Refining the Value of Sustainable Development Goals


Anthony Judge | Laetus in Praesens – TRANSCEND Media Service

In Quest of the Systemic Coherence of Global Attractors


In a period of global crises a frame of reference is offered by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals articulated by the United Nations, superseding the earlier formulation of the 8 Millennium Development Goals. The new set of goals, as with the earlier set, is variously held to be beyond useful criticism — being effectively “set in stone”, as with the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi. Any reference as to the reasons by which the previous set has faded into history is carefully avoided — irrespective of whether this might guide reflection on the possible early fate of the new set.

At the same time much is made of the values which are shared by various alliances, especially those held to be fundamental to any special relationship between certain countries. Obvious examples include the frequent reference to such values in the case of the relationship between the USA and the UK. The sharing of values is cited in the case of the European Community, other regional associations of nations, the Commonwealth of Nations, and OECD. Irrespective of their subtle distinctions, it is articulated in declarations of human rights: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Arab Charter on Human Rights, American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. Much is also made of the shared values characteristic of a given nation and the collective identity of its peoples– especially when challenged by the consequences of a massive influx of migrants and refugees.

The concern here is with the nature and memorability of “values”. What is a “value” — other than as is assumed to be “defined” by the focus of lengthy speeches and voluminous theses? Perhaps appropriately challenged by a play on words, if values are indeed the finest of things — the essence of “fine” — are they essentially denatured by any effort at their “de-finition”? Do the words purportedly indicative of values, prominently featuring in the declarations of leaders, enhance the attractive power of values? Or do they detract from it in ways which could be recognized as an abuse of any more fundamental insight?

With respect to the UK, the point has been succinctly made by Rowan Williams in response to recent speeches by Theresa May as leader of a country seeking to negotiate its dissociation from the European Community. As recently reported, the former Archbishop of Canterbury appeared unimpressed with Theresa May’s repeated talk of “Christian values” and warned of dangers of disillusion with political process and of ‘messianic leadership’ — in the light of the process leading to World War II:

It’s a phrase that’s flung around constantly. The heart of Christian values has something to do with mutuality – a real commitment to and investment in the wellbeing of your neighbour, and the confidence that they are invested in your wellbeing. Not everyone shares these values. (Rowan Williams: Britons are peering into the abyss after Brexit vote , The Guardian, 21 May 2017)

Citing the Brexit process, Williams suggested that it was “taking our eyes off the ball in some other areas” and called for as broad a consensus as possible on tackling long-term systemic issues. He notably criticized the “innate short-termism in our political language”. The argument is valid for other leaders and the short-termism they cultivate in response to more fundamental issues of society. Hence the potential value of the Sustainable Development Goals. But how can such value goals be meaningfully “shared”?

The challenge is that those 17 Goals are apparently an asystemic “hodge-podge” of disparate preoccupations whose interrelationships and mutual dependencies are unmemorable — to the extent that there is any effort to articulate them in systemic terms. Can they be appropriately caricatured as a “laundry list” of what needs to be “cleaned” in a planetary society perceived to be increasingly “dirty”?

This is consistent with the pattern established with Agenda 21 articulated at the UN Earth Summit of 1992, and a precursor of the Millennium Development Goals. To the extent that fundamental values and goals are intimately related, any set of values to which reference is variously made could also be recognized as a “hodge-podge” of questionable memorability.

Given the criticism by Rowan Williams, what indeed are “values” — and how indeed do they contrast with the values of cultures such as Islam in a period where there is a quest for “universal values” as the basis for any “broad consensus” — unless some are to be deliberately and righteously excluded there from? If the conventional process of “de-finition” has obscured their nature and empowering modality, could the same be said of “de-velopment” — given the crises to which it has seemingly given rise.

Is it possible that the key to the “sustainability” of the “goals” may lie in “veloping”, as speculatively argued (Veloping: the Art of Sustaining Significance, 1997). In a similar vein, could values be better understood dynamically and as “strange attractors” in a complex psychosocial system (Freedom, Democracy, Justice: Isolated Nouns or Interwoven Verbs? Illusory quest for qualities and principles dynamically disguised, 2011; Human Values as Strange Attractors, 1993). Rather than “definition” of values and goals, is there then a case for their “refinition” — however that might come to be understood?

The concern here is how a complex nexus of value-imbued goals can be better represented to reflect its coherence as an empowering modality — challenging any dangerously oversimplistic understandings of consensus, typically insensitive to the subtleties of diversity, as previously argued (The Consensus Delusion: mysterious attractor undermining global civilization as currently imagined, 2011). Fundamental to the quest is the comprehensibilty and memorability of any means of encompassing disparate concerns. This can be framed as a quest for mnemonic catalysts for comprehension of complex psychosocial dynamics (Imagining the Real Challenge and Realizing the Imaginal Pathway of Sustainable Transformation (2007).

How indeed are people expected to “get their heads around “the set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals?

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