If we are going to achieve the SDGs then shouldn’t the rich consume less?

Photograph: CPAN
Photograph: CPAN

In some ways, the SDGs are refreshingly ambitious.  Finally the global institutions are getting serious about eradicating poverty.  They even grapple with reducing inequality between and within all nations.  Unlike the MDGs they’ve even remembered to include a decent consideration of environmental limits and climate change.

So why it is that the more I read of the targets that sit underneath some of the goals then the more confused I become?   For example, how can we both reduce inequality (goal 10) and ensure sustainable consumption and production (goal 12)?  This seems to hint at some magical utopian thinking where an expanding global population can keep on consuming more without hitting the environmental buffers.

For me, getting to zero extreme poverty and reducing inequality has always been a necessity of social justice, but I’m not an economist and they are the ones who matter.  What has changed is that inequality appears to have finally thrust itself back into the economic development mainstream, after years in the ‘alternative’ wilderness.  Thomas Piketty’s best-selling ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ suggests that inequality is problem requiring taxation and redistribution.  It’s not just Piketty (young and photogenic as he might be) who thinks this, amongst others, Nobel Prize winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman also agree that inequality has become an economic problem.  Reducing it might actually lead to faster economic growth.  Ok so far so good, we’ve got interest in inequality back in the game.

The poor will need to consume more if they are going to have the nutritious food, quality education, effective healthcare, clean water and sustainable energy sources that the SDGs promise them.  We’ve still got a long way to go even before the world achieves zero extreme poverty and then what?  Is that really a success?  Would you be able to live on an income of $1.25 (even if it has been adjusted for purchasing power parity)?  If you couldn’t, then why should you expect others to do so?

So the SDGs also agree, it is right that the incomes of the poorest should rise (goal 1), not only that, but that the incomes of the poorest 40% should rise faster than those in the upper 60% (target 10.1) of every nation.  Rising income brings increased consumption, great for economic growth but can this really be sustainable?

Sustainable consumption and production are hardly new ideas.  Indeed Bill Easterly complained recently that the s-word appears so often and in so many contexts in development circles as to be rendered almost meaningless.

I can’t see anything in the list of targets under this headline SDG 12 that actually deals with the central problem:  as a collective the human race consumes too much and struggles to clear up its own mess.  More than that, some consume far more than others.   The targets set out under SDG 12 present this challenge in a neutralising language of management and accounting, rather than a problem of distribution, politics and sufficiency.  I was looking for the target that compelled the rich to consume less but it appears to have gone missing.  So why isn’t it there, if we have agreed that the poor can consume more and that inequality is a problem? This is where the magical thinking comes in.  Our faith in technology and efficiency gives us the confidence to keep on consuming and to imagine that we can let the poor to join in as well.

That the rich should consume less whilst the poor consume more remains an idea of activism and social movements, rather than a mainstream policy goal. In 1991, Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway authored a paper on sustainable livelihoods, in which their idea of net sustainable livelihoods balanced the consumption of the rich against that of the poor, as well as to future generations. My first job in development (2001) centred on sustainable livelihoods approaches which were being enthusiastically adopted across development policy.  Then, as now the politics of consumption were too difficult.  The idea of net sustainability was dropped.  I’m sorry to see this opportunity being missed again.


This post first appeared on Chronic Poverty Advisory Network.


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