Globalization and the UN Sustainable Development Goals

A common estimate is that the global population increases by about 80 million persons annually.

A common estimate is that the global population increases by about 80 million persons annually.

In my 2021 book, The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet, I explained why the widely touted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) function merely as feel-good propaganda and are incapable of being realized by their target-date of 2030 or any other target date. The reason is the globalized anti-holistic and anti-ecological world economic and political system presupposed behind these goals. It is a system never explicitly mentioned in the SDG document.

The collection of 17 SDGs includes a nexus of explicit concepts that link in some ways with the oneness of humanity. They involve a recognition that the goal of sustainability is inseparable from a total reorientation of our current world system toward the dignity and integrity of human beings living with peace and justice upon the Earth. Any review of these goals reveals this surface vision of an integrated humanity necessary to a sustainable world system.

As least some of the authors of these goals sensed the holistic principle of organization requiring a total remaking of our planetary situation that achieves ending poverty and hunger, ending joblessness and unemployment, ensuring education for all, insisting on the equality of women and girls, protecting biological diversity, restoring depleted ecosystems, regenerating fresh water systems, creating peaceful and cooperative societies, and many other elements that make up the holism of human life required for a sustainable civilization.

A common estimate is that the global population increases by about 80 million persons annually.

But the unspoken framework for the goals remains the antiquated, fragmented world system, much of it globalized on false premises (militarized sovereign nation-states, planetary banking cartels, multinational corporations, the worldwide economic growth model, etc.)  My thesis in The Earth Constitution Solution argued that the USA, as the largest donor nation to the UN and the nation with most influence within the UN, allowed the present set of SDGs to see the light of day precisely on the condition that they never question, nor even mention, the militarized, neoliberal world system that provides the unspoken framework for nations attempting to achieve these goals.

The world system behind those goals (assumed and only tacitly recognized) makes their achievement impossible. For example, the SDG document never mentions the 1.5 trillion US dollars spent annually worldwide on weapons and wars, half of this by the USA alone. This by itself will prevent these goals from being attained by their target year of 2030. It is widely known that the development, manufacture, transport, and use of modern weapons is the most environmentally destructive of all human activities.

However, worldwide, nations routinely trump any environmental protection requirements with their dogma of “national security.” The present horrific war in the Ukraine is ample evidence of this. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines designed to carry methane gas from Russia to Western Europe is also evidence. Investigative reporting by renowned US journalist Seymore Hersh revealed that the USA was most likely behind this environmental atrocity. The explosion released a half million tons of methane from under the sea rising into the atmosphere. Methane is one of the most potent of all greenhouse gases. The war-system trumps environmental integrity. If we want to save the environment, we need a world system that abolishes war.

Second, in the Introduction to the SDG document, Item 18 repeats the dogma of “national sovereignty” at the heart of the UN Charter. It reads: “We affirm that every State has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity.” With this affirmation declaring absolute fragmentation of the world’s resources and economics, we find another fundamental reason for the inevitable failure of the SDG project. The holism, interdependence, and interconnectedness of the world at the very heart of our planetary ecosystem is explicitly denied, in direct contradiction to the surface holism of the goals themselves described above. This same dogma of “sovereignty,” of course, is also behind the unrestricted “right” of every nation to militarize itself to the teeth, regardless of the consequences for its own people or the planet.

Third, the SDG document never mentions the crisis of the world population explosion, now at 8 billion people and climbing rapidly. This by itself will prevent these goals from being realized by the target year.  Why is there not another SDG goal (say, number 18) declaring “reduce the birth rate and substantially slow down population growth by the year 2030”? Instead, the population crisis is never mentioned.  Hence nations are supposed to “end hunger” (goal number 2) at the same time that their burgeoning populations burden them with ever more mouths to feed.

A common estimate is that the global population increases by about 80 million persons annually. As world agricultural land shrinks rapidly, along with global fisheries (Speth 2008, 34-35), and desertification spreads ever more widely, and natural disasters increasingly diminish food production, the world is required to feed 80 million new mouths a year (Catton, Jr. 1982; Romm 2018). And this phenomenon is never mentioned in the SDG document. The world is experiencing a shrinking food supply base at the same time that its already excessive population is continuing to increase, and the SDG document remains silent on this issue.

Third, the SDG document never mentions the “limits to growth,” which has been an incessant theme of environmentally aware economists since Donella Meadows first published Limits to Growth in 1972.  Goal 8 does speak of promoting “sustainable economic growth” and Goal 9 of building “sustainable industrialization,” but the document never mentions the fact that at present all such growth and industrialization relies on burning ever more fossil fuels to make it possible. The most fundamental message of important ecologists and environmental economists (Daly 1996; Heinberg, 2017) is “you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet.”  Yet the World Trade Organization, the G-20, and the G-8 economic organizations all continue to measure economic health in terms of growth of “Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

In addition, the assumption behind the SDG document is that nations will pay for much of achieving these SDG goals through taking loans from the World Bank, IMF, etc., at “fair” and “reasonable terms” (as described in Goal 17) and that the repayment of the loans or use of other funds to achieve these goals will necessarily require growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  The present neoliberal, globalized world economic system, is never questioned in the SDG document—exactly what must be questioned if we are to achieve a sustainable world economic system for our planet.

In sum, the fossil fuel and electronic technologies that give the wealthy, the banking cartels, and the transnational corporations inexpensive access to world transportation and unrestricted economic transactions, justified by the ideology of neoliberal globalization, function in contradiction to the ecological, economic, and political requirements of a truly globalized planet founded on the principle of unity in diversity. The holism of the planetary biosphere must be mirrored by a holism of human thought and action. 

A more holistic approach to the environmental crisis is formulated in the Charter of Global Ecological Responsibilities promoted by Children Now of Canada. The document promotes a worldwide effort to get everyone (from business, to education, to government, to youth) working together in a self-conscious effort to cooperatively save our planetary environment. It affirms the message of the environmental economists in the following statement: “We have repeatedly and with willful disregard treated the finite planetary ecosystem as the infinite.”  It promotes a global society and culture of peace as necessary to ecosystem integrity.

The Constitution for the Federation of Earth, promoted by the World Constitution and Parliament Association (WCPA), also affirms an approach to our planet’s essential ecological resources diametrically opposed to the UN SDG’s approach holding that “every State has, and shall freely exercise, full permanent sovereignty over all its wealth, natural resources and economic activity.” This Earth Constitution “mundializes” the Earth’s essential resources. It states that the atmosphere that circulates around the Earth belongs to all the people of Earth, not the sovereign nations that happen to be under that atmosphere and pouring greenhouse gasses into it. It affirms the same thing of the oceans; they belong to the people of Earth; and to the ecologically significant features of the planet such as the Amazon rainforest and the polar caps. They belong to all. Sovereign nations have no right to exploit and destroy them.

What is mundialized, therefore, are not the means of production, but rather the planetary commons necessary to ecological sustainability. Economic democracy in the workplace is also essential to a flourishing life, and labor must be reconceived to include household work, raising children, service industries (now underpaid) and cooperative management. The explicit surface of the SDGs appears to agree with these needs, but the unspoken assumptions behind the document do not challenge the current world system.

Unless we reexamine and challenge the world system that has caused the environmental crisis in the first place, the SDG goals will remain empty propaganda and will not be achieved.  Our humanist commitment focuses on questions of human flourishing and fulfillment. Science has revealed that the world and our planetary ecosystem are integral wholes of which human beings are a fundamental part. We cannot rest content with empty slogans, with religious fantasies, nor with unexamined social and economic assumptions, as do the SDGs. As humanists we must carefully reexamine the assumptions behind our planetary system with deep rationality, holistic understanding, and passionate concern.




    1. Caton, Jr., William R. (1982). Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    2. Constitution for the Federation of Earth, with an Introduction by Glen T. Martin. Online at http://www.earthconstitution.world.

    3. Daley, Herman E. (1996). Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

    4. Heinberg, Richard (2017). The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

    5. Martin, Glen T. (2021). The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. Independence, VA: Peace Pentagon Press.

    6. Romm, Joseph (2018). Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    7. Speth, James Gustav (2008). The Bridge at the Edge of the World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.