworld by the system.” The economic system and the bureaucratic state systems become so fundamental to the background of our conscious lifeworld, infiltrating the lifeworld with unrecognized presuppositions and assumptions, that even thoughtful, educated human beings lack the ability to deeply examine them in their theories, thoughts, and actions. This essay argues that this is true of those who formulated both the UN system and the SDGs. Reason, as Habermas puts it, becomes mere “functionalist reason” that operates within the lifeworld-colonized assumptions and treats our most serious problems as if they were technical, functional problems, rather than symptoms of a much deeper pathology of modern civilization.
Systems that are so pervasive and completely integrated into our cultural, scientific, institutional and subjective worlds tend to become invisible to thought. They become the presuppositions for thought, assumptions that are the starting place when we attempt to address our problems of conflict, poverty, health pandemics, human rights violations, or sustainability. Since it appears that these presuppositions are the foundations for thought, it is not clear to most people (even so-called educated people) that these “foundations” themselves must be thematized, questioned, and examined. For it is precisely this set of assumptions (sovereign nation-states, capitalism, and technological rationality) that are fast destroying the planetary biosphere that sustains human life.
Many scholars informed by neo-Marxist critical social theory have pointed out the inseparability of capitalism and the competitive system of sovereign nation-states (e.g. Chase-Dunn 1998, 61). Other scholars, like Jeremy Rifkin, have chronicled the three industrial revolutions that have transformed the world technologically, one after the other, to the point where technology becomes a defining feature of the human life-world everywhere on Earth (2011). (Although, for Rifkin, the third industrial revolution shows us a way beyond the growth obsession of capitalism.)
Many scholars and historians have also documented the endless wars that have occurred within the system of militarized sovereign states from the early conquest, theft, and enslavement of peoples by the Spanish and Portuguese to the era of slavery and colonial exploitation of subjugated peoples dominated by the Western European powers (Britain and France) and the United States (for whom slavery was fundamental to its economic success for more than two centuries going back well before the Revolutionary War). Wars today continue over oil, oil pipelines, control of strategic resources, and geopolitical control of world markets. Chinese economic investments in Africa engender the creation by the US of “AFRICOM,” the Africa military command of the US (Engelhardt, 2014). If there is any doubt about the unspeakable carnage perpetuated by system of sovereign nations, reread Jonathan Glover’s A Moral History of the 20th Century.
War and economic rivalry remain endemic to the entire world system emerging out of early-modern economic and political assumptions into the modern world and the 20th century. Linked to this system, United Nations economic ideology asserts that the job of each government is to grow its gross domestic product (GDP). In his study of GDP, John Smith shows that in a globalized economy value production can only be measured in terms of global factors that collectively contribute to any particular local production. GDP, therefore, as an economic measure is an “illusion.” GDP not only ignores all the immense quantity of labor that goes into survival within nations (subsistence agriculture and non-export-oriented work, especially for people in poor countries), this official UN measurement system forces poor governments into economic policies that increase financial and foreign domination of these countries, and at the same time GDP “becomes a veil concealing not just the extent but the very existence of North-South exploitation” (2016, 266).
Capitalism has always been about expansion and economic growth, and the measure of economic success to this day has been tied to nation-states. David Harvey, in The New Imperialism, argues that there has always been “a dialectical tension” between nation-states territorial power and the power of global financial capital. The two are not identical but require one another because of their “internal relations”:
Imperialism of the capitalist sort arises out of a dialectical relation between territorial and capitalistic logics of power. The two logics are distinctive and in no way reducible to each other, but they are tightly interwoven. They may be construed as internal relations of each other. (2005, 183)
Can we imagine a global system of capitalist exploitation not protected and reinforced by imperialist state power? Noam Chomsky (1996) declares that the US blockades and invasions of numerous countries that have attempted to extricate themselves from the global imperial system through some form of socialism (e.g. Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, etc.) is because they pose the “threat of a good example.” If people cooperatively manage to thrive on their own shared work and resources then their good example would challenge the entire ideology of capitalism and neo-liberal globalization. Military power is needed to enforce capitalist dogma.
Numerous thinkers have pointed out that incremental growth (say at 2% per year) will lead to a doubling of the initial quantity in just 35 years (e.g. Heinberg 2011, 14). Like the population of the Earth, which has doubled four times since the beginning of the 20th century, so the economy of the planet keeps doubling in size every few decades. More economic growth requires more energy. Globally, the trillions of dollars animating the global growth economy require immense, ever-increasing resources of energy. Most of this energy is from heat producing, pollution producing, fossil fuel energy. The planetary biosphere is collapsing under this massive assault (Wallace-Wells 2019).
Under the globalized neo-liberal capitalism that has dominated the world in the early 21st century the Northern developed countries do not compete with Southern countries, as John Smith points out in Imperialism in the Twenty-First Century (2016): “A most striking feature of the imperialist world economy is that, as we have seen, Northern firms do not compete with Southern firms, they compete with other Northern firms, including to see who can most rapidly and effectively outsource production to low-wage countries. Meanwhile, Southern nations fiercely compete with one another to pimp their cheap labor to Northern ‘lead firms’” (2016, 84).
Here again, we should ask if it is possible to imagine an exploitative “imperialist” capitalism without militarized sovereign nation-states? The two institutions are two sides of the same coin. The United Nations, through its General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), its progeny the World Trade Organization (WTO), and with its cozy relationship with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (both lending institutions involving consortiums of profit-making first world banks and headquartered in Washington, DC) is thoroughly compromised by this world system with its technocratic and functional imperatives.
Some within UN agencies may feel compassion for the suffering bottom 50% of humanity but they are extremely limited in their ability to address the carnage, not only because of insufficient funding of their agencies but because their own assumptions militate against a sane, deeply rational, and humanized world system. Can we imagine an exploitative capitalism taking advantage of third world poverty and misery (in which money and investment are free to roam the world in search of maximizing profits) without a system of absolute, militarized borders preventing human beings from freely moving about the world? The money must be free to come into your country to exploit your cheap labor and resources and then leave but people cannot be free to leave their poverty-stricken countries in search of a better life.
The present writer has lectured at the UN University for Peace in central Costa Rica a number of times (through connections that have gotten me invited into professors’ classes, etc.). However, the professors tell me after my lectures that what I have to say violates the basic assumptions on which the UN University for Peace is Founded (which, of course, include the UN Charter and the globalized capitalist economic system). The fact is, even though UN University for Peace graduates find positions within UN Programs in countries around the world and do good work at local levels, neither peace, nor viable prosperity for the poor, nor sustainability can ever be achieved under the UN system as it has functioned to date.
Many sustainability economists such as Herman E. Daly, Richard Heinberg, and Kate Raworth have pointed out what is perhaps the most fundamental contradiction of capitalism: you cannot have endless growth within a finite, planetary ecosystem. Infinite growth on a finite world is impossible. Such growth is like a cancer within the biosphere that is rapidly destroying the life of the entire organism. Heinberg writes: “At the landmark international Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009, the priorities of the most fuel-dependent nations were clear: carbon emissions should be cut, and fossil fuel dependency reduced, but only if doing so does not threaten economic growth” (2011, 19).
The UN Development Program (UNDP) even agrees with this idea that “growth” must be converted to quality of life development in its declarations concerning “sustainable development” going back several decades (see Martin 2018, 128-31). However, the UNDP never questions the sovereign nation-state system that we have seen inextricably linked to global capitalism. It promotes local “sustainable development” within countries wracked by global economic imperialism from which there is no escape under the present world system.
At the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, it was representatives of 115 sovereign nation-states that were meeting about the global climate crisis, each of them representing their own economic activities (and hence their capitalist ruling classes), and each of them deeply rooted in functionalist reasoning and the technological imperative. This imperative constitutes the third element in the triumvirate of assumptions colonizing the life-world of most people making decisions that affect the future of humanity. Human ends for wealth, pleasure, power, and security are considered non-rational givens, and reason is reduced to the instrumental-technical function of how to achieve these ends (Habermas 1984). Critical social thinker Jacques Ellul called this third element “the technological system.” Let us note his explanation of how this system works within human consciousness:
First of all, man, achieving consciousness, finds technology already here. For him, technology constitutes a milieu which he enters and in which he integrates…. He is instantly within this universe of machines and products…. Now without realizing it, this environment shapes us in the necessary forms of behavior, the ideological outlooks…. Of course, he does not see clearly what it is all about, he does not discern the “technological system,” the “laws” of technology…. Being situated in this technological universe and not detecting the system is the best condition for being integrated into it, being part of it as a matter of course, without even realizing it. (1980, 311-12)
This paragraph could be written verbatim substituting the phrase “sovereign nation-state” or the word “capitalism” for the word “technology.” Substitute, for example, the “sovereign nation-state”: “First of all, man, achieving consciousness, finds the sovereign nation-state already here. For him the sovereign nation-state constitutes the milieu which he enters and in which he integrates.” Or the capitalist system: “First of all, man, achieving consciousness, finds the capitalist system already here. For him the capitalist system constitutes the milieu which he enters and into which he integrates.” The lifeworld of most 21st century persons is colonized by sovereign states, capitalism, and the technological imperative. They absorb these systems into consciousness. People “see from” this set of assumptions and therefore they fail to see the assumptions themselves.
It is important to realize how deep this “colonization” goes. Marx correctly says that under capitalism we are alienated from other people, the work process, the product of our work (which is taken from us by its owners) and from our true selves, our “species-being” (1972, 66-125). The militarized sovereign state acculturates us to paying war taxes, to military personnel and recruiters everywhere, to the “problem” of immigrants, to state secrecy as necessary for our protection, to the unquestioned pursuit of “national goals,” etc. Much of the world’s population lives within societies where these pathological phenomena appear as “normal.” The military as a way of life is “normal,” fear of the other or different human beings in designated “enemy” countries is “normal,” suspicion of the motives of other nations is considered “normal.” Competition rather than cooperation appears as “normal.”
However, as Habermas and advanced thinkers such as James L. Marsh (1995) or Joel Kovel (2007) point out, modernity includes a deeper, critical element that has largely been ignored by the dominant culture and its ideological spokespersons. Habermas calls it the “communicative” element, the possibility of a deeper, non-alienated mutual understanding, growth, and solidarity with others. I submit that this broad concept includes, first, the discovery of the scientific method, properly understood, that emerged during the 17th century, a method capable of pursuing truth even to the point of transformation of our most foundational beliefs about the world.
Secondly, it includes the deeper meaning of the Enlightenment, emphasizing the power of human reason interlinked with human dignity that emerged in the 18th century, a dignity which is both intrinsic to being human and into which we need to grow ever more deeply (Martin 2018, Chap. 2). Third, it includes the dawn of systematic critical social theory through Marxism that was born in the 19th century, the realization that injustice and evil can be structural, that these can inform our institutions as much as they can infect persons. Each of these developments provided positive, liberating elements that remain with us in the 21st century, often ignored or glossed over superficially in the educational process.
Together these dimensions of rationality give human beings access to a deeper moral and cognitive ability, beyond functionalism, that allows us to access our higher human potential for communicative understanding, solidarity, cooperation, love, and creative transformation. (These dynamics of human reason are universal and have corresponding elements in all Eastern cultures, as in the thought of Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, or Mahatma Gandhi.) Science gives us an open-ended form of rationality that can be self-critical, potentially paradigm-shifting, and liberating. Indeed, beginning with Max Planck and Albert Einstein in the first decade of the 20th century, science has revolutionized our understanding of the world. It has transformed the Newtonian assumptions that nature (including human beings) was atomistic, materialistic, deterministic, and mechanistic into a holistic worldview in which nature is integrated, relational, organic, and open to emergent freedom.
Today it has resulted in the work of such major transformative thinkers as Ervin Laszlo (2017) and Henry Stapp (2011). Yet we shall see that this transformed paradigm, which loudly calls out to human beings to transform their thinking in line with it, has been ignored by most political and economic thinkers, including by those who stand by the UN system and the dangerously naïve SDGs. As philosophical cosmologist Errol E. Harris points out “If the implications of this scientific revolution and the new paradigm it introduces are taken seriously, holism should be the dominating concept in all our thinking” (2000, 90).
Incorporating holism into our civilization requires both institutional and spiritual awakening. Beyond functionalism, we encounter the unity in diversity of our common human reality, a oneness proclaimed in the best writings of all the great religious and spiritual traditions. Deep reason, love, and justice break down barriers, including economic and political barriers, joining human beings in a common quest for living together on Earth in joy and friendship. As Swami Agnivesh (2015) affirms, the Vedas proclaim vasudhaiva kutumbakam, all men are brothers and sisters.
Empiricism, positivism, and reductionism have long since been transcended by leading scientists who now see emergent human freedom as connected with the very foundations of the cosmos (Teilhard de Chardin 1961; Stapp 2011). Yet the implications of this revolution have yet to deeply reach the consciousness of those who operate the UN or who run the nation-states or those who promote a global capitalist ideology. The total, interdependent structure of human life, both with one another and with nature, is ignored. The fragmentation of dividing the world into nearly 200 militarized territorial fragments competing economically and politically directly violates the holism, the relationality, and the unity of spirit and matter discovered by 20th century sciences.
The Enlightenment gave us not only a revival of the ancient Greek concept of a universal, non-functionalist rationality, now considered fundamental to our collective human project, but also the concept of human dignity as a dimension of our existence demanding a liberation from all that degrades, dehumanizes, dominates, and manipulates (Martin 2018, Chap. 2). Human dignity means that we can transcend and transform our broken institutions. None of these systems (capitalism, sovereign nations, or functional rationality) recognize human dignity as constitutive and fundamental. In the 18th century Immanuel Kant focused a long tradition going back to the Ancient world that articulated human dignity:
Humanity itself is a dignity, for a man cannot be used as a means by any man . . . but must always be used at the same time as an end. It is just in this that his dignity (personality) consists . . . so neither can he act contrary to the equally necessary self-esteem of others . . . he is under obligation to acknowledge, in a practical way, the dignity of humanity in every man. (In Glover 2000, 23)
Where does human dignity arise in the nexus of systems that colonize contemporary consciousness? As human rights scholar Jack Donnelly (2003) points out, ever since the UN Universal Declaration was formulated in 1947, human rights (predicated on human dignity) have routinely taken a back burner to economic, security, and military imperatives in both corporate and nation-state decision-making. Even nations whose constitutions include the idea of human rights are inhibited by the economic system from actualizing these in their own country and by the system of state sovereignty from pointing out human rights violations in other states.
In the 19th century, Marxism gave us a systematic analysis of capitalism revealing its structures of domination, exploitation, and dehumanization. Marx and other critical thinkers such as V.I. Lenin linked this system with nation-state imperialism directed to gaining and securing international markets and cheap resources. A deep understanding of how this system works is liberating, as are the 20th century scientific paradigm-shift and the Enlightenment insights into universal human dignity. Today, our very survival on this planet depends on our ability to draw on these liberating elements, to grow to true “planetary maturity” (see Martin 2005), to awaken morally and spiritually, and free ourselves from this colonized lifeworld.
Modern consciousness has solidified itself into a nexus of these three dominant unspoken assumptions, none of which recognizes the moral-spiritual dimension of human existence as intrinsic and fundamental, none of which allows for a transformational self-criticism that moves beyond this system to a higher and deeper understanding of our human situation, and none of which is fully aware of the revolutionary implications of the new paradigm of holism and interdependence that was to arise from the scientific discoveries of the past century.
Militarized sovereign nation-states have long been understood to operate out of power-politics and unmitigated self-interest, ignoring human dignity, especially the dignity of those considered competitors or enemies. These nation-states are substantially controlled by their capitalist ruling classes. In his 1916 essay, “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism,” V.I. Lenin pointed out the connection between the immense concentrations of finance capital within national ruling classes and their need to use national military power to colonize and protect ever-more markets and regions of the Earth. Today, the exploited nations of the Global South, under the domination of global finance capital (including the World Bank and the IMF), have become locked into a planetary system by the dominating nations and financial institutions of the Global North.
Corporate capitalism has long assumed the private accumulation of wealth as an unlimited right and the “owners” of that wealth as possessing rights to dominate, exploit, and degrade both employees and the public. Technology has long been understood in a one-dimensional way as systems giving us power to dominate and exploit both nature and persons in the service of intertwined state power and capital accumulation. Today that colonization of the militarized nation-state and corporate capital is pervasive over the entire planet. The UN dare not question the nation-state any more than it dares question the capitalist system.
These interlocking systems form the presuppositions for thought, but themselves must remain largely unthought within the UN system and other purveyors of the dominant ideology. In the light of this analysis of our colonized life-world, we will examine the UN Sustainable Development Goals that have been formulated, we are told, to guide economic and political behavior of nations and corporations between the years 2015 and 2030. Before doing so, however, it is important to concretize and specify this global system of domination and exploitation as it has existed at least since 1945.
Part Two: Everyone Pretends to See the Emperor’s New Clothes
Since its founding in San Francisco in 1945 and its establishment in New York City as a main UN Center, the United States has dominated what goes on at the UN. The UN pretends to pursue the ideals of peace, justice, and environmental sustainability but only within the conceptual limits provided by its main financial contributor. As long as the organization is supported by the voluntary contributions of its members, then the actual framework for thought and most decision-making will, of course, be one dollar one vote, and the US always has the lion-share of the votes.
Not that the UN is otherwise structured democratically. It is not. The Security Council, largely under the domination of the US, controls everything that goes on. In Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, William Blum constructs his entire Chapter 20 on lists of votes on dozens of issues in the UN General Assembly over a period of years. On any issue that would increase the peace and justice in the world, the vote has been the vast majority of nations versus the US and often Israel (the latter, when not abstaining, always votes the same as the US).
For example, the proposal to expand the UN’s approaches to “emphasize the development of nations and individuals as a human right” (120 nations for, the US against). On a “declaration of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states” (110 nations for, the US and Albania against). On holding “negotiations on disarmament and cessation of the nuclear arms race” (111 nations for, the US and Israel against). On affirming a “world charter for the protection of ecology” (111 nations for, the US against). The list goes on and on. The votes mean little, since the General Assembly has no power and any resolution on such matters that comes to the Security Council is vetoed by the US.
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark details the US manipulation of members of the Security Council to get the go-ahead to militarily attack Iraq after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in January 1991. In order to secure a “Yes” vote from the then members of the Security Council, the US provided Ethiopia and Zaire with new aid packages. It awarded China 114 million dollars in deferred aid from the World Bank, it got Saudi Arabia to provide $4 billion to the then disintegrating Soviet Union. It subjected Malaysia to “enormous pressure.” And it subjected Cuba and Yemen to severe punishment for their ‘no’ votes.
Yemen’s ambassador was told this would be “the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast” and immediately a $70 million US aid package to Yemen was cancelled (1994, 153-55). Of course, the invasion went ahead in spite of these ‘no’ votes. The US maintains a global empire and the UN functions as an integral part of that empire. The richest nation not only uses the leverage of its monetary contribution to the UN to control that organization. It also buys, bullies, and blackmails its way to domination within the UN.
Top secret US documents such as Policy Planning Study, 23 written in 1948 by George Kennan for the State Department when planning US policy for the post-war world, declare very clearly that the rhetoric about human rights and democracy (which has continued from that time to the present) was only for public consumption. Kennan says that in the future “we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated on our immediate national objectives…. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better” (in Chomsky 1996, 9-10).
The US knew that it was the sole remaining superpower after WW II and intended to consolidate a global empire. When Kennan wrote this, the UN had been in existence for 3 years and he clearly does not see that as an impediment to US plans to deal from “straight power concepts.” John Perkins, in Confessions of an Economic Hitman, details the way US Embassies worldwide are tasked to promote economic colonization by US multinational corporations. Douglas Valentine, in The CIA as Organized Crime: How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World, details the way in which the CIA operates out of US Embassies in every country supporting bribery, extortion, torture, and murder in the service of supposed US interests, from that time to our present day.
For the majority of the world’s small and weak nations, it is bad enough to have a US Embassy watching every political and economic decision of their government and promoting neo-colonial domination in their midst. But that tragedy compounds if they are unlucky enough to be hosting a US military base. Chalmers Johnson, in Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic details the 725 known military bases that exist outside the US, spread out in countries around the world. The very existence of these bases gives the US another place from which to monitor local movements that might be advocating change or social justice and from which to launch assassinations, coups, or threats against local governments who fail to toe the US ideological line claiming that a “free market” means these countries must open their resources to penetration by US foreign capital.
William Blum, in Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, describes the major interventions (leaving out the additional regular US interference in foreign elections, economic sanctions, and other forms of intimidation and control occurring worldwide). The book has 55 chapters each detailing a major military intervention by the US since 1945. Close to 50 countries have been invaded or overthrown, several countries more than once. Wars have been conducted in a number of them that have killed millions of people, mostly civilians, in such diverse places as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Angola, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and many other places.
A Provisional World Parliament study of the places of US interventions, published as part of World Legislative Act number 64, shows a strong correlation between military imperialism and UN Peace Keeper Operations. After the imperialists destroy a society and create chaos among the people, the UN Peace Keepers are sent in to clean up the mess and maintain order. Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine and the Rise of Disaster Capitalism details the carnage created in country after country in the service of imposing US “free market” policies on victim populations. In addition, within the UN, no person is allowed into the position of Secretary General of the UN without the approval of the US. The job of the UN is to create a façade claiming dedication to peace while serving as a cover for the empire.
Military empire is designed to protect and implement the economic empire. As sociologist James Petras writes in Empire with Imperialism: The Globalizing Dynamics of Neo-Liberal Capitalism:
The economic interests represented by these capitalist corporations converge with the national interests advanced and protected by the nation-states that make up what can be termed the “imperial state system,” a system currently dominated by the US state…. The US imperial state, both directly (via the departments of state and defense) and indirectly (via control over financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), constitutes a directorate to manage the global system. (2005, 25-26)
Michael Parenti details how the UN General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) produced its brainchild the World Trade Organization (WTO), signed by over 120 nations. The WTO has the power to override the labor laws or environmental laws of these member nations in favor of maintaining the profit margins of multinational corporations (1995, 32). Local democracy does not matter. Corporations, including bankers, rule the world (Korton 1996; Brown 2007). What matters is profit for multinational corporations, banking cartels, and for the imperial center itself. John Perkins writes:
In the final analysis, the global empire depends to a large extent on the fact that the dollar acts as the standard world currency, and that the United States Mint has the right to print those dollars. Thus, we make loans to countries like Ecuador with the full knowledge that they will never repay them; in fact, we do not want them to honor their debts, since the nonpayment is what gives us our leverage, our pound of flesh. (2004, 212)
There is a large scholarly literature describing the US empire and how it works, and what I have cited here simply scratches the surface. But the UN was born and has grown worldwide within the scope and boundaries of this global empire. We should not think for a minute that the UN is independent of the empire. And the people who work at the UN are required to pretend that they do not see the empire.
In addition, of course, like any government, corporation, or organized social enterprise, the UN has its own subculture, its own criteria for hiring and firing, and its own set of employees who do not want to lose their jobs. All this is carefully watched by the imperial powers, primarily the United States, who monitor the UN very closely to ensure its conformity to their ideological parameters. Critical thinking is OK, but you are allowed to go this far and never beyond. You never seriously critique the capitalist system nor its sister institution the system of sovereign nation-states.
Self-interest reinforces presuppositional blindness. As Mark Twain is said to have quipped: You cannot get a man to understand some idea if his job depends on his not understanding it. The fate of humanity, in this case, hangs in the balance, but preserving the fragmented modern ideological system takes precedence in every case. Trillions of dollars are invested in the war system and in the economic domination system. These investments (as a system) cannot seriously be questioned. Study of the UN Sustainable Development Goals makes this very clear. It is important to keep this in mind as we examine what is missing from the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as what is explicit within them.
Part Three: The Context for the UN Sustainable Development Goals
The first major UN Conference on the environmental crisis took place in Stockholm in 1972. The next big meeting was then held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at which the participants formulated the famous “Agenda 21” document demanding significant reductions in CO2 emissions by the year 2000. Meetings took place and agreements were formed in the Montreal Protocol of 1987 and the Kyoto Protocol of 1992 committing state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) went into force in March 1994 with membership of 197 countries, nearly all the world. It committed its members to act even in the face of scientific uncertainty concerning climate change. However, at the major UN environmental conference that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, failure to meet the goals of Agenda 21 were unmistakable.
All these agreements have initiated changes in the behavior of many nations and corporations, but there is consensus among climate scientists and environmental experts that changes have been wholly inadequate to address on-going climate collapse (Maslin 2013; Lenton 2016). The most recent “Sixth Assessment Report” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Science (IPCC) describes our planetary situation as dire (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-cycle/). Since the UNFCCC began in 1994, representatives of the nations also had been meeting annually with a focus on climate change.
By 2015, UN description of the Paris Agreement that year states that: “Each climate plan reflects the country’s ambition for reducing emissions, taking into account its domestic circumstances and capabilities. Guidance on NDCs [nationally determined contributions to CO2 emissions reductions] are currently being negotiated under the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement (APA), agenda item 3.” (https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement/nationally-determined-contributions-ndcs) They have been working on this since 1972, and there is yet common recognition that humans are failing to deal with the problem and the climate crisis is worsening year by year.
Just prior to Johannesburg, this admitted failure of the nations and the corporations to address the crisis in meaningful ways led to a new and more comprehensive set of goals called the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were in effect between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, 196 states parties met and concluded the historic Paris Climate Agreement to modify their development priorities so that collectively the planet would not continue warming more than 1.5 to 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Science (IPCC) agreed on this limit as absolutely imperative for our human future (https://www.ipcc.ch/). The Paris conference formulated NDCs in the service of achievement of this long-term goal. Each nation-state must “prepare, communicate and maintain successive nationally determined contributions” to the achieving of the objectives.
Nevertheless, the year 2015 arrived and again failure was plain for all to see. UN groups working together decided that the Millennium Development Goals were themselves not sufficiently encompassing, nor were they sufficiently detailed as to their many possible ramifications. These groups elaborated a more thorough set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) specified and elaborated with some 169 “targets,” spelling these out in more concrete detail. The argument of the UN groups that developed these elaborated goals (approved by the UN General Assembly) was that the failure of the MDGs were due to this lack of specificity. The framework assumptions of our world-system were not examined, only the adequacy with which the MDGs had been elaborated.
The UN Document that embodies the SDGs, entitled “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” resounds with high-minded ideals agreed to by all the signatory nations. Of the 91 articles, let us simply take the example of Article 3:
We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We resolve also to create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.
This statement is excellent, expressing a fundamental and beautiful ideal, and is similar in tone and content to many other statements within the “Transforming Our World” document. Nevertheless, the first thing to note about the SDGs is that there is no mention of empire, no mention of global economic exploitation, and no mention of imperialism. The words “empire,” “imperialism,” “military,” and “militarism” do not appear in this document of nearly 15,000 words in length. The word “exploitation” appears only 3 times, each time in relation to child trafficking or exploitation of women.
Apparently for the framers of the SDGs, no other significant form of exploitation exists. Apparently, militarism and imperialism are not major world problems. The horrific existence of nuclear weapons or other WMDs appears nowhere in this document. In the document, there is a pervasive distinction between “developed” and “developing” countries, that is, countries are treated as individual units (each pursuing increasing GDP) with no recognition of the exploitative relationship between the wealth of the developed countries (the Global North) and the poverty of the developing countries (the Global South).
As seen above, the UN is required to pretend that the emperor is wearing clothes, to pretend that the obfuscating rhetoric of the empire embodies a good-faith description of the world system. They are required to pretend that capitalism and endless growth, controlled and managed by first world wealth, loans, and economic management (such as the World Bank and the IMF), is the sole legitimate path to sustainability, while at the same time (in contradiction to their economic dependency of financing from the Global North), each country is responsible for increasing its own GDP, just as each is responsible for attaining for itself the targets set by the SDGs.
Second, UN personnel are required to pretend that the immense militarism of the empire, with its perpetual assassinations, blockades, militarized drones, invasions, sanctions, and manipulation of the politics of weaker nations worldwide is really simply an attempt to keep peace worldwide with the help of both the UN Peacekeeping missions and the complicit NATO military organization. They have to pretend as well that the militarism of the competing powerful nations who fear and/or resist the empire (such as China, Russia, and Iran) is not a significant problem with respect to climate destruction or waste of resources that should be used for climate protection and regeneration. Approximately 1.8 trillion US dollars in worldwide expenditures pour down the toilet of militarism annually, a large portion of the wealth of these militarized nations, but this monstrosity is off the table for discussion regarding how to address climate change.
The SDGs had to be formulated within this willful blindness, otherwise the US and other global forces would never have allowed them to see the light of day. As one US insider to the UN recently declared: “Nothing happens at the UN without the US approval.” This may be an overstatement, but it contains substantial truth. The UN has been colonized by the economic and political ideology of the global imperial center.
Third, it is important to note the fragmented approach to protecting our unitary global biosphere. We live on one planet with an integrated ecology spanning the globe, and yet the collapse of the climate can only be addressed (according to the UN system) through each country’s separate plans for reducing emission and other climate endangering factors “taking into account its domestic circumstances and capabilities,” a system that is not only fragmented by also voluntary on the part of often economically competing and desperate countries. Even though globalization has integrated the global economy into one giant network, each country is “domestically” responsible for its climate protections. Such fragmentation makes success next to impossible.
Even though we have seen the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF place conditions on countries that take initiative out of their hands and put their economies in the hands of private multinationals, global banks with structural adjustment requirements, or transnational WTO regulations that can defeat domestic climate laws, the UN addresses climate change in this fragmented and incoherent manner. Even though environmental collapse crosses all borders and requires massive bioregional, continental, and global cooperation to effectively address it, each country is required to remain fixated on increasing its GDP as a way of ignoring or covering up both the global system of super-exploitation and the interdependence of the real environmental situation.
Failure to address the continuing collapse of the environment has been evident since the 1972 Stockholm Conference. However, the response to repeated failures from then to the present was not to question the presuppositions of the world system itself. We have seen that these presuppositions have colonized the consciousness of many or most at the UN and would have been very difficult to critically raise to the level of conscious critical evaluation. With the help of intimidation conducted by the world’s Superpower, the response of the UN that resulted in the SDGs was, rather, to assume their previous analysis that resulted in the MDGs was simply not sufficiently elaborated, allowing them to come up with the more elaborate Sustainable Development Goals based, of course, on the same set of assumptions about the means to achieve these goals that were behind previous failures.
Under “Means of Implementation” the SDG document describes how this radical transformation to sustainability will take place. Item 41 states:
We recognize that each country has primary responsibility for its own economic and social development. The new Agenda deals with the means required for implementation of the Goals and targets. We recognize that these will include the mobilization of financial resources as well as capacity-building and the transfer of environmentally sound technologies to developing countries on favourable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms, as mutually agreed. Public finance, both domestic and international, will play a vital role in providing essential services and public goods and in catalyzing other sources of finance. We acknowledge the role of the diverse private sector, ranging from micro-enterprises to cooperatives to multinationals, and that of civil society organizations and philanthropic organizations in the implementation of the new Agenda.
Apparently, the global economic system as it now exists is adequate to achieve these goals, financing is available and should be on “favorable,” that is, interest-bearing terms. Multinationals can even play a beneficial role (since they apparently are not thought of here as monopoly systems for the exploitation of cheap labor and resources). And the means of success must be focused through the United Nations: “Seventy years ago, an earlier generation of world leaders came together to create the United Nations. From the ashes of war and division they fashioned this Organization and the values of peace, dialogue and international cooperation which underpin it. The supreme embodiment of those values is the Charter of the United Nations.” This statement is simply an ideological lie, simply nonsense. Those values are not the main thrust of the UN Charter.
The authors apparently have forgotten that there have been, by many scholarly counts, some 150 armed conflicts (wars) since 1945, that “dialogue” is extremely short supply in a UN in which Security Council vetoes govern nearly all decision-making, and in which there has been little or no genuine “international cooperation.” Study of the Charter of the United Nations reveals that it does not at all “embody these values.” It places the 5 victor nations from WW II over everyone; it sanctions and further institutionalizes the militarized world system of sovereign nation-states. Under Article 42, the Security Council is empowered to keep the peace by going to war.
Can real peace ever be established by going to war? Real peace is only established and protected by the democratic rule of law requiring an effective judiciary, civilian enforcement, and a constitutional framework guaranteeing equal due process for all. This is precisely what the UN Charter forbids. The only alternative to real peace is Article 42, to keep the peace by going to war. The Charter spends a great deal of wording specifying the subordination of the many nations to the so-called “Security Council,” a body that has never given the world the slightest hint of real “security.” To maintain a system of “sovereign” nation-states recognizing no enforceable law above themselves is to maintain the international war-system, making real peace impossible. This ideological lie that the document is about “keeping the peace” has covered up over 75 years global militarism, endless wars, economic conflict, and systemic exploitation.
Part Four: Do the 17 Sustainable Development Goals require a global public authority?
The Constitution for the Federation of Earth was written by hundreds of world citizens working together through a process of 4 Constituent Assemblies, over a period of 23 years from 1968 to 1991. At the fourth assembly in Troia, Portugal in 1991, the document was declared finished and ready for ratification under the democratic requirements set forth in its Article 17. It establishes global democracy, creates a legal order for the Earth that eventually demilitarizes the nations, ends poverty, ensures global social justice, and institutionalizes environmental protection and sustainability. In other words, it establishes not a “Security Council” that keeps the peace by going to war, but a world peace-system, with an effective judiciary, civilian enforcement, and a Constitution specifying the inalienable rights of all nations and persons.
The Earth Constitution is designed to deal with climate crisis in a systematic and comprehensive way. It makes food, fresh water, clean air, and freedom from poverty fundamental human rights that are legally redeemable under the Earth Federation Government. It also recognizes that human beings have the right to peace and the right to a healthy planetary environment. As we have seen above, you cannot handle global, planetary problems through delegating voluntary responsibility to some 200 mostly militarized sovereign nation-states. They will simply agree and then walk away. Nor can you deal with a planetary crisis without changing the economic and political system that is plainly a central cause of that crisis.
It is important to understand that the Earth Constitution does not abolish the UN but incorporates UN Agencies into its framework. The High Commission on Human Rights integrates with the World Ombudsmus, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court merge into the World Court System, the UN General Assembly into the House of Nations, etc. All major UN bodies are integrated in this way. The only substantive change is that the undemocratic and unworkable UN Charter is replaced by a genuine, excellently designed, democratic Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
If the people of Earth really have the human rights specified in the UN Universal Declaration of Rights, then they also have the right declared in Article 28: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Human rights are violated just as routinely around the world today in 2020 as they were in 1947 when this Declaration was signed. The UN system is clearly not the “order” that is urgently needed. In 75 years of existence, the UN has failed give us peace, or environmental protection, or to end poverty, or to protect the rights of persons which are routinely violated by countries, corporations, and terror groups around the world. With these questions in mind, let us examine the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Under what “social and international order” can the “rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration be fully realized”?
Goal 1: End poverty in all its forms everywhere. The noble sound of this ideal goal covers over how ridiculous this is in reality. This SDG document contains no analysis of the global production of poverty by the world-system. Astonishingly, the document never even mentions the planetary population explosion (the word “population” only appears 4 times in innocuous contexts). Yet the uncontrolled adding of millions of new people per year to the Earth is surely a major contributor to global poverty and misery.
We have a planet whose population increases, by many expert estimates, at about 80 million new persons per year, and population experts have been pointing out the calamity of global population explosion since at least the 1960s (Cohen 1995). The SDG document asserts that poverty everywhere can be eliminated by 2030 even though the planet will likely have about a billion new mouths to feed by that date. This goal not only ignores the population explosion but the fact that annually the amount of arable land dramatically decreases due to overuse and desertification and the global fish supply has been steadily dwindling since the 1980s. The Earth Constitution, by contrast, takes a holistic approach embracing all these factors. It makes voluntary population control, through education and worldwide inexpensive supplies of birth control products, available to the people of Earth and comprehensively includes all the factors necessary to genuinely ending poverty on Earth.
Goal 2: End Hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. This goal states: “By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment.” How this is to be achieved in the light of the world system outlined in this paper remains an inscrutable mystery. It is a good thing these goals are strictly voluntary on the part of nations, because nations can agree to almost any goal as long as that goal is voluntary and they are free to ignore it. The Earth Constitution makes food security a planetary right and creates the institutions for global planning necessary to actualizing this right.
Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages. Can anyone imagine this being done in Indonesia, a global mecca for cheap labor, resources, destruction of rain-forests, and massive poverty? Can anyone imaging this being done in the United States, a global mecca for class domination and the idea that no one receives health care unless some corporation can exploit this for private profit, a place where 40% of its population has no health insurance and no resources to visit a physician? The current competition of nations and corporations to keep development of a COVID-19 vaccine secret from one another illustrates the impossibility of “ensuring healthy lives for all” under the UN system. The Earth Constitution makes reasonable equality a binding, legally redeemable, right for all human beings. It makes universal health-care and the other necessities for human well-being into redeemable legal rights.
Goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. According to the Bonded Labor Liberation Front of India, there are between 20 and 65 million bonded laborers in India alone, millions of these are children enslaved within the silk industry and other industries requiring free labor and tiny fingers. Girls in Afghanistan and other countries are often forbidden to get an education.
Without a transformed world system away from capitalism, militarized nation-states, and the UN protection of these institutions, such goals by the year 2030 appear as mere fantasy. The Earth Constitution puts the democratically elected representatives of the people of Earth in charge of transforming our current exploitative economic system into one dedicated to actualizing human potential through education for all, real protection of children, and all other fundamental rights. And it activates the grassroots participation of the people of Earth in this process through Global Peoples’ Assemblies and other means of popular mobilization.
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in the United States to give equal rights to all citizens and abolish those legal distinctions between women and men in divorce, property, employment, etc. In the present year of 2020, this amendment remains far from passing. Immense structural and cultural forces impede such equality in the United States and well as many other countries. Under this goal it says: “Adopt and strengthen sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”
If this is next to impossible in the US (where fundamentalist Christians claim that the male must rule in the family), how will it be possible, for example, in fundamentalist Moslem countries around the world? It is deeply ironic that the SDGs recognize what is necessary to achieve such goals as “enforceable legislation.” Yet the UN system of national sovereignty is adamantly opposed to “enforceable legislation” at the world level where it is needed most. Under the Earth Constitution the equal rights of all persons are a matter of enforceable world law.
Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water for all. As global warming increases annually, at the same time that the population of Earth continues to explode, freshwater is becoming progressively diminished. Water tables everywhere on the planet are dropping while the demand for water continues to increase. Hundreds of millions of people, for example, in the countries surrounding the Himalayas, depend on the annual show and ice melt from this mountain range, a melt which is disappearing as warming increases and the glaciers disappear. How can this goal be achieved while ignoring population explosion, shrinking arable land, and the likely future wars between India, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and other countries whose water supplies are rapidly diminishing?
Vandana Shiva documents the ways in which multinational corporations, with the help of the World Bank and the WTO, are sucking up immense quantities of water in these countries, causing the water tables to drop, and then selling the sucked-up water back to the people inside of environmentally damaging plastic containers. Everywhere these forces are working to get private control of formerly public water supplies converting what should belong to the people into privately owned monopolies (2002, Chap. 4). The Earth Constitution presents a world system in which all people have an inalienable right to sufficient quantities of free, clean life-giving water. It is designed as cooperative, unity within diversity system to make this realistically possible.
Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein details the way that the big oil companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars publicly calling into question the conclusions of climate scientists about the effects of fossil fuel on planetary warming. Immense economic forces are ranged against this goal of sustainable energy. Even today, five years into the jurisdiction of the SDGs, the nations of the world struggle for oil resources, over building new pipelines for oil and gas, and engage in destructive environmental fracking for natural gas.
As early as 1981 Buckminster Fuller had outlined the very doable possibility for a world clean-energy grid in which solar power can be brought to the entire earth through an interlinked global solar energy system. A truly planetary grid would not need extraordinary quantities of batteries because some portions of the Earth are nearly always experiencing sunlight. This would, of course, require energy cooperation rather than competition and war. It would require a united Earth such as that detailed within the Earth Constitution. Our problems can be solved, but only if we are truly united.
Goal 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Even elementary theories of capitalism realize that this is impossible. Capitalist profit margins require unemployment, a desperate work force willing to work for low wages or lose their jobs and starve. Secondly, book after book by economists such as Herman E. Daly, Richard Heinberg, and Kate Raworth (as we have seen) proclaim that we are at the end of growth. Daly affirms that development must be qualitative, and can no longer be measured in exclusively quantitative terms.
Environmental experts like James Gustav Speth in The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing the Crisis to Sustainability show that capitalist growth dogma is at the heart of the problem. Even though the Earth Federation government will be employing millions of now unemployed people in environmental restoration and regeneration projects, the global economic system will need to accommodate automation (as Jeremy Rifkin, 2011, points out) and create a civilization with universal prosperity in which machines do most of the production rather than human labor. Real full employment means that nearly everyone is engaged in meaningful, useful, educational, creative, or service activities, not employment at some minimum wage for the growth maximization of some corporation’s private profit.
Rifkin envisions self-sufficient economic communities in which much of production is done digitally and human life is oriented to more meaningful and creative values rather than simply working to survive. Daly (1996) details how everything must be designed for maximum durability, to be repaired, and eventually recycled. Extraction from the Earth must be reduced to an absolute minimum and waste returned to the Earth must also be minimal. The Earth Constitution alone can make this new world possible because it places human beings in authority over the global corporations, over private banking, and over the territorial nation-states. It gives the World Parliament the means to create a world-system that works for everyone.
Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. This is precisely what the Earth Constitution is designed to do and what the present world disorder is incapable of doing. World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations contain dozens of pages dedicated to “intellectual property rights” in order to ensure the private profit of multinational corporations in ways that defeat technology transfer, pharmaceutical transfer, or open-source information on sustainable industrialization.
The Earth Constitution establishes global public banking dedicated to making sustainable development available to poor people everywhere on Earth. The private banking cartels that now dominate the world make achieving Goal 9 impossible. The SDG document speaks of giving people greater “access to banking, insurance and financial services for all” but never critically recognizes that the the lion’s share of these services are for private profit and for the exploitation of those who receive them.
Human beings will never become sustainable (in harmony with the carrying capacity of our planetary biosphere), will never end war, and will never eliminate extreme poverty from the Earth without global monetary policy and public banking for the people of Earth (Brown 2007). As long as money-creation and banking are in the hands of these private banking cartels, the means of just and free living are denied to the people of Earth. Just as clean water and air are the responsibility of good government, democratically representing its people, so money as a universal medium of exchange must be democratically owned by the people of Earth. Money creation and banking are just as much a public service as are roads. It is absurd to keep these in private hands.
Philosopher Alan Gewirth (1996) argued correctly that government is responsible for both the freedom and well-being of people. Freedom is meaningless without well-being that makes freedom possible. The very infrastructure of healthy, sustainable living on the Earth must be in the democratic hands of the people of Earth. That is the role of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth as we will see further below. Under the Constitution, money creation and banking are predicated on the common good of the Earth and future generations and not on the absurdity of private profit extracted from every loan and every transaction. Anyone approaching true “planetary maturity” would surely comprehend this principle.
Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries. According to the Pew Research Center on-line there are 96 out of 167 countries with populations over half a million that claim to be democratic. Yet we have seen that most of these are ruled by a tiny super-rich class and the other 71 countries are ruled explicitly by some self-interested oligarchy. A documented Wikipedia article states that in the United States “as of 2019, the bottom 50% of households had $1.67 trillion, or 1.6% of the net worth, versus $74.5 trillion, or 70% for the top 10%. From an international perspective,the difference in US median and mean wealth per adult is over 600%.”
The top ten percent of the US population have 94.4% of all the wealth in the US. With that kind of power in the hands of a few, a power that is institutionalized toward increasing their wealth at the rate of billions of dollars per day, how can this goal possibly be achieved? These goals are simply fantasies. Only a power above the corporations and sovereign-nations (such as the Earth Constitution) would have the ability to reduce inequality. Real democracy must include reasonable economic equity.
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Perhaps the authors of the SDGs all live in relatively clean, comfortable European cities like Brussels, Paris, Copenhagen, Munich, or Milan. Perhaps they have never walked through the world’s dozens of nightmare megacities like Mexico City, Lagos, Mumbai, Kolkata, Dhaka, or Manila as has the present author. Miles and miles of unmitigated slums, tens of thousands in each city who cannot even find a hovel or tent in the slums but live their entire lives on the streets without shelter. If you walk through these cities early in the morning before sunrise, bodies sleeping everywhere on the pavement with their entire worldly possessions in a plastic bag near their heads.
In the 15 years between 2015 and 2030, there is no way on Earth that these dozens of centers of chaos and misery could be converted to “inclusive, safe, resilient, sustainable” habitats. Even passage of the Earth Constitution could not do this, although the Earth Federation government would have much greater means than those sorely lacking to the many nations that now house the world’s megacities. The key difference is in design. The Earth Constitution creates an integrated approach in which all these problems are seen in their interdependence and interrelationship. All these problems are solved together on a planetary scale or not at all. To fragment the task among some 200 sovereign entities is madness.
Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. This goal, of course, is absolutely fundamental if the Earth is to have a sustainable civilization. One item under this goal declares: “By 2030, substantially reduce waste generation through prevention, reduction, recycling and reuse. Encourage companies, especially large and transnational companies, to adopt sustainable practices and to integrate sustainability information into their reporting cycle.”
There is no critique of the profit motive in this document, and, as we have seen, no critique of capitalism. Yet even elementary analyses of capitalism include its tendency to externalize costs in order to maximize profits. Waste, like unemployment, is essential to capitalism. Externalization of costs is essential to profit maximization. To “encourage” companies is not enough to make it happen. Some multinational companies have more assets and more leverage than the nations who host them. And we have seen that WTO rules prohibit these countries from even making laws that cut into profit margins.
As Annie Leonard points out in the on-line “Story of Stuff,” many companies are famous for calculating how rapidly their can design things to break without losing consumer loyalty. If things break and customers repeatedly buy new ones, profit margins are vastly increased. All the sustainable economists declare that sustainable production and consumption will mean an entirely different lifestyle especially for top ten nations of the world that today consume 80% of the planet’s resources (https://internationalbusinessguide.org/hungry-planet/).
With the US ruling class owning 94.4% of the wealth in the country generated substantially by this unsustainable system, who is going to convince them to give up the current system? The US government that is run by them? Both the Democratic Party and the Republican party are run by them. Are protestors in the streets who are beaten up by the police going to make a real difference? Only an Earth Federation government could ensure that sustainable production and consumption patterns happen effectively and equitably worldwide without undue suffering or injustice with regard to any of the parties involved. The top 10% right now (worldwide) who control everything, including the UN, have zero interest in any such equality.
Goal 13. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.* This goal of course hits the nail on the head in that urgent action is clearly what is needed. But this urgent action directs nations to “Integrate climate change measures into national policies, strategies and planning.” The asterisk tells us that this urgent action means “acknowledging that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change.”
Affirming this UN Framework Convention does not constitute the “urgent action” needed. Only addressing the root causes of the entire nexus of global problems will succeed. There is not only climate collapse but global poverty, endless wars, worldwide militarism, mindless competition among nations, and planetary social chaos. Individual nations are directed to take urgent action in the face of their own immense poverty, social chaos, and health pandemics, ignoring their domination by international banking cartels, multinational corporations, and imperial military forces. The UN Convention of Climate Change is in truth a prescription for human extinction. It ignores the root causes of our planetary chaos.
Goal 14. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. This item is absolutely important because the oceans are dying. If the oceans die, the planet dies, and we die. Volume after volume by environmental experts present data confirming this, and this awareness may be in unspoken background of Goal 14. Environmental leader, Bill McKibben, for example, in his 2019 book Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? details the acidification of the oceans, their carbonization, the growing multiple dead zones, the diminishing oxygen production of the oceans (already suffocating some species), their rapid warming, and the immense quantities of plastic waste polluting them. James Gustav Speth in Red Sky at Morning writes in 2004 that “in 1960, 5 percent of marine fisheries were either fished to capacity or overfished; today 75 percent of marine fisheries are in this condition…. Data reveal that the global fish catch has shown a strong and consistent downturn every year since 1988” (2004, 15 & 33). The oceans indeed are dying.
Nations and corporations have developed the technology to mine the natural resources of continental shelves to some 200 miles offshore and a barrage of mining has erupted in the 21st century, with some immense accidents like Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, spewing immense quantities of deadly oil into the ocean. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (that went into effect in 1994 after 60 countries had endorsed it) has clauses that attempt to protect the sea but, of course, all such treaties are hamstrung by the claim of nations to “sovereignty” (i.e. lawlessness) and Law of the Sea Convention is weak and practically unenforceable. Moreover, one of huge nations most abusive of the seas, the United States, has refused to ratify this treaty, claiming that it infringes on its “sovereignty.” Goal 14 urges nations to “enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS, which provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources.”
Is an unenforceable framework really a “legal framework”? Ratification is voluntary for each nation including the United States, which means, of course, that the UN “Treaty System” is not a “legal framework” and cannot possibly save the environment. James Gustav Speth (former Dean of Environmental Studies at Yale University) writes:
The bottom line is that today’s treaties and their associated agreements and protocols cannot drive the changes needed…. Typically, these agreements are easy for governments to slight because the treaties’ impressive—but nonbinding—goals are not followed by clear requirements, targets, and timetables. And even when there are targets and timetables, the targets are often inadequate and means of enforcement are lacking. As a result, the climate convention is not protecting the climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention on the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries. (2008, 71-72)
We are seeing in the present essay that the Sustainable Development Goals clearly will not prevent climate collapse and will not give us effective sustainable development. Ratifying the UNCLOS will not prevent the oceans from dying. Under the Earth Constitution, by contrast, the oceans of Earth belong to the people of Earth. The oceans are taken out of their absurd condition as a “global commons” which sovereign nations are largely free to exploit for their own interests and placed under the rule of enforceable law protecting them in the name of the common good of humanity.
The atmosphere of the Earth, the waters of the Earth, and forests and other resources essential to the biosphere and health human life on Earth—all these belong to the people of Earth— not to corporations, not to private banks, not to militarized sovereign nation-states. (See my 2019 article on “The Tragedy of the Global Commons” found at www.academia.edu.) Sustainability is about the common good of the people of Earth and future generations. Yet none of our institutions, including the UN, are predicated on the common good of the people of Earth. They are predicated on the private goods of sovereign nation-states, banking cartels, multinational corporations, and the top 10% who own most of our planet’s wealth and resources.
Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. Again, reaching this goal by the year 2030 is absolutely essential to the future of life on Earth. Yet this goal tells the nations of the world to “mobilize and significantly increase financial resources from all sources to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity and ecosystems.” One supposes they are to do this while continuing to pay back their immense intentional indebtedness to first world banking cartels, while at the same time maintaining their military preparedness by buying expensive weapons from first world arms dealing countries, and while dealing with their own internal social poverty and chaos. One supposes they are to do this while carrying out “structural adjustment” programs imposed by the World Bank and the IMF that require them to sell off their infrastructure and social programs to profit-making first world corporations. One supposes that the poor nations that have nearly zero credit worthiness are going to be able to “finance” protecting their environments (and, of course, we have seen that all ecological environments cross national boundaries, making this demand quixotic at best).
Under the Earth Constitution, finance for ecological protection is debt-free and non-exploitative because it arises from the global public banking that is at the heart of the Earth Federation government. Action need not be fragmented by nation-state boundaries and individual nations going into debt to try to protect their national ecological integrity. The Earth Federation Government is designed precisely to address global problems beyond the scope of nation-states. The integrated and interdependent ecosystems of the world must be under the enforceable protection of the global public authority, and easily financed by a global public financing system predicated on the common good and not private profit.
Goal 16. Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. It is here that the ideological character of the SDGs perhaps becomes most glaring. Societies are supposed to be peaceful and inclusive internally. There is no mention of international wars, or internal civil wars and terrorist struggles financed and fostered by international actors. There is no mention of the world pouring 1.8 trillion US dollars down the drain annually through wars and military expenditures.
Societies around the world are being torn apart by the attempts of the US empire to maintain its global economic and political domination and by the resistance of competing powerful societies (such as China, Russia, and Iran) to hinder the empire in this goal. Major portions of the world are in chaos because of these struggles, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria to Libya to Yemen to Lebanon to Palestine. Internal conflicts are raging in dozens of more countries financed by the US-Israel coalition and resisted by the competing great powers. The UN is required to ignore all this and pretend that we have a world order that can really cooperate to bring the SDGs to their goals by the year 2030. As historian Tom Engelhardt writes, since 9/11, when the US government declared its endless global war on terror, this process has intensified rather than diminished:
Since 9/11, the result has been a religion of perpetual conflict whose doctrines tend to grow ever more extreme. In our time, for instance, the NSS has moved from Dick Cheney’s “1 percent doctrine” (if there is even 1 percent chance that some country might someday attack us, we should act “as if it is a certainty”) to something like a “zero percent doctrine.” Whether in its drone wars with presidential “kill lists” or the cyberwar—probably the first in history—that it launched against Iran, it no longer cares to argue most of the time that such strikes need even a 1 percent justification. Its ongoing, self-proclaimed Global War on Terror, whether on the ground or in the air, in person or by drone, in space or cyberspace (where the newest military command is already in action) is justification enough for just about any act, however aggressive. (2014: 7)
The key to achieving true sustainability is through a world-system that is designed to accomplish this goal. The SDGs by and large contain an accurate list of laudable and necessary goals. Their problem is not only that they lack a coherent means for achieving the goals. Their problem is that they are in principle not achievable within the present world system. They are not complete, as we have seen, since they exclude the absolute need for planetary population reduction through voluntary education and systematic provision of birth-control technologies, and because they exclude the need for world peace and demilitarization (both of which are essential if there is to be sustainability, or justice, or any sort of genuine human equity).
These laudable goals are forced into the Procrustean bed of an antiquated world system that is both a major cause of war, poverty, and environment destruction and a major impediment to the accomplishment of these goals. As one article on the SDGs from the point of view of “developing countries” puts it: “promotion of Justice at the national level, which stems from the spirit of the SDGs, particularly for goals 3, 4, 5 and 10, is not pursued.” (Jabbari, et.al. 2020). As the protest cry declares: “No justice, no peace.” Goal 16 is mere empty verbiage, ignoring and covering up a planetary war-system and pretending you can have peace within nations without also having justice and peace between nations.
Our global institutions of capitalism and sovereign nation-states are centuries old, a product of deeply discredited early-modern assumptions about the world. They are simply not designed for planetary biospheric health and protection. The Earth Constitution presents a world-system that neither abolishes free markets nor nation-states. But it does convert markets to democratic, non-exploitative forms of trade and public, common good forms of finance, and it does eliminate the militarism and absurd claims of the nations to recognize no binding laws above themselves (sovereignty). Both of these world-system changes are necessary if there is to be real sustainability protecting humanity from ever-growing environmental chaos and possible extinction.
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development finance. This last goal reaffirms the present global economic system of north-south domination and exploitation. It affirms the Addis Ababa Action Agenda which, it correctly states, relates “to domestic public resources, domestic and international private business and finance, international development cooperation, international trade as an engine for development, debt and debt sustainability, addressing systemic issues and science, technology, innovation and capacity-building, and data, monitoring and follow-up.” These are all features that come from the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF, that is, from the “international private business and finance” that has kept the poor nations in poverty for generations and is now supposed to reverse this process, as if by a miracle, and help them achieve “debt and debt sustainability.”
Goal 17 makes it clear that this system (of debt enslavement) is not abandoned but modified so they can keep paying on their debt “sustainably,” that is, forever. Yet as economist Richard Heinberg points out so clearly in The End of Growth (2011), the debt-financing system requires growth so that the surplus provided by the growth can be used for debt-servicing. Without growth, no borrower under the present system can pay the interest, let alone the principle, on their loans. Growth is assumed as the background for the SDGs in direct contradiction to the most fundamental principle, discussed above, that you cannot have endless growth on a finite planet.
Goal 17 states: “We recognize that domestic resources are first and foremost generated by economic growth, supported by an enabling environment at all levels…. Private business activity, investment and innovation are major drivers of productivity, inclusive economic growth and job creation.” Privatization, private banking cartels making “development” loans, multinational corporations penetrating poor countries and buying up their resources to export profits abroad—all of this is assumed by the SDGs. The Global North continues to hold all the cards while demanding that the Global South tighten its belt while striving for environmental sustainability.
By contrast, the Earth Constitution begins the process of rapid transition to a sustainable world by assuming the international debts of the poor nations, freeing them from this exploitative burden. It does not abolish the debt to the exploiters of the Global North, but works out an agreement to repay this to the debt holders with Earth Federation currency while freeing the poor countries from this onerous system. The transition to a global economic system that works for all is thereby smooth and efficient. By creating global public banking and taking money-creation out of the hands of the private banking cartels, it also empowers a public process of debt-free money creation that can provide ample resources for creating a truly sustainable world.
The SDGs take their stand with a vengeance on the capitalist system, designed for private profit at the expense of the common good, in league with the system of sovereign nation-states, designed for war, power politics, and a system of domination of strong over weak states. By refusing to examine the world system itself, what we end up with in the SDGs is ideology rather than science. Articles critical of the SDGs are not uncommon. An article by Thomas Pogge (2015), for example, calls them “brilliant propaganda.” However, like the majority of these articles, this one also fails to examine the world-system behind the SDGs and only demands that these “goals” should assign “clear responsibilities for achieving the goals” and sent up an independent “measurement operation” to track progress.
However, we have seen that such functionalist solutions do not get at the root of the problem, which goes much deeper. If one examines the world-system behind the SDGs it becomes clear that, in principle, they cannot possibly be achieved within that system. What is needed is a global public authority. What is needed is a democratic constitution for the Earth. The SDGs extend the dogma of the right to the unlimited private accumulation of wealth (the unquestioned “private property” mantra) to the nations themselves under the equivalent dogma of sovereignty: “We reaffirm that every State has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity.” With this statement we have the bottom-line of SDG assumptions. Nations think that the resources all human beings need to live somehow are their own private property.
If a spiritual transformation is required as part of human liberation into a just and peaceful world civilization, then it is important to understand this principle: There are social-political-economic conditions that can sever people from their potential for spiritual growth and others that can facilitate openness to a transformational growth in love, cooperation, solidarity, and justice. The Earth Constitution provides the conditions for this transformative growth, while the present “modernist” world-system inhibits and blocks growth toward human liberation. This egoistic obsession with the private accumulation of wealth, whether for private persons for “sovereign” nation-states, is a prescription of death for human spiritual growth as well as our planetary environment.
In sum, the SDG document exhibits the following features: (1) The population explosion on the Earth is ignored and not considered a major problem, (2) Global militarism and wars are ignored and not considered a major problem, (3) The economic system in which a tiny handful of people own more than 50% of the world’s wealth while the bottom half of humanity (over 3 billion people) live in a poverty or near-poverty without access to education or other means to really develop their human potential is not considered a problem, (4) The dogma of “sovereignty” meaning that all treaties must be voluntary and that nations each have “full permanent sovereignty” over all their “wealth, natural resources, and economic activity” is not considered a problem.
Consider the implications of this dogma of sovereignty. The government of Brazil happens to host “the lungs of the Earth” that produce nearly 50% of the world’s oxygen and moderate the global climate in a variety of ways as explained in detail by climate scientists. Under this system, the government of Brazil has the legal right to destroy the lungs of the earth through development by its private, profit-making corporations. The United States has the legal right not to sign the Law of the Sea convention and to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, even though that withdrawal by the world’s largest polluter could mean bringing down the global climate for the entire Earth.
Under the UN system, China has the legal right to produce all the CO2 it wants and send this into a global atmosphere that is daily increasing the greenhouse effect of overheating our entire planet. All the nations of the world have these same rights, including the legal right to militarize themselves to the teeth, wasting resources badly needed to protect and restore our planetary environment. To understand this is to discern how absurd these SDGs and the UN system that supports them really are.
Is the colonized lifeworld of those who staff the UN system likely to awaken soon to a truly worldcentric and planet-centered morality? It is likely that human beings will draw upon the liberating dynamics that remain largely untapped at the heart of world civilization in time to prevent planetary ecocide? Is it likely that the nationalistic virus pitting the US and its lackies against China, Russia, and Iran will soon learn to overcome their schizophrenia to embrace human and planetary holism? Is it likely that the empire, whether under an Obama, Trump, or Joe Biden, will grow to the planetary maturity of unity in diversity? None of these are likely, because the present world system itself blocks human growth toward a wider and fuller consciousness. Ecocide appears likely within this world system—the death of the Earth and its human inhabitants.
The Constitution for the Federation of Earth does not abolish the nations but unites them within the World Parliament that represents the common good of everyone on Earth. The people of Earth are sovereign and the Earth Federation government representing them is designed to address precisely these global problems that the UN system is not designed to effectively address. A system is set in place that democratically addresses precisely these four fundamental issues ignored by the SDGs. And perhaps just as important, as system is set in place that makes possible rapid human moral and spiritual growth.
First, the Constitution establishes massive voluntary and educational programs to stop the population explosion and reduce our planetary population to a sustainable level. These programs simultaneously educate the people of Earth for planetary maturity. Second, it sets up programs to carefully reduce then abolish militarism and establish the rule of enforceable democratic law over all nations and persons, so that all conflicts are handled through courts, mediation, and addressing the causes of these conflicts, and no longer through war and terrorism. And at the same time, it educates them to the real meaning of world peace with justice. Third, the Constitution is designed to convert markets to democratic markets that serve the common good while at the same time “reducing social disparities” and eliminating severe poverty everywhere on Earth. Global public banking now serves sustainability and the real common good, not, as at present, the wealth of first world nations, their global corporations, and their banking cartels.
Fourth, the Earth Constitution is designed in multiple ways to bring the world into sustainability and healthy balance with the biosphere of our planet. For example, it places the ecosystems, the oceans, the atmosphere, and every natural resource vital to the health of the planet under the enforceable authority of the people of Earth and no longer considers our planetary resources as the “private property” of militarized sovereign nation-states. With the Earth Constitution, we have truly united humanity to address our collapsing biosphere along with our other lethal global problems such as the threat of nuclear war. It provides the tri-cameral World Parliament representing our planetary common good with the democratic legal means, and institutional infrastructure, to achieve success.
Finally, the Constitution unites all people under the principle of unity in diversity, thereby making possible the moral and spiritual growth that this principle implies. The SDG document also points out that all these problems are interrelated and must be effectively addressed simultaneously. Yet the fragmented world system that it presupposes is hopelessly inadequate to achieve this. The Earth Constitution is designed to simultaneously end war, disarm the nations, protect universal human rights, diminish economic disparity, and to provide effective cooperation among the peoples of Earth to create a truly sustainable civilization.
The Earth belongs to all of us. It can only be all of us, democratically united under a freedom provided by the equitable rule of law, who can really solve our most basic planetary problems and provide a decent, beautiful and healthy planet for all future generations. I have shown that the SDGs and the world system that they presuppose cannot possibly accomplish this. Our immediate and most pressing goal must be to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
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(Glen T. Martin is author or editor of 11 books and hundreds of articles concerning our human condition, the world system, economic and political justice, human moral and spiritual growth, and the need for humanity to ascend to unity in diversity under an Earth Constitution. He is Professor of Philosophy at Radford University, founder of Radford’s Peace Studies program, President of the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA), and Executive Director of the Earth Constitution Institute (ECI). His forthcoming book with Oracle Press, focusing on our global environmental crisis, is entitled “Design for a Living Planet.” His website and blog are located at www.oneworldrenaissance.org)